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ON punishment

There are moments I struggle to recall which century I live in. Moments like reading that South Carolina law makers have apparently voted to add the firing squad as an option for those facing the death penalty. We are in 2021, and though I realize our current century is still shitty in myriad ways, I thought that at the very least firings squads as a means of state punishment were relegated pretty much to North Korea. I was wrong. Also, turns out, there are 3 other states in which you can die by firing squad - Utah, Mississippi, and Oklahoma.

Even more mind boggling to me is that this was proposed because South Carolina has not "been able" to execute anyone since 2010 due, in large part, to pharmaceutical companies' refusal to sell the drugs used in executions over concerns that they caused prolonged suffering. The thought process apparently goes, "we got people to kill, no drugs, and bullets are cheap." That is a gross paraphrase of a gross rationalization. The lawmakers have also rolled out the "compassionate" rationale that death by firing squad is more humane than the electric chair, the use of which can go - and often has gone - horrifically awry. So, the electric chair is inhumane, and we have had people on death row piling up for 10 years, ergo...firing squad.

The mind reels.

Invoking the idea of a humane method of executing actual human beings is laughable. To begin with, we claim our country to be a beacon of human rights that is supposed to shine out on the rest of the world (I know, I know, I am rolling my eyes as I type). Based on that ideal alone, we should have abolished the death penalty eons ago, full stop. On top of that - I am no criminal lawyer or scholar, but this is not obscure knowledge - you have to acknowledge the fact that the criminal system is woefully racially biased. The vast disparity in the rates of Black and Brown people who are jailed and convicted for capital crimes alone is evidence of the systemic racism that plagues the entire process.

And then there are the exonerations, which for many come too late. Ledell Jones was executed in 2017, after spending 22 years on death row. Just yesterday, DNA evidence on the murder weapon - which had never been tested before - revealed the DNA of someone other than Mr. Jones. Mr. Jones was convicted and killed in a case with no physical evidence linking him to the murder. Others are luckier and have been alive to reap the benefits of the advances in forensic evidence, or additional scrutiny of their cases on any number of other bases.

My personal thought has always been that life in prison seems like a sufficiently harsh sentence. We are taking away the freedom for that person to choose how to live their life, while also leaving open the possibility that something new may come to light and that person is still alive to benefit from that discovery. All the same, my position would not change even if I knew with absolute certainty that the person who committed a crime was the one who was convicted. Because beyond the arguments about the methods by which we might put people to death, the humaneness of the methods, the flaws in the system in which we sentence people...the overarching issue to me is simply who do we want to be? Do we want to be a nation that quibbles over the mechanics of killing its people or one that metes out justice with mercy? A nation that looks at even people who have done terrible things and still sees a human being?

I know who I wish us to be.


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