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O Death Penalty, Where Is Thy Sting?

The New York Times reports this morning that an inmate on Arizona’s death row has died. He was under sentence of execution for a murder he committed in 1982. That’s 28 years ago. Viva Leroy Nash was 68 when he committed his last murder. He was 94 when he died of natural causes.

If ever there was an illustration that something is profoundly wrong with how capital punishment is handled in this country, this is it. Convicted in 1983, the Supreme Court of Arizona upheld his conviction in 1985. But appeal after appeal after appeal to state and federal courts kept the case — and Viva Leroy Nash — alive for a quarter of a century.

The point of capital punishment, of course, is not only to punish the offender but also to deter others from committing the same crime with a force that a jail sentence, however long, cannot match. But if execution is not to come until a point well after the criminal’s normal life expectancy, how does it deter?

It wasn’t always this way. On February 15, 1933, a man named Giuseppe Zangara tried to assassinate president-elect Franklin Roosevelt in Miami. He missed Roosevelt but hit Anton Cermak, the mayor of Chicago, who was shaking hands with Roosevelt at the time. Zangara pleaded guilty to attempted murder and was sentenced to 80 years. But when Cermak died of his wounds two weeks later, Zangara was tried for murder, convicted, sentenced to death, and executed on March 20, 33 days — not years — after the crime.

If we are to have the death penalty in this country, the system needs to be thoroughly reformed to prevent the gaming of it that has rendered the system absurd. A big part of the problem here, of course, is the duel sovereignty of the states and the federal government. Appeals bounce back and forth between the two justice systems with agonizing slowness. Perhaps there should be special courts to handle only death-penalty cases and appeals, with both the federal and state appeals being pursued simultaneously, and strict time limits for all but evidentiary reasons. A requirement that first-rate lawyers be assigned the defendant, not the usual courthouse hangers-on, and a standard of beyond any doubt instead of mere reasonable doubt would go a long way to ensure that only the truly guilty were executed.

I’m not an eye-for-an-eye-tooth-for-a-tooth sort of guy, but I think that it is possible for a person in possession of his faculties to commit a crime of such enormity as to justify the forfeit of his life. Hitler, after all, was not crazy. Would anyone have objected to his being hanged with the other Nazis at Nuremberg? Norway abolished the death penalty in the early 1920s, but the Norwegian government in exile re-established it in 1942, and after the war the government tried and executed 37 collaborators for treason and war crimes, including Vidkun Quisling, whose name entered many languages as a synonym for traitor. Quisling became a word that, in Churchill’s phrase, “will carry the scorn of mankind down the centuries.” Having seen justice done, the Norwegian parliament then once again abolished the death penalty.

It seems to me this country should either abolish the death penalty or reform the system to make it effective.



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