So, it seems that capital punishment is supposed to be an educational experience for the person being executed.
Last month, a St. Joseph County judge ruled that convicted murderer and rapist Michael Dean Overstreet couldn’t be put to death because he has delusions and hallucinations that disconnect him from reality. The judge said Overstreet, who raped and brutally killed Franklin College student Kelly Eckart in 1997, couldn’t be executed until a court determines he’s competent to understand why he’s being killed. The judge’s ruling followed the reasoning of a 2007 U.S. Supreme Court decision.
Just what Overstreet is supposed to do with this increased understanding once he’s buried six feet under ground or scattered in ashes is anyone’s guess.
But executing someone only once he or she has developed moral awareness of the evil that is murder is only one of the contradictions associated with the death penalty.
Advocates for capital punishment say it serves as a deterrent to potential murderers. Their argument is undercut by the fact that the homicide and violent crime rates in states with the death penalty are higher than they are in the ones without it.
Death penalty proponents also argue it saves money. In fact, the opposite is true. It generally costs twice as much to execute someone as it does to imprison him or her for life.
Then they make the argument that it balances an injustice, generally paraphrasing Hammurabi by saying, “An eye for an eye.”
The problem with that is the Code of Hammurabi wasn’t an attempt to establish a system of moral balance. It was intended to limit slaughter. Prior to the establishment of the code, it was common for people to deal with having an eye put out by chopping off the offender’s head. Retaliation for a murder often involved killing not just the murderer but his family and friends too.
Hammurabi’s code placed limits on retribution for criminal acts. It was designed to curtail vengeance, not encourage it.
Compelling as these contradictions are, they aren’t the reasons I oppose the death penalty.
My reasons have nothing to do with Michael Dean Overstreet. What he did was awful. If he killed himself, I would not mourn.
My reasons for opposing the death penalty stem from our sources.
First, I don’t like giving government that much power. It intrigues me that so many people who claim they believe in limited government are among the loudest voices in favor of the death penalty. They rail about allowing government the authority to raise taxes by a penny per $100 but they don’t even lift an eyebrow to question granting the state the power to kill in cold blood.
It’s possible that would be acceptable if we could be sure we always were right, but we don’t always get it right – and that’s my second reason for opposing the death penalty. The number of exonerations of people sentenced to death row in recent years has climbed to nearly 150 – and that does not include those cases in which strong evidence exists that the wrong person was executed.
Once we’ve put someone to death, there’s no way to fix it if we’ve made a mistake.
And that brings me to the last reason, the biggest one.
If the death penalty is to serve any purpose, that purpose has to be that it atones for the crime of murder. But it can’t.
Everything about murder is awful, but by far the worst part is its all-encompassing finality. We are each unique in this world and the death of any innocent victim takes away, forever and for always, something and someone that cannot be replaced.
The idea that killing someone else somehow balances that loss is obscene. The numbing horror of murder is that there is no way to make it right – no way to restore the victim to life and the loving comfort of friends and family. That there is no redress for murder is what makes it the most evil of crimes.
Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller has said he won’t appeal the court’s decision.
That means Overstreet will continue to sit on death row until the end of his natural life, unless he develops an understanding of just how horrible his actions were.
In that case, we’ll kill him.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news service powered by Franklin College journalism students.