KSC Symposium Panelists Offer Many Reasons to Abolish the Death Penalty

On November 7, 2013, Monadnock Citizens Concerned About the Death Penalty hosted a symposium session on Abolishing the Death Penalty in New Hampshire as part of Keene State College’s Eighth Biennial Symposium: Finding Your Place in the Evolving Commons. A panel of four, moderated by MCCADP member and KSC Professor Ockle Johnson, discussed the death penalty, presented reasons for its abolition, and responded to questions from the audience.

Ken Arnold's piece "Hang 'Em!"
Ken Arnold’s piece “Hang ‘Em!”

Before beginning the panel discussion, local artist Ken Arnold’s piece “Hang ‘Em!” was presented. His work represents the total number of death penalty executions in 2010 with nooses of different colors representing the ethnicity of those executed: 27 white nooses, 13 black nooses, and 4 brown nooses. Arnold shared a few remarks about his twine sculpture and how the work of advocates like members of the New Hampshire Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty have contributed to a decline in executions in subsequent years, though there is still much work to be done.

Peter Stevenson
Peter Stevenson

Peter Stevenson, a professor of sociology and criminal justice at Keene State College, spoke about four criteria that we as a society want our punishment to accomplish and how well the death penalty meets those goals.

Rehabilitation: There are no rehabilitative effects to using the death penalty. Stevenson added, “If you offered programming and services to inmates on death row, I think a lot of taxpayers would say that’s just a waste of resources for someone who we’re about ready to execute.”

Incapacitation: He argued that when it comes to incapacitation, the death penalty is very effective at removing an offender from society but isn’t at all cost effective. So far the State of New Hampshire has spent $5 million and counting on the Addison case, enough to imprison him for over 100 years. Life imprisonment without parole would be far more cost effective at incapacitation at $35,000 per year.

Deterrence: Stevenson spoke at length about deterrence and how it is often used as justification for the death penalty, especially by law enforcement. He highlighted two problems with the deterrence argument. First, deterrence is difficult to measure and as a result there are just as many studies that show no deterrence effect as there are studies that show only a slight increase in deterrence. Second, there is a societal assumption that offenders are rational actors who weigh the risk of capital punishment before acting, when in reality this just isn’t the case.

“To think that before an offender lashes back at a police officer, fires their gun,” Stephenson remarked, “that they’re going to go through this calculation through their head I think is quite misguided. We don’t always act that rationally.”

Retribution: What Stevenson saw at the heart of death penalty support was retribution, particularly in the name of slain police officers. While it may be effective retribution in the ‘eye for an eye’ sense, the scarcity and selectiveness of New Hampshire’s application of the death penalty doesn’t make sense.

“I really don’t think this is an effective punishment,” Stevenson concluded. “It doesn’t do really anything that we want it to do. Why use it?”

Rev. Mark Jenkins
Rev. Mark Jenkins

Rev. Mark Jenkins, Rector at St. James Episcopal Church in Keene, shared the story of Marietta Jaeger, whose daughter Susie was kidnapped and murdered in 1973 at the age of seven. Marietta went on to help organize Journey of Hope…from Violence to Healing. Her belief in forgiveness during her journey as a murder victim family member led her to reject retribution through the death penalty. Rev. Jenkins shared a quote from Marietta’s personal story:

“Loved ones, wrenched from our lives by violent crime, deserve more beautiful, noble and honorable memorials than pre-meditated, state-sanctioned killings. The death penalty only creates more victims and more grieving families. By becoming that which we deplore — people who kill people — we insult the sacred memory of all our precious victims. That kind of justice would only dehumanize and degrade us because it legitimates an animal instinct for gut-level bloodthirsty revenge. My own daughter was such a gift of joy and sweetness and beauty, that to kill someone in her name would have been to violate and profane the goodness of her life; the idea is offensive and repulsive to me. Capital punishment degrades, dehumanizes and debilitates us as a human society.”

“That’s what I as a follower of Jesus believe that I have been told to do,” Rev. Jenkins added, “Love your enemies, Jesus said. Do good to those who hate you.”

He continued by telling the history of the Episcopal church’s evolution on the death penalty. While the Episcopal church has opposed the death penalty since 1958, they have not always been “captive to our better angels,” as Rev. Jenkins described. For many centuries the church was actively engaged in imposing the death penalty even as they followed of a man who himself was executed by the state for crime.

“We seemed to have lost sight of that,” he said. “Fortunately today many churches and other religions have found themselves coming to a renewed understanding of the real-world implications of our obligation to respect all human life and to always stand ready to forgive even the most heinous of actions.”

Rev. Jenkins concluded by sharing reasons to oppose the death penalty from a religious and moral perspective: concern for the sacredness of all life, inequities in the system, fallibility of our justice system, lack of evidence to support deterrence, and a subtext of retribution that is unacceptable in a civilized society.

“We talk about deterrence,” he added. “What we want is vengeance. He who seeks revenge digs two graves.”

Ray Dodge
Ray Dodge

Ray Dodge, a retired local police chief, spoke of his personal evolution on the death penalty. While he started his career believing in the deterrence effect of the death penalty, as he learned and experienced more he came to see that imperfections in our system and how much it is subject to judgment calls lead to injustice in how the death penalty is applied. Dodge described the tremendous amount of public and political pressure on those who make those judgment calls to solve a murder “in a half hour with two commercial breaks.”

He opposes the death penalty from a moral and spiritual perspective, citing his belief as a Unitarian in respect for all life. As a former police chief he doesn’t believe that someone’s life should depend on what is ultimately an imperfect decision made by another person. If a mistake is made and a case is pushed through the system, innocent people can be and have been executed. He also stated his concerns about the cost of the death penalty and lack of deterrence.

“I think when you look at the criminal justice system, as good as it is,” Dodge finished, “it’s good because when mistakes are made we can correct those mistakes. The death penalty destroys that safety net.”

Richard Guerriero
Richard Guerriero

Richard Guerriero, a former public defender in murder and death penalty cases, offered examples from his experience, including the Addison case and a Louisiana case in which a black defendant faced an all white jury. His client was convicted and only through legal maneuvering was he spared from the death penalty. Guerriero has also seen the other side of murder as a family member and friend of murder victims.

He continued with an overview of how the justice system handles murder and death penalty cases. Guerriero described the complexities of mitigating and aggravating factors and why it is so difficult for many lawyers to understand them and how the system works.

One of the problems that Guerriero identified with how the system works is that jurors are not required to make a decision based on aggravating factors outweighing mitigating factors. The jury can weigh them however they want as long as they follow the rules set by the court. There’s no real test for a reasonable doubt.

Another problem with the system is that jurors are intentionally selected to exclude anyone who opposes or could not consider the death penalty. A third problem is a lack of uniformity not only in how the death penalty is sought and applied from state to state but also in resources, funding, and support of counsel.

The event wrapped up with questions from the audience and an update on the N.H. Supreme Court decision on the Addison case from Richard Guerriero.

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