Capital Punishment

I was digging potatoes down in the bottom field, so I was, when I decided to take an overdue lunch break for a nice, cool glass of, um, buttermilk and a sandwich up at the house, after which I took a look at Saturday’s edition of this newspaper. As usual I turned first to the editorial/opinion pages, to see where my weekly column ended up and check out what the other great minds had to say about the important events and issues of our time.

An unsigned “point of view” editorial under the heading “time to hold referendum on death penalty debate” on the page opposite quickly caught my eye. I was, to put it mildly, shocked and appalled by what I read. Surely we’re not going to seriously consider bringing back the death penalty, let alone have a referendum about it. So what if “millions of Canadians want the return of capital punishment – whether it be by hanging or lethal injection – as punishment for the most heinous crimes against our society,” as the editorial opines? That doesn’t make it right.

The QMI Agency editorial called forth the names of the most “heinous” murderers, like dreadful apparitions that suddenly jump out at us in the chamber of horrors: “Does Paul Bernardo deserve to still be alive? Or Russel Williams?” the editorial writer asked on behalf of QMI Agency.

And the most monstrous, the name of Clifford Olsen, is raised from the near-dead right off the top. The editorial begins by noting, “the imminent death of the “Beast of B.C.’ from cancer instead of hanging reboots the long-standing debate on the return of capital punishment.”

And then to argue that a dying should still be taken from his deathbed and hung before cancer can claim him is monstrous in its own way, and made more monstrous by being offered up as acceptable public discourse on a national news media stage.

Canada officially outlawed the death penalty in 1976. In fact, it ended long before that. The last two executions in Canada took place in 1962. Two men, bank robbers, were convicted of murder for killing a police officer and sentenced to be hung by the neck until dead. If properly executed, no pun intended, by a skilled hangman that didn’t take a long time, at least toward the end of the history of capital punishment in Canada. When the trap door was sprung the bodies of the condemned fell five feet, breaking their necks and rendering them unconscious while the noose tightened around their necks and strangled them to death. At the time that was regarded as humane.

It didn’t always work that way though. The execution of a woman in Montreal in 1935 was botched by the hangman. She was decapitated. Of course, she died quickly. (Beheading is still the chosen method of execution in some countries, like Saudi Arabia, for example. In some places like Iran it’s stoning for women convicted of adultery, or a shot in the back of the head for various offences in China.)

In the U.S. where the death penalty is still in force for murder in many states, the electric chair and lethal injection are the preferred methods. The Texas governor who hopes to be elected the next President of the United States is proud of the many convicted murderers executed in his state during his time in office. If it is such a “visceral deterrent,” as the QMI Agency editorial claims, then surely murder would be a thing of the past in Texas, which it isn’t.

The most recent execution in the U.S. took place in Georgian. Troy Davis, convicted of killing a police officer in 1989, was executed, denied his last chance at a stay of execution and perhaps a new trial, even though witnesses at his trial had reportedly recanted their testimony, and former jurors at his trial had since changed their minds. People around the world signed petitions calling on the Georgia and U.S. authorities not to execute him. But the appeals, and the widespread media attention they engendered, were to no avail; they may even have hurt his chances. Who knows?

But one thing we do know, Troy Davis, turning to speak to the family of the man he was convicted of murdering, maintained his innocence right to the end.

Here in Canada we know of a number people, all of them men, who were wrongfully convicted of murder, and not wrongfully executed because Canada had abolished the death penalty. Perhaps sooner or later someone will finally prove that a terrible injustice was done in the case of Troy Davis. Or not. Either way it will be too late to say that justice, as practiced by imperfect human beings, was done.

One of the arguments being used nowadays by diehard exponents of the death penalty is that modern scientific methods used to determine guilt, such as DNA evidence effectively rule out the possibility of wrongful convictions. Besides, they say, what about those cases where there is no doubt, where the accused readily confesses his or her crimes, and even pleads guilty, as Russel Williams did?

The imperfection of human justice is not the main argument against capital punishment, in any event. The main point arises out of the question the editorial that appeared in this newspaper a week ago itself asked when it said, “Does Paul Bernardo deserve to still be alive? Or Russel Williams?”

Whether or not to “turn the other cheek” or stand by and do nothing when a member of your family, or anybody is being assaulted to the point of death, is something I would certainly not want to do, even though I like to think of myself as a Christian, at least a wannabe one.

But when it comes to capital punishment it has been my belief since I was a teenager that human beings don’t have the right to decide who “deserves” to live or die, no matter what they’ve done. I stood many years ago before an audience of hundreds of my high school student peers and teachers and said only God, by whatever name the Great Spirit is known, has that right.

And this above all: God has said, quite clearly as far as I’m concerned, that no one is hopeless, no one is beyond redemption, that “in my father’s house there are many mansions.”

As hard as it may be for us to accept, that God’s love is that far-reaching, that seemingly absurd, there is indeed a place in Heaven for Clifford Olsen, or Paul Bernardo, or Russel Williams, if they chose to accept responsibility for their crimes and ask for God’s forgiveness.

Originally published in The Sun Times in 2011.

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