A great deal is at stake in Wisconsin this autumn. The proposed constitutional amendment to define marriage is galvanizing proponents and detractors alike. Gov. James Doyle is slouching toward the November election with black clouds overhead. A September primary will determine whether Rep. Mark Green or County Executive Scott Walker will challenge him at the polls. A season of decision is shaping up.
Yet one decision Wisconsinites may face looms above the rest. As the autumn leaves begin to change hue, voters will likely be asked to vote on a matter that, quite literally, is one of life or death.
Recently, the state Senate approved a resolution calling for a statewide advisory referendum on the death penalty. If the measure passes the state Assembly this spring, the electorate will sound off during the Sept. 12 primary.
The Senate should be commended; voters should have a chance to weigh in on the weighty issue. Voters should, however, vote no.
The death penalty has no place in Wisconsin. Principled points of opposition abound, but even on a practical, experience-based level, the death penalty seems to fit our state about as well as a Shaq sneaker fits a 12-year-old. Wisconsin has been without it since an explicit ban in 1853.
Unfortunately, the grisly death of Theresa Halbach will likely be used as leverage in the political push for capital punishment. Surely the alleged acts of Steven Avery and his nephew rank as some of the most despicable in recent times. The monstrous memories of killers like Jeffrey Dahmer and Ed Gein also hit home here in Wisconsin. No matter how heinous the crime, though, extinguishing the life of a fellow human being without justification based on self-defense or national defense seems unnecessary.
Three main defenses seem to summarize support for the death penalty. Capital punishment, it can be argued, has three positive outcomes: it deters, punishes and removes a threat. All these points of support, however, seem insufficient under scrutiny.
Deterrence depends on a certain level of cognition in a would-be criminal. By and large, those who commit crimes "worthy of the death penalty" are in some sort of mental derangement that precludes awareness of a legal consequence. Psychology should in no way excuse the product of a person's actions, but it should be considered when devising a penalty mechanism. A public quartering might have served a deterrent purpose for law-abiding citizens in the past, but the modern reality of relatively sterile, concealed executions in other American states today has diverged from that conception.
In assessing the punitive death-penalty rationale, questions also arise. If unnecessary to protect life or liberty, is authorized vengeance that results in death a fitting punishment? Does the finality of death prevent some offenders from later realizing the enormity of their crimes, actually diminishing the punitive element? Does the irreversible nature of the punishment and the imperfections of the judicial system call the practice into question generally? Given the lack of a definitive answer to these questions, it seems best to err on the side of no capital punishment.
Finally, capital-punishment advocates can submit the most legitimate defense of their position: incapacitation. The death penalty removes a threat from society. It certainly does — as well as some non-threats. In frontier Wisconsin, before Madison had even been founded, this argument rightly won the day. Death was the only effective way of truly eliminating a serious threat to society.
As Pope John Paul the Great pointed out in the tract "Evangelium Vitae," however, the modern prison system offers a similarly reliable means of preventing a violent criminal from interacting with society, saying the death penalty should be used only "in cases of absolute necessity, in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Today, however, as a result of steady improvement in the organization of the penal system, such cases are rare, if not practically nonexistent."
Technological advancements and security realities have created a serious contender for the utter effectiveness the death penalty alone could provide in the past. Maximum-security detention facilities make any manifestation of the death penalty — whether a firing squad in Utah or a hanging in Delaware — look excessive.
This is not to condone the fact that Wisconsin Supermax inmates have televisions and air conditioning. Prison should not be a trip to the day spa. It should be punishment. It should also recognize the possibility for reformation, however. Even the worst of offenders can repent. Notorious Crips gang leader Stan "Tookie" Williams, for example, had taken to writing children's books before his execution in California last year.
Personal reformation is not necessarily a justification for release. Instead, it is merely a consideration in this debate. Individuals can, absent the death penalty, transform themselves and become moderately productive. Costs can certainly be prohibitive, but reducing prison amenities is a better solution than continuing to kill criminals.
Finally, for those who loathe abortion, opposition to the death penalty makes for a more consistent pro-life ethic. It is easy to empathize with proponents who point out the deep suffering and trauma of family members affected by the worst types of sexual assault and murder, but it raises questions about just how dearly a pro-life individual holds his conviction about the bedrock dignity of all human beings. While a serial killer harms society more than an innocent fetus, the belief that human life is sacrosanct should trump punitive motivations for capital punishment.
Admittedly, the death penalty fits squarely into the tradition and culture of the West. Progress, however, allows American society the opportunity to step beyond a traditional practice based on grim realities and necessities. We have arrived at a time when we can do better than the death penalty. It is possible to secure the peace, prevent recidivism and mete out appropriate justice without stooping to the level of taking an eye for an eye. Tradition is a valuable guide, but it should not be an iron straitjacket.
There is much at stake when the geese fly south again this year. If you do head to the polls to have your say on the death penalty, Wisconsin's tradition for the last 150 years is the one to keep foremost in your mind.
Brad Vogel ([email protected]) is a senior majoring in political science and journalism.