Understanding November 1984
During the past several months, the rate at which condemned criminals are being executed in the United States has steadily increased, and with the several hundreds of condemned men that are now sitting in death cells through the country, waiting to be killed, the rate of these executions will undoubtedly continue to rise. With each execution however, a public controversy arises concerning the morality and the legality of the death penalty. This controversy is, of course, as old as history, and the arguments pro and con, have changed but little with the years. Law enforcement officials usually favor the death penalty on the grounds that it is the most convenient and expedient way to get rid of criminals, and is necessary as a deterrent to crime. Opponents question whether it is morally right to kill one’s fellowman, however convenient and expedient it may be.
Students of history will point out that, in medieval England, the theft of anything having a value of more than six shillings was a capital crime. Public executions were held on holidays, and large numbers of townspeople as well as many from the countryside, gathered to enjoy this special form of entertainment. The Town Crier always walked through the crowd warning everyone to hold fast to their purses, because there would be many pickpockets working amoung the throng! SO MUCH FOR DETERRENCE!
From the religious standpoint, some will quote the sixth commandment, “Thou shalt not kill!” They will point out that it is unequivocal, with no provision for legal license. Their opponents will counter with the ancient Mosaic law, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” (A law which was obviously founded upon the belief that two wrongs make a right, or that evil can be cancelled by repetition.)
There are several aspects of the situation which your editor has never seen discussed in print. The usual public attitude toward the criminal is that he or she is an enemy of society, and must be dealt with accordingly. The fact is, however, that a criminal is more accurately described as a failure of society, since the prime purpose of any society is to create a human environment in which criminals do not develop! It is a moot question therefore, whether society has the right to rid itself of its failures by destroying them.
Some time ago, your, editor chanced to be one of the members of a panel discussion group on a local radio station when the subject of capital punishment came up for discussion. One of the members of the panel stated that he viewed the problem simply as one of “garbage disposal” and was strongly in favor of capital punishment as the simplest and most effective method of disposing of “human garbage.” The quite obvious flaw in this reasoning is, of course, that it presupposes, and requires, an infallible ability to determine exactly what constitutes human garbage! Unfortunately, even the most cursory examination of the history of jurisprudence will prove that the human race does not have, nor has it ever had such infallible ability.
The Greek philosopher Socrates, was condemned to death because he dared to teach his students that the moon was not a God who rode through the sky each night on his chariot, but was only a ball of rock and soil that might actually be as large as the entire hill of the Acropolis! This and other such sacrilege sealed his doom. He was not the victim of mob passion, he had received a fair and impartial trial by the highest tribunal in the land, and one composed of the most highly educated and intelligent persons.
Regardless of their individual religious beliefs, very few persons today would consider Jesus of Nazareth to have been ‘human garbage’, yet He was tried, condemned and executed by due process of law.
The young woman known as Joan of Arc, was given one of the fairest trials possible in her day. She was represented by consul, she was allowed to testify in her own behalf, and call her own witnesses. After this fair and impartial trial she was condemned to death as a witch and was burned to death at the stake. (A sanitary if not very humane method of garbage disposal!)
In most murder trials today ‘expert testimony’ plays a fairly large part in determining the guilt or innocence of the defendant. It might be interesting therefore, to take a quick look at the solid foundation of precedent upon which the acceptance of expert testimony rests. The first recorded instance of the use of expert testimony in the annals of American jurisprudence, is the testimony of Cotton Mather, in the Salem witchcraft trials. Cotton Mather had written a book and several technical papers on the subject of witchcraft, and so became known to be the foremost authority in the country. It was largely as a result of his testimony that a number of women were hanged, and at least two were burned to death. In 1958 the Supreme Court of the United States finally got around to a consideration of these convictions. After long and careful deliberation, the court announced that several of the convictions were reversed. Henceforth, the women in question were to be considered innocent of the crime for which they had been executed several hundreds of years before, by a code of law which thought, and unfortunately still thinks that it has the right and the infallible ability to usurp the prerogative of God in determining whether a fellowman should live or die!
It is the humble opinion of the writer that, until the reasoning power of man reaches a much higher level than it has yet achieved, we have no right to inflict upon a fellowman any act which we cannot undo, or any damage which we cannot repair.
There is, of course, no way of determining how many persons have been executed for crimes they did not commit, but the number is quite certainly larger than the average person would believe. There are enough cases on record where proof of innocence was obtained only after the accused had been executed, to indicate how many more there might have been whose innocence was never established.
While there is no question that society must establish means to protect itself from those who are strongly antisocial, whether they be enemies or only failures of society, it is the writers opinion that, however depraved and vicious they may be, they should not be approached with thoughts of hate or vengeance, or even with thoughts of ‘garbage disposal’ but simply with the sober reflection, “There, but for the grace of God go I.”
(signed) Daniel W. Fry
Most of you know that I often say, “Don’t forget, count your blessings.” This we could well afford to do daily – yet never so much as at this beautiful and traditional time of true ‘Thanksgiving.’
It’s a very special time of celebration, and appreciating our bountiful harvest. A time of remembering our national heritage and our spiritual heritage.
Oh – we owe our pilgrim forefathers so much! Such as an unpaid debt of eternal gratitude! It’s a time to feast – to rejoice, to thank our God and sing praises to Him for generously blessing our beautiful and beloved country.
Have you looked about you lately and fully realized how blessed YOU are? None of you are cold, homeless, hungry or feeling helpless hopeless.
Would you trade your tiny troubles for those of anyone you know? Many of you send blessings to us and blessings to the work of Understanding, for which we are truly grateful. Your prayers in our behalf must be clearly heard because we ARE blessed and we KNOW we are rich in having all our needs supplied and having each other.
Our wish is that you have a wonderful Thanksgiving.
(signed) Cleona Q. Fry
Cleona Q. Fry