Dead like us: Why we should abolish the death penalty

death chamber
Nevada's execution chamber (Nevada Department of Corrections photo)

If somebody murdered my child, I would want them dead. I am 5’4 and 118 pounds. But I could do it with my bare hands — if you let me. But WE should not let ME do it. 

Despite any righteous, wrathful feelings, what I might do would not be really about justice, but vengeance. Indeed, what does the death penalty actually accomplish? As Rabbi Benjamin Zober of Reno’s Temple Sanai, (who spent years in Ohio as a public defender working on death penalty appeals) points out, life in prison without parole already carries the certainty that an individual will die in our custody. Punishment is assured without us having to host an invitation-only execution event at a set date and time.

Overwhelming evidence documents what we instinctively know to be true in America: Justice in our state and across our country is not blind. At least three individuals in Nevada have been released from death row, after serving cumulatively more than 60 years while wrongfully incarcerated. Nevada has the 9th highest number (71) of people on death row in the country and the second highest number per capita. We incarcerate more minorities and we disproportionately punish them more harshly. Wrongful murder convictions are biased by race, or poverty. The sheer systematic injustice of who winds up on death row should in itself be the end of the argument. 

Never mind that we cannot even get the drugs to kill people without expensive, extraordinary efforts anymore, because even the drug companies, not known to be bastions of morality, do not want to be directly implicated. Or perhaps we should forage for stones, and require everyone to take a turn? As a country we persist in our quest for vengeance with extraordinary purpose and spare no expense. Why do we not exhibit the same fervor and purpose to shore up education and our health care systems? Why does the US persist in investing our resources and moral energy into killing instead of prevention and healing?

In continuing to execute people, we become accomplices in the very evil we condemn. At some level, we know this. We know it is wrong, so we hide it. The state and federal government go to great lengths to sanitize the experience for the public. Unlike the barbaric public lynchings in our history, we dress up executions with sterile rooms and one way mirrors to protect ourselves from our conscience. We obscure the fact that we are sanctioning the murder of someone as a proxy for other ills. It looks less sterile when we strip away the trappings of what is essentially an enforcement of our collective will, but the act is no different. If we really think this is righteous, should we televise capital punishments a la Hunger Games? Let’s not fool ourselves. We don’t because we know it is wrong.

But the seductive lust for vengeance is powerful in the United States, part of the as a farcical “law and order” battle cry. Before Trump left office he embarked on performative vengeance, a frantic killing spree. His Department of Justice concocted a way to insulate the manufacturers of the poisons used in particular executions from the public. In our name, the federal government recently killed 13 of the 17 people that it has executed in the last sixty years. Are we any safer?

Let’s end this theater. Las Vegas Assemblyman Steve Yeager is submitting a bill to repeal the death penalty in Nevada; it is retroactive and reduces the sentences of the people currently on our death row to life without parole. 

I will not judge anyone for wanting vengeance. I think I would too. As a community we can hold compassionate space for the families of victims who feel this way, and simultaneously acknowledge that sanctioning and bankrolling this policy of pointless executions is wrong. Our entire system of capital punishment is capricious, inequitable, barbaric and unworthy of our better selves. Let us end it.

Vivian Leal
Vivian Leal, a writer and activist committed to giving voice to humanitarian principles and to work to hear them reflected in Nevada law and in the larger state and national dialogue. She adores living in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.