Debating the death penalty on The Colbert Report

Josh Larsen

March 5, 2013

I love Stephen Colbert and enjoyed his witty interview of exonerated death-row inmate Kirk Bloodsworth from Maryland (which is poised to repeal the death penalty). Colbert is right: in order to support the death penalty, we have to ignore the reality of the horror of executing innocent people like Bloodsworth. I think we have to ignore the horror of what the exonerated have been through as well. As a murder victim family member who has worked to repeal the death penalty for 14 years, I’ve had the opportunity to meet and sometimes speak with several of the people from Witness to Innocence, a group of 142 innocent exonerated death row inmates in the U.S. I always come away from these exonerees feeling that no payment for damages could possibly compensate them for the decades of hell they have experienced and how much they have lost.

Colbert suggests that we have supported the death penalty because we are a Christian nation. In his book "Capital Punishment and the Bible," Gardner C. Hanks points out that from the early fourth century, the church has allied itself with governmental authorities intent on using the death penalty; to support this alliance, the church therefore focuses on Jesus’ crucifixion as an act of atonement and has refused to talk about the crucifixion as a killing initiated and carried out by the government. Colbert’s last line, “Without the death penalty, we would not have a religion,” drew the most applause.

So if we do not fight against the death penalty, are we complicit, as Colbert suggests, in the killing of innocent people because we turn away? We may not be able to work for abolition or all the other moral issues we care about. But if we really understand how destructive the death penalty is and never communicate our concerns to those who can change that policy, we are encouraging it to continue. Those Maryland legislators now voting for repeal understand how harmful the death penalty is. It not only risks killing the innocent; it also burdens murder victim family members and families of the murderer, feeds vengeance and retribution, damages us spiritually as individuals, and hurts our reputation as a nation. If these costs are not enough, there are the financial costs. The average cost to Maryland taxpayers for reaching a single death sentence is $3 million - $1.9 million more than the cost of a non-death penalty case. (This includes investigation, trial, appeals, and incarceration costs.) That is money that could much better be spent preventing crime, hiring and training police officers, and providing services for crime victims.

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