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In Death Penalty Debate, System’s a Killer

By Peter S. Kahrmann

Held up to a certain light, the death penalty debate is nothing but a political ruse designed to distract the public’s attention so lawmakers and big business don’t have to make some changes that might really help address crime in my country. I include big business in this because it plays a major role in deciding who gets to be a lawmaker and because it is having a grand old time privatizing prisons to fill its pockets.

The debate over the death penalty is, to say the least, an emotional one. And so it should be.

When I say I understand why many want the death penalty, I mean it. I was held up and shot in the head at point-blank range in 1984, and I’ve little doubt that, in the following months, if I’d been able to get my hands on the kid (a teenager) who shot me, I probably would have killed him.

I am a co-founder and former board member of the New York City chapter of Victims for Victims (VFV), a nonprofit group started by Theresa Saldana. Theresa Saldana is a remarkable woman and actress who was stabbed repeatedly by a stalker in March 1982.

In my time with VFV and since, I’ve met many families and friends of murder victims. I remember meeting members of Parents of Murdered Children. POMC is a remarkable organization that was founded in 1978 by Robert and Charlotte Hullinger in Cincinnati, Ohio, after their 19-year-old daughter Lisa was murdered by her former boyfriend, Bill Coday.

Today, however, I am against the death penalty in all circumstances. I am not glad that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev got the death penalty for his role in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, and I am glad that Nebraska recently became the first conservative state in 40 years to abolish the death penalty.

Now, before those of you who understandably support the death penalty lose it, hear me out, because we are all being taken for a ride by our elected officials when it comes to the death penalty debate.

Consider this: I think we would agree that when there is debate over its use, the death penalty gets the public’s attention, which is exactly what the elected officials and their cohorts are counting on. If I can keep you focused on the death penalty, then perhaps you will not ask me to change the system in ways that would help reduce crime, with or without the death penalty.

Some concrete examples: Had the young man who shot me been arrested, there is no doubt that one of the charges he would’ve faced would have been attempted murder. Now why, I ask you, is attempted murder viewed as any less brutal than murder and therefore results in a shorter sentence? Why should anyone get a shorter sentence because first responders were at the scene quickly or, as in my case, the doctors were brilliant? If the intent to kill is proved beyond a reasonable doubt, you should get the same sentence you would have gotten had your attempt to kill been successful.

Let’s say a friend of mine and I see a man trying to rape a woman, and we stop him. Should that man get less time in jail because he couldn’t complete his act of violence? Rubbish.

Two more examples: First, stop describing a sentence as being, for example, 15 years to life. Tell the truth. Describe it for what it is. The convicted person will serve 15 years and may stay in jail longer if he or she misbehaves while there. Second, don’t send non-violent criminals to the same place you send violent criminals, unless of course you want to make the non-violent violent.

There are other facts that in my view make the death penalty immoral and unjust. A 2012 report by Amnesty International USA points out that since 1973, 140 people have been released from death row because of a wrongful conviction. The same report reveals that since 1977, 77 percent of those on death row have been executed for killing white victims “even though African Americans make up about half of all homicide victims.”

In other words, no person is perfect, which means no system designed by people will be perfect, which means we will continue to execute innocents in the name of justice

. A recent study by Michigan and Pennsylvania statisticians and legal experts, headed by Samuel Gross, a law professor at the University of Michigan Law School, concluded that 4.1 percent of those currently on death row are innocent.

Again, I am not willing to send innocent people to their deaths. But while the death penalty debate goes on, perhaps we can all contact our elected officials and ask them to make some changes in the system as described earlier in this essay. I’m sure they’d be happy to make those changes if they really do want to make the world a safer place for their constituents, people like you and me, for instance.


Writer, Peter S. Kahrmann, is an advocate for people with disabilities.


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