In a popular referendum on election night, the State of California voted by a small margin to keep its death penalty intact; two days later, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is about to put its to use. Barring an unlikely last-minute reprieve, the Keystone State will make history at 7 p.m. tonight when it executes its first inmate in half-a-century who has not made a conscious decision to die by abandoning the appeals process. It’s a milestone that civilized Pennsylvanians should be ashamed to cross.
The inmate in question—56-year-old Hubert Michael—is far from innocent. In 1993, while out on bail on a rape charge, Michael kidnapped a teenaged girl named Trista Eng while she walked to work, drove her to a remote location, and shot her to death. Micheal pleaded guilty to first degree murder and was sentenced to die. He initially waived his right to appeal that sentence—a decision his lawyers attributed to mental illness; but since 2004 he has been fighting to stay alive. We owe it to ourselves to grant him his wish.[Editor's UPDATE: Michael was granted a stay of execution shortly after 1 p.m.]
I say that not from a place of empathy. Michael does not deserve our sympathy, and I’m not suggesting we give it to him. He is a cold-blooded killer who has forfeited his right to count himself as a member of our community. But the case against the death penalty in this country is much larger than one convicted murderer, or even one murder victim.
As I have pointed out before on the Post: The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has no business being in the death racket. My prior arguments have hinged largely on the fact that the death penalty is ineffective, wasteful, unfairly applied and—due to carelessness, unintentional error, and in some cases outright negligence—often crosses the line into the realm of torture. There’s also that little issue of the innocent Americans who I have no doubt have been wrongfully executed. I can conceive of no greater miscarriage of justice than being forced to walk to the death chamber knowing that the state that is pledged to protect you is about to murder you instead.
These are all compelling arguments to abandon capital punishment, and any of them taken alone should be enough to justify at the very least a moratorium on executions in the United States. But they all also presuppose that under the right circumstances, with adequate checks and balances and the proper cost-benefit analysis—capital punishment could somehow be made to work. But taking a fundamentally uncivilized institution and making it function properly doesn’t make it good policy.
The only remaining justification for capital punishment—retribution—is an abject human instinct that has no place in an enlightened society. We may not yet have attained that state, but I think most of us would agree it’s something we should aspire to—and our government should be leading the way. Yet America’s insistence on clinging to a barbaric practice that every single one of its allies has abandoned shows just how far we still have to go.
Of the 49 European members of the United Nations, only Belarus—regarded as the continent’s last remaining dictatorship—continues to execute people. No nation may join the European Union without first giving up its death penalty. But it’s not just in Europe where state-sanctioned murder has fallen out of favor. Neither Mexico nor Canada practices capital punishment, and the only other two industrialized nations that do—South Korea, Japan—have de facto moratoriums in place.
In Pennsylvania, which houses the nation’s fourth largest population of death row inmates, there are currently 200 condemned awaiting execution. One-fifth of them have been on death row since the 1980s. Due to a time-consuming appeals process, the state has experienced a significant backlog of death penalty cases since it reinstated the practice in 1978. This year alone, in addition to Michael, eight other inmates faced dates with the executioner in Pennsylvania—all received stays to continue their appeals. But those appeals are fast running out, and at the end of that process, the death machine in Pennsylvania will start humming again.
Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, says that when it does, we could see three to four executions a year in the state. We almost got the ball rolling last month, when an 11th hour stay from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court saved Terrance Williams—who is on death row for killing two men who allegedly physically and sexually abused him. Williams was just 17 when he committed his crimes, and the jury at his trial was never privy to the abuse.
As of this writing Hubert Michael’s last hope rests with Governor Tom Corbett, who is supposed to be considering a request from a bipartisan State Senate panel studying the death penalty to issue a moratorium until 2013.
Death penalty opponents will be holding a vigil tonight outside Rockview State Correctional Institution where the execution is scheduled to take place. I won’t be there. I do not believe we owe Hubert Michael a vigil. But as civilized human beings, we do owe him his life.