Washington Post staff writer Maria Glod was an official witness to the execution of convicted murderer Teresa Lewis. Glod’s short account, published today, was properly understated and thus especially shattering. (I do wish Ms. Glod had included more information about Lewis’s awful crime. That, too, is part of the story.) I don’t know what Virginia hoped to accomplish. I won’t presume to judge the reactions of Ms. Lewis’s victims or their survivors. I hope it brought them some consolation.
My own and my colleagues’ research brings be into contact with some causes and consequences of urban crime. Iâ€™ve seen nothing to suggest that we accomplish much by brutalizing troubled, impulsive, or vicious people who commit atrocities. Killing these people does nothing to honor or memorialize their victims or to heal those left behind. In my view, it does the opposite, making the killers rather than their victim the center of public attention and, inevitably, prolonged and painful legal proceedings.
Capital punishment certainly doesn’t save money. Studies indicate that it costs an extra $2 million to execute a murderer, over and above the costs of imposing a lesser punishment. We could so many things with that same $2 million that would make us safer. Liberals might send 500 kids to Head Start for a year. Conservatives might send 30 violent offenders in jail for a year, or buy maybe 50 officer-years of police overtime in high-crime neighborhoods.
I do not categorically oppose capital punishment in all circumstances. To update Hannah Arendt, Tim McVeigh and Osama Bin Laden don’t care to share planet Earth with me. I feel the same about them. The existing research literature supporting capital punishment is, to be polite, limited and shaky. Yet there may be particular calculating and vicious crimes that warrant execution, I might execute hitmen who kill witnesses, for example, if there were good reason to believe that such a sanction would improve public safety. Such executions would require a different system from the appalling state systems that carry out the great majority of executions now occurring. Ms. Lewis is a woman, a grandmother–making this execution particularly discomfitting. Many other people are executed who did something horrible but do not deserve to die.
We should also ask discomfiting questions about our own mindset when we impose harsh punishment. The desire for vengeance comes with our humanity. You don’t have to be an evolutionary biologist to understand how this drive is sometimes necessary and healthy.â€”or how it can lead us astray or release powerful emotional toxins that can damage our lives. As I’ve written elsewhere, that was certainly my experience.
I don’t think we made ourselves much safer or saner by strapping Teresa Lewis onto a gurney and injecting the poisons that ended her life. There are better responses to depravity. We see enough sadness and violence these days.