The Troy Davis execution in Georgia now appears ready to go forward again tomorrow night—despite wide citizen protests. In a recent piece here, I observed that such protests have, at least, led to a decrease in the number of executions in the USA over the past dozen years, so that’s something. Then, in another posting, I revealed that buried in the new NYT/CBS poll we find that support for capital punishment is now at near-record lows in America, even while still strong at roughly six in ten backing it.
But what about the larger moral and media issues raised by executions? And its future here?
A few years back, Brett Essler interviewed me about capital punishment following publication of the book I wrote with Robert Jay Lifton, Who Owns Death?, and it appeared at Alternet. Here is a still-relevant portion of that interview.
Essler: In the book, you point out that one of the flaws of capital punishment is that it is sentenced arbitrarily. Will this be an impediment to future executions taking place or will citizen apathy, whether purposeful or systemic, allow this law to stand as it is?
Mitchell: Some prosecutors will never bring a capital charge while others are all too eager. It merely makes manifest the inherent unfairness of the system, in every state.
Essler: One of the most disturbing aspects of the death penalty is the way the juries in capital cases are stacked to promote death. In the book, you call them “automatic death penalty people.” This is, obviously, one of the biggest obstacles to abolition. How can the abolitionist movement subvert this system?
Mitchell: Well, I know some anti–death penalty people, as individuals, try to get on capital juries by fudging their beliefs, then voting for life. They rarely succeed. But it’s such an unfair setup, where only those who are pro-death penalty are allowed on these juries. So, by definition, it cannot be a “jury of your peers” since at least one-third of all Americans now oppose the death penalty.
Essler: Given the court’s recent partisan rulings, can you assess—taking into account past rulings and the shifts in public opinion—where they might rule on death penalty cases in the foreseeable future?
Mitchell: Some of the conservative US justices nevertheless have expressed doubts about the death penalty, as have recently such people as George Will and Pat Robertson, for example. I believe the US Supreme Court will eventually call a halt to executions but I don’t pretend to claim that it will likely be for “moral” reasons. More likely, they will simply decide again—as they did 30 years ago—that it is administered unfairly or arbitrarily, or puts too many innocent people at risk, or is simply out of whack. But I’d take abolition any way I could get it.
Essler: In Who Owns Death? you write at length about the media’s role in executions. The stance of many in the abolitionist movement is that public or televised executions would bring home the barbarism. Do you agree and does this theory have any precedence in other societies?
Mitchell: Actually, only a small part of the movement favors that position. Very few places around the world have public executions. I fear that televised executions would become a spectator sport or numb people to the process. You know, it should be the called the “killing penalty,” not the “death penalty.”
On the other hand, there’s already so much numbing because of the lethal injection process and the medicalization of the executions. I suppose some people would watch an execution and be outraged by the banality of evil.
Essler: Have you ever witnessed an execution?
Mitchell: No, but we have a lot about witnessing in our book. My hero Steve Earle has, and I’d recommend that anyone search out an article he wrote about it in Tikkun—as well as listen to the songs he wrote about it, “Jonathan’s Song” and another anti–death penalty song, “Ellis Unit.” The latter takes the point of view of a prison guard (see video below).
Essler: Do popular entertainment portrayals—movies like The Green Mile and Dead Man Walking—have any effect on popular opinion, or are people who view this material predisposed to a certain moral view?
Mitchell: Oh, I think it has some effect. Electric chair scenes used to be fairly common in American movies last year but have fallen out of fashion, so seeing that barbarity in The Green Mile was probably useful, although the film was somewhat muddled. I thought Dead Man Walking was great because it did not take an obvious anti–death penalty stance but went straight down the middle, showing the horror of both the murder and the execution.
Essler: Many who oppose the death penalty do so on religious grounds. In your book, you contend that the sway toward a moratorium is heavily influence by clergy. However, the church has not made an impact in this area when compared to abortion. Why are “pro=life” activists not more vocal in this arena?
Mitchell: You’d have to ask them, honestly. But the Catholic Church, for one, is now having a major impact since the Pope, two years ago, really started taking an activist stance on this. Until then it had been pretty pro forma but now the Catholic bishops and hierarchy are taking a strong stand.
Essler: It has been suggested that sanctions by other countries—especially in Europe—may be more successful than domestic protest. Is there a movement amongst Americans to garner support from Europe?
Mitchell: I think American abolitionists mainly just publicize the censure from other countries. The United States is so apart from the rest of the developed, Western world on this. I’m sure Bush will be hearing this now, at high levels.
Essler: The abolitionist movement—more and more, it seems—is seeking its momentum from murder victims families. As you describe in the book, many want to stop the cycle of killing and violence. How deep is the support of this view amongst victims’ families?
Mitchell: It’s hard to say, but at the minimum, it is much stronger than reported in the media, which leaves the impression that all victim’s families are for executions and want more of them. And certainly we understand and respect the reasons they often attend executions and then pronounce some satisfaction afterward. But many do not find “closure” and others stay away from the whole affair. And in any case, we have never had a system of law where victims of crime decide the punishment. If we did there’d be thousands executed every year for robbery, rape, or cheating on their spouses!
Essler: In the subtitle of your book you mention the “American Conscience.” What is the state of the American conscience today as opposed to, say, thirty years ago when there was a death penalty moratorium?
Mitchell: I think the public is much better informed about the failures and unfairness in the capital punishment system today, the innocent people released from death row, and as important as anything else, the existence of a plausible alternative, life without any chance of parole. Also, as more people come out publicly opposing executions it makes it easier for others to join them, as they no longer feel so alone with their fears. We hope our book, in coming out strongly for abolition, and arguing that it is quite feasible, even likely, will change the public opinion atmosphere a bit, and make a few more people feel comfortable about “coming over” to our side.
Greg Mitchell’s latest book is Atomic Cover-Up: Two U.S. Soldiers, Hiroshima & Nagasaki and the Greatest Movie Never Made.