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Death penalty: The line between revenge and justice

During spring break, while many of you were basking in the rays of the Mexican sun and partying to your heart’s content, I was sitting in my basement and watching movies. Some may call my spring break experience dull, but it was epic. During my mega-movie-marathon, I came across Clint Eastwood’s recent production, Changeling, a true story about a mother whose son disappears and the battle that ensues to find him. Not to reveal too much about the movie, but it ends with the execution of a serial-killing pedophile, Gordon Stewart Northcott, who takes the fate of the missing boy to his grave.

This story in itself demonstrates the debate that continues to rage across the country and in this state over capital punishment. When Northcott is hanged, we feel good because vengeance has been served, but at the same time, what secrets does he take with him?

Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) has been working tirelessly to repeal the death penalty in this state. With evidence that continues to reveal the innocence of inmates on death row and statistics that show execution doesn’t deter crime, states continue to abolish capital punishment, with New Mexico becoming the 15th last week. But O’Malley has given up hope of eliminating the death penalty altogether in the state, at least for this year. The bill that is currently before the legislature would only allow execution for murder cases where the crime was caught on tape, the defendant confessed on tape or there was DNA or biological evidence that linked them to the crime.

Such measures would certainly help prevent innocent people from being executed, but the killing by the hands of the state would still continue. Once a criminal is locked away in prison, he or she is no longer a threat to the general public, and if properly incarcerated, the inmate won’t be a threat to fellow inmates, either. By executing an individual, we as a society are not protecting anyone – we’re simply acting out in revenge, not in pursuit of justice. Capital punishment doesn’t deter crime; what criminal ever thinks he or she is going to be the one sentenced to death? Most criminals don’t even believe they’re going to get caught for their crimes, let alone executed.

We have a criminal justice system that is seemingly divided into two parties: prosecutors and defenders. Their job is to fight like hell for their side and to win, regardless of what the truth might be. This is done for the purpose of fairness – in truth, it is anything but. Lawyers who ignore evidence to win, even if it means convicting an innocent person or freeing a dangerous one, aren’t working for justice – they’re working for their pocketbooks.

We live in one of the only Western countries that continues to kill their own people. Maybe that says something about us, or maybe it says something about Western society. In either case, the state legislature has missed an opportunity to end a practice that should have been retired to history long ago. We may continue to make execution more humane by switching from a rope to an electric chair to a needle, but as long as the state continues to kill in the name of vengeance, we are no better than the murderers being executed.

Justin Snow is a sophomore history major. He can be reached at

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