Why I Changed My Mind on the Death Penalty

A web-only essay by Lance Morrow.

  • Christina Marie Riggs, a nurse in Arkansas and a single mother, killed her two children — Justin, 5, and Shelby Alexis, 2 — by giving them injections of potassium chloride and then smothering them with a pillow. She wrote a suicide note, and apparently tried to kill herself with an overdose of 28 antidepressant tablets. She survived.

    Or she did until last night, when the state of Arkansas put Riggs to death by lethal injection at the state prison in Varner. She was the first woman to be executed in Arkansas since 1845.

    The state of Arkansas played the part of Jack Kevorkian in a case of assisted suicide. Christina Riggs said she wanted to die. She had dropped all legal appeals. She wanted to be with her children in heaven. Just before Riggs died, she said, "I love you, my babies." Some people said she had killed them because she was severely depressed. The prosecutor, on the other hand, called her "a self-centered, selfish, premeditated killer who did the unspeakable act of taking her own children's lives."

    So where do we stand on capital punishment now? (And, incidentally, isn't it grand that we seem to be overcoming, at the speed of light, our reluctance to execute women? Bless you, Gloria Steinem.)

    Review the state of play:

    I have argued in the past that the death penalty was justified, in certain brutal cases, on the basis of the social contract. That is: Some hideous crimes demand the ultimate punishment in order to satisfy the essentially civilizing deal that we make with one another as citizens. We forgo individual revenge, deferring to the law, but depend upon a certainty that the law will give us a justice that must include appropriate harshness. I favored the Texas folk wisdom: "He needs killing." If the law fails in that task, I said, and people see that evil is fecklessly tolerated, then the social contract disintegrates. Society needs a measure of homeopathic revenge.

    But I have changed my mind about capital punishment.

    I think the American atmosphere, the American imagination (news, movies, books, music, fact, fiction, entertainment, culture, life in the streets, zeitgeist) is now so filled with murder and violence (gang wars, random shootings not just in housing projects but in offices and malls and schools) that violence of any kind — including solemn execution — has become merely a part of our cultural routine and joins, in our minds, the passing parade of stupidity/psychosis/chaos/entertainment that Americans seem to like, or have come to deserve. In Freudian terms, the once forceful (and patriarchal) American Superego (arguably including the authority of law, of the presidency, of the military, etc.) has collapsed into a great dismal swamp of Id.

    And in the Swamp, I have come to think, capital punishment has lost whatever cautionary social force it had — its exemplary meaning, its power to proclaim, as it once arguably did, that some deeds are, in our fine and virtuous company, intolerable.

    I think those arguing in favor of capital punishment now are indulging in a form of nostalgia. Capital punishment no longer works as a morality play. Each execution (divorced from its moral meaning, including its capacity to shock and to warn the young) simply becomes part of the great messy pageant, the vast and voracious stupidity, the Jerry Springer show of American life.

    Maybe most of our moral opinions are formed by emotions and aesthetic reactions. My opinion is this: Capital punishment has lost its moral meaning. Having lost its moral meaning, it has become as immoral as any other expression of violence. And therefore we should stop doing it.