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ultimate punishment

2 October 2004

Albert Camus, one of the 20th century's most eloquent opponents of the death penalty, once argued out that to think of execution as retribution for murder – setting death as the price one pays for killing – in effect puts a price on everyone's head. If you are willing to die for your crime, and if your death is seen as balancing the imbalance your murder brings about, then it's a square deal.

Timothy McVeigh certainly agreed. Unrepentant, eager to die for his crimes, he saw his life as an appropriate exchange for those of the hundreds of people he killed in the Oklahoma City bombing. And a murderer has only one life, even if he trades it for those of dozens of children in a day-care center.

Lawyer and novelist Scott Turow joins Camus as an eloquent opponent of the death penalty, this time for the 21st century. Appointed by Illinois Governor George Ryan in 2000 to a commission to study capital punishment in the state, Turow spent a good deal of time over the next two years researching and thinking about "ultimate punishment," and one result is Ultimate Punishment, a searching essay on the theory and reality of American executions, new in paperback from Picador.

Turow's fiction stands out in the vast menu of contemporary legal thrillers because of his intense concern with whole people. His characters, in books like Presumed Innocent and Burden of Proof, are much more than just vehicles for intrigue, action, or snappy dialogue. They are humans caught in webs of desire and regret.

In Ultimate Punishment, Turow brings his humanism to bear on often abstractly-posed legal and ethical questions. His defendants are real people and so are their victims and their victims' survivors. It's the last group – loved ones of murdered people – who drive much current discourse and law about capital punishment. And it's their arguments that Turow spends much of his essay confronting and finally rebutting.

There's no evidence that the capital-punishment process, with its ranks of lawyers, its endless appeals, its expensive trials and special incarcerations, is any cheaper than keeping someone in prison for life. There's no evidence that the death penalty deters killers. (That's another of Camus's observations: contemplating the extremity of murder, who ever fears one's own death as a consequence?) And there's plenty of evidence (marshalled elegantly by Turow here) that the death penalty is simply sought and applied capriciously. Only a tiny number of offenders are ever killed, and they are killed for crimes no worse than those of many who serve life or are ultimately even paroled.

So arguments from cost, deterrence, and fairness fail. But what about the survivors? They argue fiercely that death will bring them closure – not revenge, exactly, but a sense that the status quo ante has been restored in some way. But what restoration is possible? And have survivors who have witnessed the execution of their nemeses really achieved any kind of balance, any true closure?

Anyone interested in the death penalty – and, in a democracy, we all surely bear some responsibility for it – should read Turow's analysis of America's penchant for killing criminals. I'd call it compassionate if that word hadn't been so debased in recent years: in the root sense, however, Turow is compassion itself. He suffers with all the participants in capital punishment, and resolves firmly against it.

Turow, Scott. Ultimate Punishment: A lawyer's reflections on dealing with the death penalty. 2003. New York: Picador, 2004.