The Death Penalty Is Killing Us

I’m just a plainspoken Colorado criminal defense lawyer, but the way I see it…

There’s yet another bill to end the death penalty in Colorado. I’m tired of these bills, tired of seeing them year after year, because we shouldn’t have to see them again, ever, because the state legislature should somehow at last discover its collective humanity and pass this bill. I don’t know whether you are a Republican, Democrat, or something else. I register Independent. But this is something that should speak, not to your politics, but to your own humanity.

I don’t want the death penalty to end because I think the men and women who are sentenced to death don’t deserve it. I think in most cases they richly deserve it. But I don’t think I deserve it. I don’t think my friends and neighbors deserve it. And I don’t think you deserve it. You, I, and all of us who do not take human life as these criminals have done, do not deserve to be made like them. Having lost their connection to the value of human life, we do not deserve to tarnish our own connection by taking their lives. They are not worth our own debasement.

The organized campaign legislators are seeing this time emphasizes the economic costs of the death penalty, and urges them to vote their wallets (yours, really) by spending the money, now used to execute our worst criminals, instead to fund cold case investigations that otherwise will remain in deep freeze. I know that these unsolved cases are without question deserving of funding, but I cannot bring myself to associate a dollar value with the dignity of a human being, myself or others.

So I do not join that campaign, that argument. Mine is directed at the recognition and preservation of what some may call the soul, what others may call the spirit, or what I would call our basic human goodness. I simply ask that we not sacrifice that fundamental quality of our collective human existence for the sake of vengeance on a sick, or lost, or maybe simply evil individual.

I am certain you, or someone you know, has a personal connection with someone who has been harmed by capital crime, or who has done this harm. I have written in these pages about my own connection. Many years ago, when I was yet a boy, the State of California strapped my cousin Foster to a chair and made him breathe poison gas. My mother told me that Foster had shot his wife as she slept. He held a pillow against her face and pressed the gun against it so the noise wouldn’t disturb his kids sleeping upstairs. It woke them anyway, and the police found Foster kneeling on the floor, his arms around them, rocking back and forth, Foster’s shirt soaked with their tears and their mother’s blood.

Maybe Foster deserved to suffer for his crime. But his children, decades later, still suffer from the fact that not only had Foster taken their mother from them, but the state went him one better, and made orphans of them. These children I once played with cannot bear the pain of either of their parents’ deaths; one of them cannot even bear to speak of it.

This family shines the light on perhaps the darker and usually unseen shadow of our death penalty jurisprudence. We all know that when the murderer kills his victim, in many ways the victim’s family dies with him; we need only look at the anger and hatred that has become the life mask of Ron Goldman’s father to see that. When the state in turn kills the murderer, the murderer’s family suffers no less a death of spirit. Two families are murdered. With my cousins, that family died twice.

We don’t have to keep carving these black holes in our souls, our spirits, our human goodness, for the sake of retribution against the killers in our society; our society needn’t — mustn’t — remain a killer too. I would ask my representatives to vote to lay down this legal weapon that reaps death upon death, suffering upon suffering, and raise their voices in affirmation of life — our own, decent, life.

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