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Kill the Killers?

In response to:

License to Kill from the June 28, 1979 issue

To the Editors:

…Having spent thirty years as a psychologist in a state mental institution it was my experience to study closely more than a dozen persons who had been contributory to the deaths of others—mostly family members: fathers, mothers, wives, children, girlfriends. Almost all of these persons were beset with extreme bad conscience and were of a wavering mind about wanting or deserving to live on. Very definitely in considering “alternative futures” (Jung) they expressed ideas of wanting to die in atonement for the death they had caused. One person who had killed his girlfriend gained an advocate who successfully entered an insanity plea, but so pervasive was his sense of guilt that he hung himself. Earlier he had intimated that this was the only decent thing remaining for him to do.

This brings me to Hughes’s mention of Gary Gilmore’s quest for death in January 1977, which Hughes describes as both a pageant and a suicide. I too deplore wild and macabre scenes around executions and the degradation of the state involving itself in the nasty business of calculatedly extinguishing the life of any citizen or fellow man.

But I would like to make a case for formalizing the option of suicide for those who, following homicide, feel they no longer wish to live. For those who argue for “retributive justice” this would be more than a partial fulfillment for their righteous indignation. And for those who are apprehensive or appalled at the state’s involvement in executions, it would be a partial mitigation and displacement of responsibility The state would provide only the means of “selftermination.”

The administration of expiatory self-termination obviously requires safeguards—first against a change of mind and of course against torture-induced confessions with secret poisoning as against voluntary suicide—if one adopts the classic oral route of Socrates. Now that it is possible to monitor persons continuously following apprehension, an alleged perpetrator could be given the option of confession and choosing on, say, three occasions, fifteen days apart. If at each checkpoint his account is consistent and he consistently wishes his death, assuming he is of an age and brightness to know the meaning of his decision and its irrevocable nature and that he freely write or dictate a full statement regarding the circumstances of the fateful deed which in the mind of a court or family appointed advocate proved consistent with the known facts, and if finally he express a wish to die in the presence of family or nearest of kin or their chosen representative and be not dissuaded from this aim by their arguments then let the state make possible an expiatory exit. I have nothing to say to those who object that it is too much to allow the person to dramatize his ending and to have the final decision in his case. The present drama of trials by judge and jury with criminal lawyers as advocates is often vastly more flamboyant, expensive, protracted, and not free of error.

It might emerge that prisoner-optional-self-termination would serve as a deterrent to homicide where capital punishment has apparently failed—this through public exposure of those portions of a person’s confession as he finally wished to make public to court reporters.

Summarizing the compromise nature of this proposal for optional suicide for those involved in homicide, it allows for some “retributive justice,” it pivots on acknowledgment of responsibility and guilt and allows final expiatory action in a context that does not exclude the family or its appeal through friends, legal counsel, or clergy.

Finally putting it at its worst, with optional suicide for some cases, the courts and society would be spared the present alternatives of the state as enforcer of temporary dehumanizing incarceration, the state as murderer, or the state as custodian of caged humans.

John Arsenian

Rockport, Massachusetts

Graham Hughes replies:

Mr. Raffel isn’t bad himself at standing arguments in a neat line but he’s even better at premature victory proclamations. To announce at the outset that one’s own stance is “logical” and “tough-minded” while opponents are “squeamish” and “over-refined” is simply self-coronation. Grandiloquent declarations like “capital punishment is a societal imperative” also don’t generate productive exchange.

Incarceration rarely leads to “reform” as my review pointed out. But in most murderers the passage of time burns out the capacity or drive to be violent (which may be all the reform we can expect of anyone), so that long imprisonment for murder does generally make eventual release safe. There are no exact figures on how many murderers kill again after release. Most estimates agree that the number is very small, but certainly some few do and obviously they couldn’t if they had been executed.

But how shall we know these few? Mr. Raffel thinks it is the “vicious” murderers who are likely to kill again. Who are these (perhaps he knows viciousness when he sees it though he can’t define it) and does he mean that all of them or only some of them should be executed? Capital punishment statutes don’t help us very much here. Professor Charles L. Black, Jr. of Yale Law School has pointed out that under the Texas statute a father who deliberately shot his son to death because he was a “hippy” could not be sentenced to death but in Ohio a woman who sat in a car while, unknown to her, her accomplices in a robbery were shooting a store owner was condemned to die. In effect Mr. Raffel wants to execute some people not because they have killed (so have all murderers) but because he thinks we can tell that they will kill again. In fact we may be better able to predict that some people will kill who have not yet killed anyone. Shall we execute them and, if we executed any of these, how shall we count them against those cases where people kill only because they seek the death penalty, even moving into a capital punishment state to kill at random for that purpose?

As for the terrible burden imposed on jailers and the public purse, the truth is that murderers form a very small section of the prison population and have little to do with the overall cost of prison upkeep. Besides, the legal and other expenses involved in a capital case may be at least a million dollars more than in a non-capital murder case and this buys a lot of years in prison. I had also thought that we should not kill people just because it may be “expeditious and economic,” but someone who like Mr. Raffel thinks morality has nothing to do with the decision to kill might disagree.

Mr. Raffel is, indeed, altogether very confused about morality. He says that it has nothing to do with the death penalty question but then writes about members of society having a “right” to protect themselves and exhorts us to be “fair” to ourselves. These are of course moral demands and Mr. Raffel should reflect that being fair to ourselves ought to include examining how rage robs us of reason.

Dr. Arsenian’s do-it-yourself execution option raises large questions about the ethics of suicide and official facilitation of suicide. Deep guilt feelings clearly cannot in themselves be enough to justify official help for suicides to kill themselves. Such feelings are often the result of depression unconnected with any objective moral judgment of wrongdoing. But, if guilt feelings are not a good reason to facilitate suicide, the reason would have to be that we believe murderers deserve to die. If so, perhaps we ought to execute them and not restrict our involvement (“squeamishly” as Mr. Raffel might say) to easing their path to suicide.

One wonders too how many people might be drawn to murder by the prospect of such a splendidly dramatic and posturingly noble exit as Dr. Arsenian paints. And what would we do if such a person at the last moment balked at the cup of hemlock, perhaps to prolong the excited attention of the public? How many tries at “self-termination” should we allow? The moral and prudential objections to this proposal are formidable.

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