Lock 'em up and throw away the execution

    Former Illinois Gov. George Ryan decided on Jan. 11 to commute the death sentences of all inmates on Illinois’s death row. He had previously instituted a moratorium on the use of the death penalty in 2000, following the publication of a report by students at Northwestern University that proved the innocence of 17 men wrongly convicted and sentenced to death. Gov. Ryan’s actions put him on a moral plane higher than most of us can ever hope to ascend to. His decision was absolutely the right one.

    As a Republican, it must have been a very difficult and personal decision to go against the beliefs of so many in his own party. The national party leader right now, President George W. Bush, is one of the most open supporters of the death penalty in the history of the United States, evidenced by his authorization of the executions of 152 inmates during his term as governor of Texas. Ryan’s bravery in taking a stand against what he believes to be morally wrong should be commended. Unfortunately, as no good deed goes unpunished in American politics, threats to Ryan are probably rolling in already.

    Many people trace the authority for the death penalty to the Bible, but they are mistaken if they believe that religion is the source for approval of these actions. In the generations following the writing of the Bible, religious sources, including the greatest rabbinic thinkers and even Jesus, put out terms that made the death penalty almost impossible to carry out. But even if religion were the root of authority, that would not matter in the United States. The separation of church and state restricts the influence that religious life can have in public affairs.

    Since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, Illinois has executed 12 people. It is unfortunate that Gov. Ryan could not act sooner to prevent his state from committing this act at all. The government, in the name of the people of the state, commits what amounts to a “”legalized”” murder. Many do not want the execution done in their names. They do not support it, and were never consulted as to whether or not they wanted these actions carried out on my behalf. Thanks to Governor Ryan, no one in the state of Illinois will have a person killed in their name.

    Capital punishment does not work in society as a deterrent to committing crimes. No study has concluded that the threat of execution in any way reduces the chance of a person committing a crime. The death penalty is expensive, especially the long, drawn-out appeals that are mandated and automatically filed immediately following a sentence of death being handed down. On an immediately local level, right in UCSD’s backyard, the death penalty was clearly not a deterrent to David Westerfield, who was recently sentenced to death in San Diego for the murder of Danielle van Dam.

    The United States is the only major western industrial power that still employs the use of the death penalty. The use of it puts us in league with the communist People’s Republic of China and Iran, a member of President Bush’s so-called “”Axis of Evil.”” The use of capital punishment strains relations with Canada and western Europe, since their laws do not allow many of them to extradite a criminal to another country if there is a possibility that they will be executed. During the height of the military’s search for Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, CNN reported that if he were to be captured, bin Laden would be better off turning himself over to a British unit than to an American one, and in that way guarantee that he could not be executed.

    The Eighth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States dictates that “”cruel and unusual punishments”” shall not be inflicted. There have been many arguments over the years that the death penalty is both cruel and unusual. Various methods of execution have been employed, from hanging to firing squads to the so-called “”more humane”” methods of gas and lethal injection. These methods are considered more advanced because they kill efficiently, ensuring the victim dies quickly and presumably causing him less pain.

    Other methods, like the electric chair, have been dispensed with and are considered cruel and unusual due to events like the disastrous execution of Pedro Medina in Florida in 1997. Witnesses reported that flames shot out from behind Medina’s mask during the execution, and that he continued to breath and twitch for several minutes following the electric jolt being sent through his body. There is no question that this kind of torture is cruel and unusual.

    But thanks to Gov. Ryan’s very appropriate and brave actions, there will be no Pedro Medina in Illinois. Instead of being strapped into a chair and having the life shocked out of him, a criminal would instead sit in a cell, awaiting the day when he can die on his own and face whatever god he believes in and whatever afterlife he believes awaits him. Every state in the Union should follow Illinois’ lead and abolish the death penalty, starting right here in California and in Texas, the state with the most executions since 1976. Gov. Ryan’s actions are commendable, and I applaud his bravery. We would be better off as a society if the death penalty were left to the history books, instead of current events.

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