The State of Missouri executed Allen Nicklasson last night, December 11, 2013, for the murder of a good Samaritan on I-70 in 1994.
The purpose of this inquiry is not to defend or applaud the act of execution, but to review in summary fashion, the arguments posed on both sides of the issue. The purpose is to break down the motivations under and behind these arguments and to see if there might be one principle or interest that trumps all others and points the way to some conclusion that’s fair for all.
The inalterable fact today is that Nicklasson is dead.
Some proponents of the death penalty, who also believe in an after-life (as a majority of Americans do), hold a vision of hell as being a place of fire, smells, head-splitting noise, eternal starvation and isolation in the darkest dark, For them execution is the first step in a process that will punish the criminal in a manner he deserves. The problem is that this vision of hell, supported or not by scripture or other sources of information, is a matter of faith and not of observation or experience. As faith is that subjective something, ineffable and precious in the heart of the believer, it is a subjective truth, but not necessarily a universal truth, agreed to and accepted by all.
In accord with some other proponent’s vision of hell, execution might grant the criminal a free ride to a less threatening place, where the sinful soul is put on ice for a timeless time and, through the mercy of an infinitely merciful Deity, ultimately allowed to return to the light. This result would comfort some and insult others, and for no reason, really, since neither can offer anything but their faith as proof that the end result would be as they project it to be.
Again, the State of Missouri executed Nicklasson last night. He’s dead. The physical body that remains is now an inert mass of carbon based molecules, breaking down at various rates of speed. It will all turn to ash in a crematorium, but the man, the soul, the energy, the monster, whatever, who committed the awful crime (and it was a cruel and senseless murder) is gone. The question, then, is whether any state, any sovereign entity, should be allowed the specific power to execute persons for certain crimes.
The competing interests are as follows: Those in favor say yes, because the death penalty will deter others contemplating doing the same thing. More specifically the death penalty will be the ultimate deterrent for the convicted felon.
Those against will argue that the penalty, itself, is not now and never has been a deterrent. Murderers will murder no matter what the consequences. Murderers like Nicklasson don’t think they’ll ever get caught, that they’ll ever be executed in Missouri or Texas or anyplace else. They know it’s a long road between the act and the consequence, and that too much can happen in the future to affect the consequences of what they do today.
Those against will also argue that no matter what one might project onto the afterlife of a killer, real punishment can only be doled out here on earth over a murderer’s lifetime in a locked cell without luxuries or freedom. There the murderer will endure the slow movement and the utter heaviness of a wasted existence. Such a view is bleak, however it assumes the killer has a soul that’s not been so twisted by nature or nurture, pathology or upbringing, as to be incapable of feeling the pain of remorse. It’s very difficult for psychologically “normal” people to appreciate the fact of that social pathology which exempts certain people from any sense of guilt or responsibility for their actions. Ironically the innocent and wrongly imprisoned suffer far more than the guilty and correctly imprisoned person.
All of which raises another crucial point. The execution of Nicklasson was a final act, a terminal event, an act from which there is no appeal, no opportunity to review and amend. Nobody gets a second chance to take back an execution. Dead is dead.
One assumes that a person in favor of the death penalty would not be in favor of the execution of an innocent and wrongly convicted person. Even the strongest proponents of the death penalty would be hard pressed to accept the collateral damage of executing a few innocent people in order to be assured that the “truly” guilty get the needle. However, to favor the death penalty, one would have to have complete confidence in the criminal justice system and wholly trust the wisdom of lawyers, judges, and jurors. They would have to be that confident or adopt the grim view of execution without considering its unintended consequences. To hold such a position one would have to ignore the work of the Innocence Project and The Centurions who have been responsible for the release of many innocent persons who’d once sat on death row.
Punishment at any cost also runs contrary to both the spirit and letter of the Constitution and Bill of Rights. Those founding documents carved out a new and high ground in criminal justice in direct contrast to our European forebears. The principle is this: the innocent’s life is primary and precious and any system of law governing same must err on the side of letting some guilty go free in order to spare the innocent.
There’s a cultural argument pro and con, as well: Those who oppose the death penalty argue that the United States is one of the last “civilized” countries to carry out executions in the new millennium. They argue that older, and perhaps “more civilized countries” (Europe) who’ve experienced the problem and resolved the issue uniformly come down on the side of banning the death penalty. They present themselves as objective examples of an advanced western civilization and urge the conclusion that they are where the United States should be.
In response to the European Option, proponents argue any number of points: First, Europe should mind its own business. The “less civilized” United States of America saved them several times in the last century, continues to finance NATO, is a sovereign nation and has the right to conduct itself as it so chooses. Second, the extensive freedoms Americans enjoy come with responsibilities, and where citizens fail to be responsible, there will be some leakage at the corners. In short, Americans are free, freedom can get messy, and the states need laws like the death penalty to keep a lid on the generative chaos.
Then there’s the issue of different state laws and the states, themselves. The punishment for murder in Texas (death penalty) is different than the punishment for murder in Arizona (no death penalty). In fact Nicklasson was executed in Missouri for having killed a good Samaritan in Missouri while under a life sentence in Arizona for two other murders he committed in Arizona on the same night. The conflict of state laws, particularly with regard to criminal sentencing is a complex law school course and can only be visited briefly here. The central issue is this: If fifty sovereign states can’t agree among themselves as to what the appropriate punishment should be, how can any citizen ever be certain of the validity and essential morality of any conclusion achieved after personal study and reflection.
The above only emphasizes how difficult the problem is, and perhaps reason dictates that the degree of difficulty argues more for caution than for an all out war to support a position that allows for no mistakes.
Finally the entire issue is made more complex as it involves a conflict inherent in every person – the conflict between emotional reaction and reasonable response.
To illustrate, Nicklasson, admittedly an abused child and violent young man, committed murder. It was an unwarranted crime and cried out for retribution. The immediate reaction in 1994 was as hot and as genuine as any truth known more in the gut than in the brain. It was the kind of truth that kicks the adrenalin, gets under the skin and drives a third-party to fantasies of revenge, of inflicting pain, of hurting the criminal in the same way the criminal hurt or killed his victim.
This describes the expected, normal and deep seated desire for pay-back, for revenge, preferably to be served hot, quickly and summarily. People feel it, believe it and then try to dress it up in something high minded for polite company. They search scripture and quote the “eye for an eye” passage over and over again.
The desire for revenge is in people. It’s in the DNA. It’s in the hardwires, an impulse that has kept humans safe for millennia, has urged them to keep their families and their property and their societies safe. It’s not a good or a bad thing. It’s just a built-in function that at one time in our evolution might have been more useful and effective than it is today.
However, evolution has moved much of the responsibility for our response to depraved and criminal acts from the site of our emotions, where we react, to the site of our reason, where we respond. The impulse to punish quickly, painfully, remains, though over time humans have learned that the allowance for the passage of time to temper hard feelings in accord with a judicial process common to all is the better way to handle crime.
The State of Missouri executed Allen Nicklasson last night, and the debate continues as it should. Perhaps another execution, or some Governor’s grant of amnesty, or some state legislature’s repeal or passage of a death penalty law, will elicit another article to address this issue in more depth. Until that time the above merely attempts to illustrate that the arguments pro and con have their respective and sufficient merits to keep the debate alive for time to come.
By Michael Hogan