New Reads and the Death Penalty

Bill Neinast

SIPing is not all bad.  Sheltering In Place actually has some good points.

All this free time has resurrected an old leisure time pleasure for me.  Now when the same old, same old on TV and radio drives me bonkers, I turn to the lost art of reading. 

Actually, reading is a misnomer.  Because of fading eyesight, I have turned to one of those new fangled inventions called audio books.  I can lean back in an easy chair, turn on the book, and let someone else pronounce those long foreign names and places.

I just finished “Unbroken” by Laura Hillenbrand, the book of the month for the local book club.  Now I am listening to “Getting Life” by Michael Morton, this year’s read for Lifetime Learning in Washington County.

Both of these are true stories separated in time and distance by a quarter century and thousands of miles.  There is, however, a common theme that raises a serious philosophical question.

“Unbroken” is the story of Louie Zamperini, a Californian who was a medal winner in track in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.

The book, however, is about his experience in WWII.  He was one of two survivors of a bomber crash into the Pacific Ocean as a result of engine failure.  He and his companion survived for over 40 days in an inflatable life raft with only the rain for drinking water and a few raw fish and birds that they were able to snag by hand. 

They even survived huge sharks constantly circling their raft and a machine gun attack by a Japanese bomber. The quick thinking and American ingenuity of the two downed airmen in patching the bullet holes in the inflated raft is amazing.

Unbelievably, the real trauma began when the raft washed up on the shore of a Japanese held island.  Few bodies could ever survive the punishments and beatings that Louie suffered during his years of confinement.

One guard was particularly mean and brutal.  He seemed to vent most of his ire on Louie, an international star.  The POWs called him The Bird.

At one time, Louie and several others plotted to kill The Bird.  Two atomic bombs dropped on Japan, however, removed their desire to take the evil man out.

The Bird escaped capture and trial as a war criminal and became a successful businessman in post war Japan.  Subsequently, Louie returned to Japan, forgave The Bird, and then  led a very successful life himself.

Now jump forward a quarter century to Williamson County, Texas, where I now reside.  Here in the 1980s, Michael Morton was convicted of killing his wife, Chris.  He was sentenced to life in prison.

After 25 years in confinement, Morton was exonerated (on the facts, not on a technicality) and is now a free man and an excellent writer.

I will not delve further into “Getting Life” because it is the year’s read in Washington County.  It is mentioned here because one of the discussion questions for “Unbroken” is: “Louie joined a plot to kill The Bird.  Was he justified in doing so?  Would that have been a moral act?  Do you think Louie could have found peace after the war if he had killed The Bird?”

In essence, this raised the question of whether the death penalty is moral.  What if Morton had been sentenced to death instead of life in prison? Even with all our lengthy, expensive, cumbersome appeal process, he probably would have been executed before his exoneration process was completed. 

So here’s the perspective.

What is accomplished with a death penalty?

People have been killing people since the beginning of recorded history of the human race.

Murder became commonplace with Cain killing Abel.   There have been billions of such atrocities ever since.  During the same eons there have been billions of public executions to “deter” further murders.

To many observers, it appears that executions  do not deterr murders.  It is a rare day when there is not a single murder in most of our big cities.

102 countries have abolished capital punishment.  The United States is one of only 58 that still execute prisoners.  Of the 50 states, Texas appears to be the most hard core for retaining the death penalty.  Why?

Public executions do not deter murder.  We are still among the top tier of nations with higher than average murder rates.

So is it moral to keep taking the risk of executing innocent men and women like Michael Morton just to satisfy a perverted sense of justice?  

Sleep on that question tonight.



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