Bringing the Death Penalty to Life

The demonstrated possibility that an American can be wrongly convicted of a capital crime then stripped of the most fundamental of human and constitutional rights – the right to life – is a chilling reality. Mistakes in life and our justice system happen – for a multitude of reasons, some more unpleasant to digest than others.

But when these miscarriages result in an innocent person facing death at the hands of the state, a public reconsideration of the righteousness and relative merits of the death penalty might well be in order.

Certainly, that is what the producers of “The Exonerated,” offered at the Delaware Theatre Company through March 9, would suggest we contemplate.

The play thoughtfully shares the stories of six individuals whose lives were forever interrupted when found guilty of and sentenced to death for crimes they did not commit. It is a compelling stage effort, with rich and complete portrayals of husbands, wives, parents and children who found themselves living a nightmare with a particularly cruel and definitive end.

“The Exonerated” was written by two actors who, after being exposed to one particularly moving account of injustice, estimated these stories would make for provocative theater.

I tend to seize up when actors or creative productions attempt to impart distinctly political messages on their audiences, particularly around specific matters of public policy. My discomfort comes from the fact that a., I invariably disagree with said point of view, and b., Self-righteous pontificating is, well, boring (An entertaining preacher? Yes. Preachy entertainer? No.)

Of course, like it or not, the dramatic arts – and art in general – have a long history of taking on prickly social and political issues, a tradition as old as the death penalty itself.

Executive director Bud Martin made clear in introducing “The Exonerated” that the DTC takes no official position on the matter of capital punishment.[i] Following this past Saturday night’s performance, however,  two men – a member of the actual six “exonerated” and another who was one of what we’re told are 143 innocent people from 26 states who have been sent home from death row since 1973 – did share their deeply personal views. And a program ad by organizations advocating for Senate Bill 19, legislation to repeal the death penalty that now sits in the Delaware House Judiciary Committee after narrowly passing the Senate last year, calls on patrons to ask politicians to support the measure.

The prospect that innocent people could unfairly pay the ultimate price is certainly a powerful argument for supporters of the death penalty’s abolition. Yet it would seem secondary to two more fundamental questions – one perhaps moral, the other crassly practical – in determining whether a culture should endorse its mean application.

First, is the death penalty — the ultimate expression of violent revenge — justified? Second, does it work?  That is, does capital punishment measurably deter more murders from occurring?

The question of moral justification has been well-hashed by theologians. Religious faiths – be they Christian, Jewish or Muslim — have not offered a consistent steer when it comes to use of the sword as a punitive measure, although the Roman Catholic Church has in more recent times been consistently opposed. From a secular standpoint, the U.S. Constitution prohibits the use of “cruel and unusual punishments,” but interpretation of what exactly fits that description (Old Sparky?) has varied across our 50 states.

(Speaking of faith, it featured as an interesting subtext in many of the stories shared:  the not-yet-exonerated seeking the balm of God’s grace in their most trying times. As the saying goes, there are no atheists in fox holes, and staring at an abbreviated life on death row with an electric chair at the other end can focus the mind on questions of eternity.)

As for the efficacy of the death penalty as a deterrent, the data don’t provide a clear answer. Relatively few people are sentenced to death each year and fewer still see the sentence carried out, most of those in a handful of states. These small numbers and a range of other variables make drawing any conclusions one way or the other impossible.

For what it’s worth, I came away from “The Exonerated” with my opinion on the death penalty unchanged.  I’m opposed, for reasons somewhat idiosyncratic that would take too much space to go into here.

In any event, the play’s portrayal of genuinely uplifting stories of lives ruined and redeemed is worth the ticket. Yet, there’s no escaping that each of these cases begins with a brutal act and the grim truth that every time they get the wrong guy, a murderer walks free.

[i] Which, for reasons that include the fact the State of Delaware itself is a major funder of the DTC, is probably a good thing.

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