Last night, the state of Virginia executed convicted D.C. sniper John Allen Muhammad. Many commentators had said (as they always do), that this final act was really about “closure” for the victims’ families, and yet, none of those family members admitted to feelings of closure last night, and a few denied it outright. I suspect that the only true instance of closure last night belonged to Muhammed. Yes, I know that he deserved it, but it still made me feel uneasy, and more than a little bit conflicted.
Don’t think that I’m just someone who can’t stomach the death penalty (there are plenty of crimes I think are quite suited for it, especially where children are involved). I believe that the reason I, like many Americans, feel sympathy for the condemned killers at the time of their execution is more logical. When the crimes are committed, and fresh in our memories, we surge with horror and outrage. We imagine what the last moments of the victims must have been like, and try to empathize with their families. At that moment, our sense of justice cries out for retribution against the perpetrator.
However, the wheels of due process grind very slowly. Gradually, over time, our outrage fades, new crimes replace the old, and we forget the faces of the innocent. At the time of trial, our attention may be regained briefly, but only with a fleeting, passing glance – certainly not with the same intensity as it had been at the time of the crimes. By the time the killer is sentenced to die, our emotional state is approaching something more akin to ambivalence than righteous fury. The process has begun.
The process of emotional dissociation accelerates throughout the ensuing years, as appeals are filed, motions are lost and requests for new trials are denied. Time passes. As the final appeal winds its way toward the Supreme Court, and the date of execution draws closer, the media once again becomes conscious of the story, but the perspective has changed. At this point the stories do not revolve around the horrific nature of the crimes, or the suffering of the victims and their families, but on the condemned’s struggle to survive.
In the final weeks leading up to the execution, we are peppered with professions of innocence, lawyer’s statements that detail the several and serious errors from the original trial and the testimony of credible-sounding people who claim that the convicted person could not possibly have done the thing of which he is accused. We listen, we read, and slowly, imperceptibly, we find our imaginations caught up in the plight of a killer to live just one more month, one more week, one more day.
During the final few days, we become increasingly uncomfortable as it becomes apparent that the condemned is, in fact, doomed to die. We might wonder how one faces the idea that no matter what he does, his life will suddenly end in a now easily quantifiable number of hours. Does he try to stay awake, squeezing out every conscious hour of life that he can? Does he stare at the clock, watching his life inexorably drain away? So much is made of the last meal; how can a man that will be killed in a few hours enjoy anything, much less food? Who could have an appetite at a time like that?
And then, the day arrives. We are busy living lives that have a tomorrow. Still, at moments throughout the day, we may see a clock and quickly do the math: Three hours until he dies. Again we wonder: what is he doing? What is he thinking? Is he keeping his composure? More to the point, could I keep my composure?
The hours pass and we are made aware of a man’s sudden death by a scrolling text at the bottom of a television screen. We consider this for a moment and then return to more immediate concerns, such as whether Daniel will finally get voted off of The Biggest Loser. For us, life goes on, albeit a little more gingerly than before, for a few days anyway, until this death too passes from our conscious memory.
Clearly, it is the buffer of many years’ time that allows our sympathies to be transferred from the victim to the killer. Not that long ago, justice was swift, catching up the convicted while the blood lust of the people was still fully aroused. When the condemned met his fate, there was a sense that balance had been restored; few tears were shed for a person who had done such terrible things, things that had not yet passed from common recall. A primal need for revenge had been satisfied.
I do not long for a return to the days when crime, conviction and consummation all took place within a period of weeks. Justice cannot be accomplished where doubt remains, and my unease is hardly worth mentioning when compared with the need to be absolutely certain of the guilt of the criminal and the guarantee of due process.
I do, however, find myself wondering: Is this what justice is supposed to feel like?
Honestly? I hope not.