Richard Van Wickler: Death penalty sets offenders free

  • Alabama’s lethal injection chamber at Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, Ala., on Oct. 7, 2002. AP file

For the Monitor
Thursday, March 15, 2018

There is no one universal truth among all people. The issue of whether the death penalty is appropriate justice depends on one’s personal philosophy, frame of reference and even religion, all of which are often influenced by personal experiences with a victim, a perpetrator or even politician.

For me, I believe that the penalty of death preemptively sets an offender free. I would rather someone serve a life sentence in prison, whereby I know they are being punished, versus the uncertainty of what comes after an execution.

I have experienced the pendulum swing of my personal feelings about the issue of the “penalty of death by the state” in my professional career as a Department of Corrections superintendent and in my personal convictions.

What I have concluded is this: No one here on Earth knows what it is like in the “afterlife.” No person has ever died and lived to tell about it.

The theories are many. Several people have well-rounded faith that in the afterlife there is a heaven and a hell, and that when the state kills someone, the deceased will go to the “right” place.

Others believe that the universe, in its vast expanse and power, has somehow created us and will accept our return – not our consciousness, but our energy. In essence, death is the same as what we remember before we were born. Our energy returns to the universe, and our consciousness ceases to exist.

While there are many theories, none of us really knows what it is like. In some sense, we are all sentenced to death. One hundred percent of us will get there.

On the other hand, with 30 years of experience as a correctional practitioner, I know what incarceration is like.

My hope for a sentence is that it will include an aspect of punishment. I know that prison will deliver on this promise. I do not believe that death will. Again, there is no one universal truth for all people.

I believe that the penalty of death sets an offender free. They escape the misery of who they are and what they have done.

I want dangerous offenders who harm others to be incapacitated, and I want them to live an uncomfortable existence with restricted liberty. I want them to serve a penalty that I know is being served. Death, in my view, is eternal early release, far too early, with no possibility of revocation.

Now, if I am wrong, and there is a hell that the offender “deserves” for all eternity, in keeping with many beliefs, well, then the offender will inevitably get there. Justice will be served.

My truth is that life in prison permits the government to ensure a full sentence of punishment, whereas the penalty of death leaves the punishment uncertain by setting the offender “free” and costs the government significantly more resources.

It should also be noted that more than 200 studies demonstrate that the death penalty does not have a deterrent effect, either specifically or generally for the criminal mind. People do not take their finger off a trigger because they fear the death penalty. In arguing the death penalty, let us finally set the issue of deterrence aside, and acknowledge that this argument is primarily about one’s moral, philosophical and religious views.

Incapacitation, which we all want with a convicted offender, can be served through life in prison without parole or death. Retribution is sufficiently achieved with a life of punishment and discomfort.

The “eye for an eye” form of retribution can never fully be achieved. No offender will be put to death with the same pain and horror that his victim and their family endured. The hope that death is worse than life for such an offender at the hands of the state is little more than hope itself, as none of us know what awaits us on the other side.

I do not know from experience what death brings for any of us. When it comes to the punishment of an offender for a capital crime, I want the state to have control over them and know that they are being punished for all the remaining days of their life – not gamble on the fact that death will set them free or not.

(Richard Van Wickler is superintendent of the Cheshire County Department of Corrections.)