Burning at the stake, beheading, boiling alive, crucifixion, the firing squad, the gas chamber, hanging, drowning, electrocution and lethal injection. Over the centuries, humanity has devised a multitude of ways to carry out capital punishment, the ultimate price for crime. In a variety of cultures around the world, says retired Montana State University history professor Tom Wessel, death has been the price for treason, stealing from a merchant, cutting a ship from its moorings or plucking chastity from a virgin, among a long list of other offenses. The Romans, he says, typically killed their own for the offenses of libel, arson, perjury and even “making a disturbance at night.” “Presumably, making a disturbance during the day was all right,” Wessel told about 80 participants attending a death penalty conference last weekend in Lewistown.
Wessel noted that it wasn’t until the 1680s that “graduated” punishment was established in the American colonies. While execution remained on the books for certain crimes, the new system of setting penalties for crimes based on their gravity opened a continuing emotional debate over who should live and who should die.
But the death penalty, long carried out in public places as a graphic way of deterring future criminals, is now deemed as “a process only fit for the dark of night in an isolated place” by the states, including Montana, that still maintain it, Wessel said.
But deterrence has become “a thinly disguised defense of terrorism” that allows Americans to ignore the root causes of violent crime, said University of Montana philosophy Professor Emeritus Ron Perrin, who also spoke at the conference. Calling the death penalty a “mockery,” Perrin argued that its continued use “acts like a poison in our political culture,” where one out of every 140 residents of the United States is now behind bars.
The core problems of the people who commit the country’s most heinous crimes, Perrin maintains, are poverty, ignorance, social alienation and mental illness, or a combination of all four. Pushing all this along, he adds, is a society steeped in violence. “We love violence,” Perrin said. “It’s part of our culture.”
Speaking on the other side of the spectrum was Gov. Marc Racicot, a two-term Republican who in 1995 refused to commute the death sentence of Duncan McKenzie, the first person executed in Montana since 1943. A second man, Terry Langford, also was executed during Racicot’s tenure. The governor, as he has done before, told the group that the decision to deny McKenzie’s request for clemency constituted the “most agonizing and searing analysis and self-examination” of his personal and professional life. He added he would “never choose” the death penalty if he were not elected to the state’s top office and required to follow the law.
Nonetheless, Racicot, who describes himself as a devout Catholic, also noted that commuting other death sentences to an “assured” sentence of life in prison “would be an acceptable course for me.”
“I would not have any compunction at all choosing the alternative,” said the governor, who has the power to change sentences under current Montana law. Racicot also ran into tough questioning about how being a member of the Catholic Church—which audience members said has repeatedly condemned the death penalty—fits with his decision to allow executions to continue in Montana. To the chagrin of many in the audience, the governor said he believes Catholic doctrine allows executions to take place, but only in select circumstances.
“I don’t have to balance it because I don’t find it inconsistent,” he said of the potential conflict between his faith and his actions as governor. “I took an oath to follow the law as it is, not as I would have it to be. I have never found an inconsistency between my beliefs and the law, such that I had to choose.” Racicot, who also has taken a staunch anti-abortion stance during his years in office, added that he believes a “moral people” can impose the death penalty “under carefully delineated circumstances.” Going further, the governor said he sees the death penalty as “self-defense” for the public, even though he acknowledged that executions are not “instantaneous,” like someone fending off a direct assault.
“When you act in self-defense and take a life to protect your own or the lives of others, you are completely exonerated not only in the eyes of the law, but in the eyes of God,” he said, explaining that he still believes the death penalty is a deterrent.
“If the Pope is insisting that, in fact, the death penalty should not ever be imposed, no matter what, why doesn’t he say that?” Racicot asked. The Bible, one woman told him, “does not say, ‘Thou shalt not kill, except in certain circumstances.’ There is an essential truth that’s out there. I think what we’re hearing from you is a fuzziness at the core of your beliefs.
If the Catholic Church is truly against the death penalty, Racicot said, “then why is the teaching not in plain and unambiguous language?” Michael Donahoe, a Helena-based federal public defender who served as Langford’s attorney before he was executed in 1998, told the group he believes “life is a work of art subject to continued improvement,” and that among other issues, state-sanctioned killing takes away the chance for a convicted person to change.
“Jesus didn’t kill the sick,” Donahoe said. “He didn’t kill the weak. He didn’t kill the blind. He cured them.”