Editorial: Punishment, not vengeance, is the law's goal

Jul. 26, 2014 @ 03:23 PM

Legally, the death penalty in America is supposed to be about punishment, not retribution.

But we as individuals don’t often seem to be able to separate those ideas.

Retribution is the principle of “an eye for an eye.” Someone should suffer to the extent that he caused suffering.

Punishment is more dispassionate. If you shoot someone in the leg, you are not shot or otherwise injured in return, you are sent to prison for a period. The sentence is decided not by the victim but by a third party with no connection to either side, a duly appointed or elected judge.

Our entire legal system is set up to maintain a dispassionate system of determining guilt or innocence and handing out appropriate punishment. That’s the meaning of “Justice is blind.”

Crime victims may not always feel that the punishment is sufficient, but most of the time it is close enough that people by and large feel it works.

At the extreme end of crime, however, people have trouble with the dispassionate part.

One example came last week in Arizona, where the execution by lethal injection of Joseph R. Wood III was botched. In 1989 Wood walked into the body shop where his longtime girlfriend and her father worked and shot the father in the chest, then shot his girlfriend as she begged for her life. We know this because the woman’s brother-in-law was hiding under a car in the shop.

The woman’s sister, Jeanne Brown, was a witness at Wood’s execution. The next day, she stood before reporters and cameras and said that whatever happened to Wood, however badly the execution went off, whether or not he suffered during the nearly two hours that it took for him to die, he deserved whatever came to him.

“He gave his life up when he killed my sister and my dad 25 years ago,” she said. “This day was not about him. The real pain is losing your sister. Losing your father.”

Who can’t sympathize with that? Why shouldn’t someone so cold-blooded as Wood be made to feel some measure of the pain he inflicted on those he shot, if not also the pain he inflicted on those who suffered emotionally from his actions? Why should we care at all what happened to him?

There’s a reason that movies in which the hero exacts revenge are so popular, along with phrases like “Don’t get mad, get even” and “Kill them all and let God sort them out.”

Turning the other cheek is not emotionally satisfying. Forgiveness brings little immediate gratification, and if the person who wronged you doesn’t even seem contrite it can even feel like forgiveness is surrender.

You don’t have to care about Wood himself to understand why we as a society can’t give in to those impulses.

Our laws do not ask that people forgive those who wronged them, but they ask that people turn the issues over to a dispassionate authority that can mete out punishments that have been determined by our societal values.

Our society says death is an appropriate punishment for certain heinous crimes. But our society also says that torture is not appropriate, so that when death is determined to be the appropriate punishment it should be quick and painless. Your punishment is that you forfeit your life, period.

Torture as a legal punishment is a barbaric concept. It is practiced in the world, but no place that Americans would consider a model to emulate.