Warning: The following is long winded, likely incoherent, rife with rhetoric and logical fallacies, and in no way resembles a well thought out argumentative essay. Yes, I plan to
hacknslash edit it at some point, but until then feel free to flame and critique to your hearts content!
Since my teens I’ve had a fascination with True Crime stories, criminology, and forensic psychology in general, satisfying my curiosity with novels, documentaries and biographies, and much of my life has been spent as a supporter of the death penalty. Until now, my wholehearted belief in “an Eye for an Eye” has not wavered, and I admit that, even though I was only 17 at the time, when Ted Bundy was executed on January 24th, 1989, I laughed at the jokes and felt confident that justice had been done. It’s interesting to note that my first introduction to serial killers had been as a young teen via Ted’s story, written so eloquently by his long time friend Ann Rule. No book before or since has left an impression on me the way that this one did. Perhaps it was my youth and innocence so sharply challenged by my first real comprehension of the pain and suffering that one human being can inflict on another, or perhaps it was the utter disbelief that someone so brilliant, with a future so full of promise could take such an unlikely path, all while appearing warm and affectionate to those who love them, yet eventually shattering the lives of those same people who believed in them.
We are a society that, more often than not, holds science in as high esteem, or higher, than religion, and we believe that there should be a sound, logical explanation for everything we encounter. So what could possibly be more terrifying than not having any way to discern who is a threat and who is not? Since my first foray into the world of crime stories, I’ve studied psychology, criminology, and read several books, accounts, and case histories of killers. In particular, those stories where there had been no reason to suspect, no warning from the perpetrator that he or she was capable of committing acts so unspeakable many of their fellow citizens would accept nothing less than justice in the form of state sanctioned murder. I am convinced it is in part the fear and helplessness of not being able to predict who these perpetrators are before they commit their crimes, that drives society’s need to make them disappear once we do know who they are. As long as they live, as long as they are visible, they are constant reminder that we may have failed as a society, that we may not be safe, secure, and in control of our own destinies. They are constant reminders that science may not hold all the answers we seek, or perhaps more frighteningly it is because they reflect those dark, unspeakable human qualities and aberrations we fear most in ourselves.
Growing up just outside Vancouver, B.C. during the infamous Clifford Olson years, in the same neighbourhood he had been sighted, in the same town where he had abducted, tortured and murdered his young victims, all us children were terrified. Mostly of the unknown, because we of course just couldn’t grasp what the true reality of his crimes were. We knew only that our parents, teachers and neighbours were terrified of one man, a man who would later be arguably the worst child serial killer Canada has ever seen, and I learned as early as 8 to fear the “bad men”, the predators lurking in dark corners and alleys. As a very young child I can clearly recall the stories passed around from my great uncle, a retired prison warden during the good ol’ days when corporal punishment in prison was both legal and desired, stories usually resulting in laughter at the “justified” suffering of an inmate long forgotten. One in particular stands out. The only part I can recall is about inmates crying in agony from a paddle with holes in it that when smacked against their backsides, created wounds to which salt or iodine were applied if the inmate had been particularly “bad”. Always at the conclusion of the story the adults around me laughed and I inferred it was because the inmates somehow “deserved it”, that they had been bested by a “just and lawful” man. What their crimes were I’ll sadly never know, but I will never forget understanding that it was ok to hurt someone if they had broken the law, and that convicts should be beneath contempt or at least beneath the rest of society. It is the ubiquitous message ingrained on us by the media, religious leaders, and politicians, but is it really what we want to teach our children? Should this be the message we send to the next generation? My answer today is no, but it was not always this way and I will elaborate on the journey that led me to changing my opinion.
As a Canadian, I’ve often been frustrated in the past by the lack of interest here in reinstating Capital Punishment, never more so than during the Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka case. That two people could commit rape, torture, murder, and dismemberment , much of which was caught on tape, and then settle into life in prison, or as in Homolka’s case, a mere 12 years in prison now free and out in society due to a botched plea deal, was completely unacceptable to me. When the Bernardo murder trial was over, I reasoned that there could be not one shred of doubt that Karla and Paul had committed the heinous crimes whose victims included Karla’s own teenage sister, and so surely there could be no convicted criminals more deserving to die by legislated murder. If there were any niggling doubts in my mind about other offenders convicted with little or no physical evidence receiving death sentences in other countries, or at minimum life without the possibility of parole, I certainly never allowed myself to examine them
Fortunately, I have never been a victim of violent crime, and have never had to deal with the agony and devastating aftermath of having a loved one abused or cruelly taken from me. I am certainly no expert on any area of this subject matter and speak purely from a layperson’s point of view. My writing is entirely anecdotal. An average person with an average middle class life and wonderfully normal family, I consider myself extremely lucky to have been blessed with the life I have. I cannot imagine it any other way, and so my discovery of another world online where loved ones of those incarcerated meet, support and comfort one another in an atmosphere of honest dialog and unquestioning acceptance, left me stunned. It never occurred to me that the criminals we lock away and forget about actually had people who continued to care about them. Naive doesn’t begin to explain my own beliefs about the people behind bars, and the people who love them. Was I ignorant? Perhaps. Indifferent? Absolutely.
Nothing however could have shocked me quite as much as the discovery that so many people, mostly women, were actually seeking contact from inmates they had never known before their incarceration with the intent to form friendships, romantic relationships, and even marriage. Certainly, from my knowledge of the Ted Bundy and Bernardo cases, I knew that high profile offenders had their so-called “groupies”. Girls and women who fall in love with the handsome, charismatic killer, fantasizing them to be their handsome bad boy who will sweep them off their feet, but I dismissed them as unusual and more than a little disturbed. However, I wasn’t prepared to find that the sheer number of seemingly average women so intent on writing to low profile, “unglamorous” inmates. The sheer number of demands prompting dozens of websites to pop up and fill the need, offering a way for inmates to advertise for pen pals, friends or lovers, and potential candidates to pick from profiles, and in most cases, pictures and cheesy pick up lines from the inmate themselves. Good grief, a prison dating service? Were they serious? In truth yes they are serious, and it’s as normal to those involved as my life is to me. I spent countless hours over many days and weeks reading through literally thousands upon thousands of posts made by the pen pals, friends, family, partners and spouses of those incarcerated, some of whom are doing a mere year or two for theft, minor assault, robbery etc., others serving life without possibility of parole or LWOP as they call it for more serious crimes, and even those currently sitting on one of America’s infamous Death Rows for capital murder. The more I read, the more I began to feel I could understand their motivations, even if I myself find it most distasteful.
At first it was a kind of morbid curiosity that kept me reading, and I do admit to feeling the kind of superiority that comes from believing my life was so much “better”, and that I was witnessing a whole new level of dysfunction I never imagined. I also freely admit feeling that it was somehow disrespectful to the victims and their families for these pen pals to write the people who had assaulted or murdered their loved one. In truth, it was so foreign to me that I simply couldn’t stop reading. I became so engrossed in their stories that I hardly noticed when I became uncomfortable in a different way, when it started consuming my thoughts more and more because it was challenging far too many of my long held beliefs about crime and punishment, and indeed my beliefs about the inmates themselves.
I doubt there are many among us today who will refuse to acknowledge there are innocent people in prison and even death row. Since the advent of DNA profiling, so many people have been exonerated when their cases are re-examined with the new technology that wasn’t available during their original trial and conviction. More alarming is the number of people who have been exonerated from death row, many of them having served far too many years, under the worst possible conditions awaiting an execution they did not deserve, only to be released with little hope of rebuilding the lives so unfairly ripped away. One visit to the website www.innocenceproject.org should be disturbing enough to force each and every one of us to rethink our stand on the death penalty. However, despite all of this, I remain conflicted and perhaps even uncertain of my own convictions on the subject because I am neither strictly “For” nor strictly “Against” the death penalty. It’s clear that proponents on both sides agree it has to be one or the other, and as such, I find there is no place for me to add my voice to either side of the debate. The best way to describe my stance is to say, “It Depends”, but I am leaning more and more towards “Against”.
Firstly, I can state with zero hesitation whatsoever, that if anyone harmed my child or my loved ones, I’d have no problem ensuring they met a painful and timely death, regardless of the legal consequences. The mere thought of someone hurting my family brings nothing but feelings of a need for the ultimate revenge, and so I can relate very well to those victim’s families who want the perpetrator to die, and I question whether their right to exact revenge should be challenged. So this is partly why I am always amazed when I see a victim’s loved one forgive the perpetrator, and in extreme cases go so far as to ask for leniency. This I simply couldn’t begin to comprehend, and yet it forced me to ask myself why not? The most powerful example of this comes from one case here in my hometown, one that will never leave me.
When my son became seriously ill with a very rare condition last January, there was one doctor in the emergency room who I will never forget. It wasn’t just that she was able to diagnose him so quickly; it was her genuine concern for him, her gentle kindness, and sincere concern for all of us that touched me the most. A little over one year later and my son had long since fully recovered. Then in February, the news came that a brilliant, popular, young cardiologist had murdered his two young children, and had failed in his own suicide attempt. He had stabbed them each at least 16 times while they slept, and despite being a medical doctor had not given them any sedatives. It was unthinkable, and up to this point, it seemed as though the entire province held it’s breath hoping the autopsy would prove the media was wrong, that he had at least given them that small mercy. Of course, it did not, and when that piece of news became public, it was fortunate he was in custody under psychiatric suicide watch.
The news reports stated he was a doctor at the hospital my son had been cared for, and that his wife, the children’s mother, was an emergency room doctor there. The two were in the early stages of separation, with divorce a foregone conclusion. Sadly, it would turn out to be the same doctor who had cared so much for my child that lost her two beloved children at the hands of the one person who should have protected them with his own life if need be. It was incomprehensible to me. I felt sick, and saddened beyond belief. How could this happen to such a kind, gentle, loving person? I was however, wholly unprepared for her response. The most beautiful letter appeared in the paper a few days later, written by a grieving mother to her precious lost babies, thanking them for being in her life, and assuring them she would be strong and continue to live and love in their memory until she would see them again. It was signed simply “Maman”.
I do not believe anyone reading that letter could not have been taken aback by the courage, love, strength, and overwhelming faith communicated by her so poignantly. Moreover, in the days that followed, she displayed a strength and courage I don’t believe I could ever possess, going so far as to ask the public to pray for her husband, the man who had done this unspeakable crime, describing him as the most wonderful father anyone could know. I was aghast because without a doubt, in her place I would be consumed with vengeance, hatred and despair, destroying any chance of future happiness. It was then I had an epiphany if you will, that perhaps these things happen to wonderful people because they have the strength and courage to shine like beacons, and give us something to aspire to as human beings, showing us that love and courage can overcome any tragedy no matter how cruel. Yes she will grieve for her lost family forever, but her life will one day be filled again with love and peace, because she will allow and welcome it with an open heart, her soul free from the burdens of anger and hate. When we are filled with rage and vengeance there is simply no room for anything else.
So there I was again, forced to question the obsession with getting even, eye for an eye, and the notion of justice that rises from them. I asked myself whom does it hurt? Not the offender, for too often they have no remorse and in fact may even be further gratified by the suffering of yet more victims obsessing and agonizing daily. I concluded it hurts no one but the person consumed by the hatred and belief that they can never again be whole unless they can exact revenge in kind, and yet I have still not found one story of such a case where the victim or their family found true peace or freedom in the death of the offender. Why then do we continue to feed the belief that vengeance is desired, even necessary for closure and moving on? Would it not be better to help guide these victims to peace and emotional freedom? To help them once again find love and happiness in their lives, while cherishing and never forgetting the loved one lost? Do we have the right to try and ask them to do this? Do we have the right not to? Ah but all of this is much more difficult, time consuming, and expensive than flipping a switch or injecting lethal medications to appease the public demand for “justice”.
The spectacle surrounding executions, in particular the high profile offenders, is among some of the most distasteful human behaviour I have witnessed. Do we not look back with contempt and disgust at the circus atmosphere that surrounded the beheadings of the French Revolution, or the medieval families that would bring their children and a picnic to watch the beheadings or hangings? Does nobody see that we are doing exactly the same thing we criticize our ancestors for? We seem to have no problem whatsoever putting ourselves in the victim’s shoes, in their families place, and rationalizing that as long as they want revenge it is justified, their right. But nobody seems willing to put themselves in the offender’s shoes, or in his/her family’s place and rationalize that regardless of what they did they are still human and have some humanity still, no matter how small; that by killing the offender we are forcing another family to endure the devastating loss of a loved one. Why? Because we have the authority to say they’re undeserving of love? Perhaps, but I would argue it’s because we are incapable of offering both condemnation and compassion at the same time, believing the two are somehow mutually exclusive. We seem to be unable or unwilling to see both sides of anything, preferring to have strong convictions to one or the other, as if somehow being able to acknowledge merit to both sides, negates both sides.
All of these realizations forced me to consider the rights of the offender, even though I couldn’t remember a time I didn’t firmly believe that once you committed violence against another person, you didn’t deserve any rights at all. So what changed? For me part of it came from reading the firsthand accounts from inmates, their families, and the corrections officers who live with the aftermath of our justice system every day. Their experiences are riveting, unique, and offer precious insight into the humanity that does exist behind bars alongside the monstrous and heinous evil. Unfortunately, so few journalists ever bother to report on the mundane daily life in prison, but human complexity does not simply vanish because we don’t like the chilling reality a wonderful father can murder his children in such a horrific way and yet not be a raving, raging monster every waking moment thereafter. As a society, we want and need to believe the goodness was a façade, and that the evil was always there, but that’s a gross oversimplification. There is a dichotomy that exists within each of us whether we like it or not, because we are all born with the ability to sink to the lowest depths of human aggression, hatred, and suffering, or rise to incredible heights of human altruism, compassion, and healing. The question really becomes one of choice. As adults, every single person must choose their own path, decide what is right and make a conscious choice not to infringe on the rights of someone else to achieve their own desires. Of course, many would argue a majority of the criminally convicted committed their crimes because of mental illness, psychopathology, lack of education, etc. These are indisputably valid points but the issue I take with this position is the idea that not everyone who experiences or suffers from these ‘circumstances’ end up breaking laws, hurting others, or becomes a danger to society. However, while there is no doubt in my mind this argument has merit in certain circumstances it is beyond the scope of this blog post to address it further. I will merely make small notation that I believe the current provisions in place for taking these circumstances into account during trial and sentencing, need to be brought up to date based on the prevailing research by experts far more qualified than I to comment on it.
The question of whether the death penalty is justified and whether those convicted should have rights that infringe on those of the victims family and their right to receive retribution, is one I believe has no right or perfect answer. In the end, for me I can think only of one mother, who despite losing her two little children, her two most precious gifts, was still able to find the strength and courage to love and forgive. I am humbled by her ability to inspire with faith and willingness to accept the cruel reality of her children’s deaths, while still acknowledging that this in no way negated the good that had existed within the person who caused it. She has set the most extraordinary example of what we can and should aspire to as compassionate, evolving human beings. I can only hope that the questions her actions have forced me to ask and answer about my own beliefs, will inspire others to look beyond their own and ask whether or not they have ever bothered to consider that maybe, just maybe in our quest for justice, we have fallen victim to the same kind of dogmatic tradition that dominates religion.
Aristotle once wrote that “The law is reason free from passion,” and I agree with this in principle because it is the kind of closed minded dogma that comes from passionate devotion to single ideas, so common in religious doctrine, that prevents us from looking deeper. The moment we stop questioning, opening up dialogues, and continually evolving, searching for, admitting, learning from, and moving on from our mistakes, I would argue we ourselves have committed a grave injustice. But, most importantly, I believe it is the prevailing unwillingness to take a critical look at the system we have and acknowledge that while it’s pretty good, it could be so much more, so much better. This is what’s preventing us from working towards discovering real solutions that serve all parties concerned. Personally, I believe the victims, their families, the convicted and their loved ones, and those that must work on both sides of the justice fence, deserve more than the rest of us turning a blind eye to the humanitarian issues and the crumbling judicial system that aggravates them. Perhaps if we all took the time to look around at what we have and demand more, we would all end up with a system we can be truly proud of. Who knows? We may even end up with one that helps a greater number of those that pass through its doors rather than simply lock them away, and best of all, in the process we might learn how not to be afraid of questioning the status quo when it no longer serves us the way we want and need it to.