When Jonathan Wild was led to the gallows at Tyburn it caused a sensation in 18th century London. Executions were common for even minor infractions but this one was different.
Wild was London’s master criminal, aided by the fact he was also its chief law enforcement officer as the Under Marshall. Wild profited from fencing stolen goods and anyone who opposed him would soon find themselves accused of theft and invariably sentenced to death by the equally corrupt English judiciary.
All in all Jonathan Wild is responsible for sending roughly 40 political enemies and
accomplices to the hangman. The scandal would be one of the earliest events in
a chain that convinced the British to eventually abolish capital punishment
about 100 years later.
Then, as now, many arguments were raised against abolishment. It punishes the worst of the worst offenders and acts as a deterrent to future offenders were two of the most popular rallying cries. But then, as now, the death penalty may punish but it does not deter.
It never has.
And the counter argument raised by the shocking events of the Jonathan Wild affair, that innocent men were probably executed, is just as jarring and sobering today as it was then.
I understand those who support the death penalty. On a fundamental level, deep in the oldest part of my mammalian brain, I understand the need for retribution and even vengeance. And I also understand the need to deter the fringes of society from terrorizing me or (more importantly) those I love.
But as a rational human being I also understand that these feelings are driven by largely by fear and not actuality. If someone I loved was the victim of a terrible crime I, admittedly, would find it difficult to wish anything other than death upon the person responsible.
But that death will not deter anyone else from doing the same thing to some other innocent person. Texas and Florida are the two states responsible for the most executions in modern America. Houston, Miami, El Paso and other cities are still as violent as ever. The death penalty has changed nothing.
Instead state budgets are drained by endless appeals, paid for in their entirety by taxpayers like you and me. And there is of course still that greatest of all costs. A
conversation with any of the dozens of people exonerated from death row just in
the last 20 years will make that particularly obvious. Or perhaps you can
ask Johnny Garrett, except you can’t, he’s dead. Killed by the State of Texas
12 years before DNA evidence linked another man to the killing and rape of
an Amarillo nun.
If the rational argument of the expense or failure of the death penalty to deter doesn’t convince us to abolish it, perhaps it is just as fitting then that fear should
motivate us to do so instead.
Fear drives some of us to embrace the death penalty but it should also drive even more of us to reject it. Because while we want to punish those who have wronged us, the next person to be punished may be you or me. Maybe the prosecuting attorney was a true showman who understood how to work a jury (he wore a Ravens watch after all and I love the Ravens), or maybe it’s just been a long week and earning $10 per day is no fun. Regardless actual innocence is often irrelevant, legal guilt is all that matters and the needle doesn’t care either way.
Please support Maryland Citizens Against State Executions in its efforts to abolish the death penalty this legislative session. You may find more information at www.mdcase.org
Editor's Note: The video added to this post was shot and edited during the 2011 Maryland Legislative Session. It was added to this commentary by editor Nick DiMarco after it was submitted by the author. It shows Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott Shellenberger and Kirk Bloodsworth—the first man to be exonerated from death row by DNA evidence. The two offer their views before for and against the death penalty in Maryland.