The Moral Universe – Death Penalty Must Go


This is not about race, but it is about the moral universe.

On Wednesday, March 19, 2015, a man named Cecil Clayton was executed in Missouri despite the fact that he did not meet Missouri’s criteria of understanding why he was being executed.

Cecil Clayton shortly before his execution

Cecil Clayton shortly before his execution

In the early 1970s, Mr. Clayton was severely injured at the sawmill where he worked. A piece of wood flew from the saw and lodged itself in his head. In order to save Mr. Clayton’s life, surgeons had to remove about 20% of his left frontal lobe. This is the area of the brain where impulse control, anger management, and other executive functions are made. But the hole in Mr. Clayton’s brain did not allow him to use these functions as you or I would do.

He could see the toll that the injury’s aftermath was taking on his relationships. He sought help because he knew he had episodes of uncontrolled anger and he didn’t know why he was so angry.

On a fateful day in 1996, a police officer was dispatched to the Clayton home on a call of domestic violence. Mr. Clayton, with a pistol in his hand, met the officer in the driveway and, before he’d even got out of the car, Mr. Clayton shot him dead.

This tragedy was only compounded by the state of Missouri’s refusal to look at Mr. Clayton’s traumatic brain injury as a mitigating factor in administering the death penalty.

clayton brain

A scan of Cecil Clayton’s brain shortly before his execution

A child can look at an MRI of Mr. Clayton’s brain and a normal brain and see that there is something very wrong in the former. Time had not healed Mr. Clayton’s injury, but made it worse. By the time Mr. Clayton’s execution date came around, he was unable even to get food from a kiosk in the prison; inmates had to assist him.

Missouri law says that an inmate, in order to be executed, has to be able to understand why he is being executed. Mr. Clayton’s lawyers put in a last-minute bid on Tuesday, March 17, to the Supreme Court to stay the execution. This did not happen.

If you Google Cecil Clayton’s name, you will come upon many debates about the ethics of putting people with brain injuries or developmental disabilities to death. But is that the right conversation to be having? Shouldn’t it be, “Why are we still putting people to death in the US?”

Study upon study has shown that the death penalty is not a deterrent to crime. More studies have shown how much more expensive execution is, because of appeals, than a sentence of life in prison is. Other “developed” nations no longer practice execution; I can’t say offhand from a revulsion of judicial murder or because of the economic and social issues tied up with it.

I have gone back and forth through many reasons for not executing prisoners. My first reason was the lack of the chance for redemption, but that ignored the fact that innocent people have been executed.

I had a recent discussion with a co-worker about the trial of the surviving Boston Marathon bomber. It is clear that the prosecution would like to see a conviction with the death penalty attached. So people who do not agree with the death penalty were not allowed to sit on the jury. Only people who would find the death penalty “appropriate” in certain cases are serving on that jury. In other words, the jury is stacked.

My co-worker does not call it stacked and argues that one could find the death penalty appropriate at times and not at others.

I cannot agree. I despise the acts of terrorists; I mourn the lives of their victims; my heart aches for the sorrows and injuries of the survivors. I still do not believe that the death penalty is “appropriate.” I also do not understand how one could find it justified in one case and not in another.

Many families of murder victims agree with me. I have a friend whose sister was murdered; she is against the death penalty. The father of a woman killed in the Oklahoma bombing befriended Timothy McVey’s father and sister of the man convicted. He sat with them while their son and brother was executed.

Many family members of people whose lives have been taken become the fiercest advocates against the death penalty.

I don’t justify my anti-death penalty stance anymore; I don’t give reasons for being against it anymore. The death penalty is of a piece with our litigious, vigilante, war-loving, nuclear weapon-loving society. I will not align myself with it. It has no place in the moral universe, that’s all.


4 thoughts on “The Moral Universe – Death Penalty Must Go

  1. Shel

    You left out revenge seeking.
    We seem to have a new immediate death penalty active now. Police who out of fear use their guns before their heads, especially if the target is black. Ugh. US society is so sick.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Just getting to this Cynthia and I agree with you. No death penalty, no way, ever. And another reminder of why – the release this week of falsely accused death row inmate Anthony Hinton.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s