I am an optimist, or so I would like to think. I would like to go on thinking that this country has made real progress in defending human rights during my life time. However, I don’t believe that we will have made much progress in advancing criminal justice — justice for the victim, and justice for the criminal — until we reach the point of realizing that, just because human life is sacred, because it is in fact priceless, human life can neither be bought nor sold or exchanged in expiation of a crime, or to satisfy someone’s thirst for vengeance, or, as that is sometimes politely called, “finding closure.”
Karl Chamberlain killed someone, a great crime. Did he deserve to die for that, in his turn? Sister Helen Prjean, one of the most thoughtful and compassionate people I know, once said that the proper question to ask in such a case is not, “Does he deserve to die?” Well, he may, she observed, speaking in general terms. The relevant question, however, according to Sister Helen is, “Do we deserve to kill him?”
Is this the best we can do? In the last analysis, the death penalty is hardly better than “eye for an eye” justice. Until we expunge violence from our criminal justice system, we can hardly expect it to fade in our civil culture as an option for resolving a whole range of conflicts — such as the personal conflict which led Karl to commit his crime.
I never met Karl Chamberlain. I only knew him, through his letters, writings, and photos, at one remove. His death, however, brings me the closest I have come to knowing an executed human being. In January 2009 the legislature of the State of New Mexico will once again be asked to consider legislation to abolish the death penalty. I find I have renewed determination to do what little I can to make abolition a reality, at last.
A statistic, another execution in the State of Texas, is one thing. The death of a person, one I at least knew of, who had a voice, a mind, and a heart — that is quite something else.