|Getting strapped into "Old Sparky"|
It seemed like a bright idea at the time, but I'm having doubts that this argument can withstand scrutiny. If it turns out to be exploring a dead end, perhaps others can see a way through. Anyway, here it is.
The death penalty is wrong for so many reasons and should be abolished. Zen practice can (suddenly and/or gradually) result in a fresh view of the world, the unfolding of wisdom and compassion, and a commitment to the Bodhisattva path. Inmates on death row should have the option of intensive Zen training with a qualified teacher. Their progress could be verified by masters with recognized dharma transmission and by experienced psychiatrists. The ultimate goal is their return to society.
The penal system deters crime, rehabilitates offenders and protects the public. At least that's the theory.
The death penalty doesn't deter crime. States in the USA without the death penalty have consistently lower murder rates. In the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, A recent study concluded:
The findings demonstrate an overwhelming consensus among these criminologists that the empirical research conducted on the deterrence question strongly supports the conclusion that the death penalty does not add deterrent effects to those already achieved by long imprisonment.
And of course the death penalty doesn't rehabilitate offenders - at least, not in this lifetime.
The death penalty may protect the public, but at great cost. The Innocence Project reports that, despite apparently compelling evidence of guilt at trial, 300 inmates on death row have been exonerated based on DNA [as at September 29, 2012]. One wonders how many of the 78 people executed in the USA in 2011 and the thousands awaiting execution (3,189 as at January 1, 2012) may be innocent.
Another purpose of the penal system is retribution. Killing a murderer is supposed to make society in general, and the family of the victim in particular, feel better. Personally, the killing of Troy Davis, Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden all just made me feel sick.
Religious beliefs don't seem to make taking a stand on capital punishment any easier. If you believe every word of the Bible, then you will also support the death penalty for Adultery - Men and Women (Leviticus 20:10), Blasphemy (Leviticus 24:16), Breaking the Sabbath (Exodus 31:14-15), Being a Disobedient Child (Exodus 21:15 and Leviticus 20:9), Homosexuality - Men Only (Leviticus 20:13), and Not Being a Virgin on Your Wedding Night - Women Only (Deuteronomy 22:20-21), whereas Jesus is said to have said "turn the other cheek" and "if you did it to the least of these, you did it to me." Some Christian denominations that do not oppose capital punishment, like the Roman Catholic Church and Southern Baptists, still decry its use for vengeance. Many others outright oppose it.
You would think that Buddhists would be on side, but there is even disagreement about whether Buddhism forbids the death penalty. In general, Buddhist groups in secular countries such as Japan, Korea, and Taiwan tend to take an anti-death penalty stance, while in Thailand, Sri Lanka, and Bhutan, where Buddhism has strong political influence, the opposite is true. Just as the First Precept against killing other beings seems to be circumventable to permit eating animals because they taste good, it has been gotten around, it seems, to sanctify killing people for the greater good, whatever that means.
So the choice has to be a personal one. I hope you will forgive my biased phrasing of the question: "Is the priceless gift of a human nervous system and consciousness, through which we can awaken to our interdependent, compassionate nondual nature, and in a sense, through which the universe can realize its own existence, something we have a right to take away from another human being just because she or he has done it to someone else?"
Can a murderer be cured? I think the answer is 'yes', at least sometimes.
In his Message Supporting a Moratorium on the Death Penalty, His Holiness the Dalai Lama said:
Before advocating execution we should consider whether criminals are intrinsically negative and harmful people or whether they will remain perpetually in the same state of mind in which they committed their crime or not. The answer, I believe, is definitely not. However horrible the act they have committed, I believe that everyone has the potential to improve and correct themselves.
Is Zen training a way to do it? Again, I think the answer is a qualified 'yes'. Even though the justice system is supposed to weed out those who are not guilty by reason of insanity, there will be those on death row who are deeply disturbed - either originally or as a result of "death row syndrome." Can they be reached by a skilled psychotherapist or a wily Zen master? There is only one way to find out.
Ultimately, how can apparently cured murderers be let loose on the streets? Many, I suspect, are, or have learned how to be, skillful con artists, capable of faking spiritual transformation and psychological healing. That's where even more skill is required to detect the fakers. For psychological issues, it probably means highly qualified psychiatrists. For Zen issues, the obvious choices are masters who have received full dharma transmission, i.e. those who have been through the process of "it takes one to know one".
This is only a brief and I’m sure extremely naive sketch of a concept, not the blueprint for a solution. Many, many practical challenges await. In fact, it sounds more like the description of how an advanced civilization might treat its criminals in a science fiction novel, set in the distant future or a distant galaxy, rather than West Livingston, Texas.
But then who ever thought we would walk on the moon?
On the subject of how we relate to 'evil' people, Meredith Garmon has written some great posts over at Lake Chalice, including Primary Sociopaths and Secondary Sociopaths, Answer Evil with Justice and Community and The Wound that Cuts Through Every Human Heart.
May I also suggest exploring the Prison Dharma Network website if you haven’t already?
Photo: An African-American prisoner is prepared for execution in "Old Sparky," Sing-Sing Prison's infamous electric chair. Photograph taken circa 1900 by William M. Van der Weyde. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.