Tuesday, December 10, 2013

When Punishment Is a Crime

You may have heard about the recent execution of Joseph Paul Franklin, the white supremacist serial killer. There were TV and radio news stories about it for various reasons.
Shortly before Franklin being given a lethal injection of pentobarbityal, a district judge issued a stay of execution. But that stay, based upon use of the new drug for the first time, was overturned by a federal appeals court and then upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. So, Franklin was put to death at Bonne Femme, Mo., early on the morning Nov. 20.
Franklin (b. 1950) was executed for the 1977 murder of a man outside a St. Louis synagogue in 1977. Altogether, he had been convicted of eight murders—and had been blamed for 14 others between 1977 and 1980 in what was called “a bid to start a race war.”
In addition to the homicides, Franklin shot and wounded “Hustler” magazine publisher Larry Flynt in March 1978 and then civil rights leader Vernon Jordan in May 1980. Franklin’s execution was in the news in the days before his capital punishment partly because of Flynt, who is now 71.
Flynt, whom I recently saw described as a vulgarian (which seems to be an apt description), is opposed to the death penalty and voiced his objection Franklin’s upcoming execution in the TV interview.
I have had very little respect for Flynt, who has spent most of his life peddling pornography. He began publishing his trashy magazine in 1974. Just four year later he was shot by Franklin, who was incensed by the interracial photos he saw in “Hustler.”
Flynt was left partially paralyzed with permanent spinal cord damage and in need of a wheelchair. An overdose of pain killers caused a stroke; he recovered but has had pronunciation difficulties ever since. That was his condition when I saw him on TV last month.
In that interview he said, “I find it totally absurd that a government that forbids killing is allowed to use that same crime as punishment.”
While I have no sympathy for white supremacist murderers, and while I find Flynt’s career reprehensible, I have to agree with what Flynt said in opposition to Franklin’s execution. What good did it do—especially after all these years?
Franklin was only 27 when he killed the man for whom he was killed—36 years later at the age of 63. He was sentenced to death in Feb. 1997—and then it was 16½ years before he was executed. Why kill him after all that time?
On the night before his execution, supporters of Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (MADP) held a candlelight vigil for Franklin on the steps of a church in St. Louis. MADP, whose board includes several religious leaders from various Christian denominations, is scheduled to hold another vigil at noon today in Springfield.
Today’s protest is because the execution of Allen Nicklasson is scheduled for tomorrow (Dec. 11). Nicklasson (b. 1972) also committed a heinous crime and has been on “death row” since 1996. One of his accomplices, Dennis Skillicom, was executed in May 2009—the 67th in Missouri since 1989.
In interviews just a day or two before his execution, Franklin emphasized that he no longer has feelings of hate for blacks or Jewish people. He also said, “I would like to have a chance, though, to make amends for what I've done. I’d like to get out and do a lot of good for people.”
Especially if that was true, his punishment was a crime.


  1. Here are comments from local Thinking Friend Milton Horne, posted with his permission:

    "Thanks for taking on such a difficult topic. I do not disagree with you, except with respect to the judgment of Flynt, that such punishments are absurd. Absurdity suggests the absence of rationality, and I think that from an economic standpoint it is calculatingly rational.

    "Relying upon a book by Robert Nelson, 'Economics as Religion, we see that a free market system (speaking in ideals, of course) relies upon a lot of "social capital" to work. Part of that social capital consists of an environment of trust , which, like religious faith itself, is one of the unquantifiable ingredients of such social capital. Such criminals cut at the very root of that trust, the very basis of that unquantifiable social capital, when they commit such heinous crimes.

    "Whether the punishment actually can be shown to prevent similar crimes (we know statistically it does not!), it does have the psychological effect, I suspect, of reestablishing the trust of the community by modeling reciprocity, itself a key feature of our notion of economic freedom.

    "There's nothing absurd about it, then, when we consider how central to our moral worlds our economic assumptions are. Diabolical and immoral, yes; absurd, no."

    1. Milton, thanks for your thoughtful comments.

      I was interested in your line of argument, and I appreciate you pointing me to Nelson's book, which I have not read.

      Just a couple of quick responses to what you wrote: if capital punishment is necessary to restore trust in society, it doesn't seem that it is very effective to execute someone in 2013 for a murder committed in 1977.

      As to Flynt's use of the word "absurd," I think you make a good point. But I found at OxfordDictionaries.com this definition of absurd: "wildly unreasonable, illogical, or inappropriate." And, although I'm sure he didn't spent a lot of time thinking about the meaning of the words he was using, it was the inappropriateness of capital punishment that Flynt was particularly speaking against.

    2. Then, this response from Milton:

      "True, with respect to the slow timing of such executions. I suspect that the economic argument of Nelson is something analogous to the slowness of Godself to bring about true reciprocity. That has only very minimally and gradually caused persons of religious convictions to doubt God's justice, though.

      "The irony of Flynt using the term absurd is that he is one who has himself capitalized upon a free economy, taking the notion of freedom to such an extent that it contradicts the very values that establish the social capital that makes that economy work. Only someone as cynical as Flynt could make such a statement.

      "I highly recommend Nelson's book, though."

  2. Local Thinking Friend Eric Dollard makes the following comments (posted here with his permission):

    "I read today in 'The Week' that support for capital punishment in the U S has slipped from 80 percent in 1994 to 60 percent now. Capital punishment is banned in the European Union and Canada, where it was banned in 1976. The last executions in Canada were in 1962, although a May 2013 poll showed that 63 percent of Canadians want the death penalty reinstated. They obviously live too close to the U S."

    1. Thanks for your comments Eric.

      While it is encouraging to those of us who oppose capital punishment to see the downward trend of support, it is still a bit disheartening to realize that it is still favored by a 60-40 margin.

  3. Question: Guess what the United States has in common with China, Iran, North Korea and Yemen.
    Answer: They are the world leaders in the use capital punishment.
    Numbers of Executions in 2010
    China (2000+)
    Iran (252+)
    North Korea (60+)
    Yemen (53+)
    USA (46)
    (Link to source)

    1. They say a person is known by the company he/she keeps. Is that also true for a country?

  4. Dr. Thomas Howell, another (like Dr. Horne) Thinking Friend who is a professor at William Jewell College, sent the following comments by email and consented to them being posted here:

    "I agree with your conclusion, but probably differ with you as to how to arrive there. Although I have moved back and forth on the issue over the years I have never been totally able to convince myself that capital punishment is always, always wrong.

    "To cite an obvious example, I would have had Hitler hanged (after a trial that laid out his crimes) without a qualm of conscience. I have not been able to get around a belief that there are those who have forfeited the right to live (allow me to set aside the issue of who those individuals are for another time).

    "It seems to me that your position requires you to hold morally culpable all states that have ever executed anyone for anything.

    "What bring me to your conclusion is that the way capital punishment is administered in our society is insane. To execute someone after holding him for thirty years is ridiculous. There is hopeless inconsistency in who is subject to execution—it depends on their location, socio-economic status, etc.

    "The argument that it could somehow be a deterrent collapses from several angles under any rational examination. Further, we as a nation are clearly deeply troubled by this—the current flailing around to find suitable drugs obtained from mysterious suppliers to execute murderers painlessly could easily be the basis for an on-target absurdist drama. There is the obvious problem for my position in determining who has and who has not truly forfeited the right to live, once we move beyond Hitler type cases. And so on.

    "You would say the system should never exist. I would say that it is beyond repair. Whether it is morally repugnant or just a farce it is time for it to go. On that we can agree."

  5. Local Thinking Friend David Nelson sent the following comments by email and then wrote, "Please post":

    "Thanks for your thoughtful words about capital punishment. It is hard to believe we continue to call ourselves civilized when continue to use capital punishment. We know it does not deter murder. We know it costs the state and nation so much. It erodes our spirit as well. Let's learn how to be human beings."

  6. And this just received from local Thinking Friend Temp Sparkman:

    "Of course, I think as you do on this wrong.One other dimension that should give us pause is that these murders are done in our collective name. We are the state that is executing persons."

  7. I just now saw that Allen Nicklasson was not executed at 12:01 this morning. A panel of federal judges stayed his execution late Monday, and I had not heard that when I made this posting early Tuesday morning.

    1. And today's news reports that Nicklasson was executed last night. So do we feel better now that he was punished for his crime. Of are we citizens complicit in the crime of his punishment?

  8. Bro. Leroy, I have shared with you in the past my rejection of capital punishment as any kind of civilized crime deterrent. It seems to me far more to be a society's method of escapism. We execute someone whose actions we abhor and instead of dealing more with the causes leading to these actions, we eliminate the perpetrator. In the process as noted in other replies, we have sought "civilized methods" and extended appeals neither of which has served much in the way of justice.

    Emotionally I would like to eliminate the child molester, the murderer, the rapist, the elder abuser, and perhaps a host of others. The question implied by Dr. Howell is what pulls me up short. Who decides which crime, being so horrendous, demands execution as a punishment? I personally have no patience with random vandalism. That is a reflection of an attitude that says, "I can do something you don't like and you can't stop me, and we both know my actions serve no other purpose!"

  9. I am a strong advocate against capital punishment, but I have just recently read of two cases where do-it-yourself justice created a big furor, and may shed light on why capital punishment came about in our history, namely to ward off vigilantism.

    Bernhard Goetz case (December 22, 1984)

    “Goetz . . . was never told that [his] the mugger [from his previous encounter] was eventually jailed after committing another mugging. Goetz decided to buy a gun, having lost faith in a legal system that appeared to offer only mediation between muggers and their victims.”

    (A Wikipedia article also states, “The incident has also been cited as a contributing factor to the . . . successful National Rifle Association campaigns to loosen restrictions on the concealed carrying of firearms.”)

    Ellie Nesler case (1993)

    “In her defense, Ellie declared that her son had been so distraught over being abused that he was vomiting and incapable of testifying against Daniel [Driver]. She feared that Daniel would go free, and she lacked faith in an inept justice system that had allowed a sexual predator with a history of such behavior to remain at large and continue his crimes. Ellie’s case provoked a national debate on vigilantism . . .”

    Diamond, Jared (2012-12-31). The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? (Kindle Locations 1730, 1735-1738, 1882-1883, 1887-1889). Penguin Group US. Kindle Edition.

  10. Well, it seems everyone reading this blog is opposed to capital punishment. My take is that some people do deserve death, but that the process of capital punishment actually damages the society that inflicts it. We keep chipping away at the death penalty due to its problems, but we Americans never seem to figure out that the problem goes all the way through it. We have moved executions indoors, we have eliminated the most obvious methods of execution, namely hanging and shooting, and just generally tied ourselves up in knots. We just do not get it!