Case highlights the ultimate ironies of capital punishment

Oscar Abello

Nine years ago Daryl R. Atkins and a partner robbed and killed an airman from Langley Air Force Base in Virginia. Three years later, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it would be unconstitutional to enforce capital punishment on Atkins, on the basis that he was considered mentally retarded. Recent evidence has arisen, however, not that he is innocent, but rather that he is no longer mentally retarded.

“Oddly enough, because of constant contact with the many lawyers that worked on his case,” psychologist Evan S. Nelson, wrote in a report in November, as quoted in the New York Times. “Mr. Atkins received more intellectual stimulation in prison than he did during his late adolescence and early adulthood. That included practicing his reading and writing skills, learning about abstract legal concepts and communicating with professionals.”

So Daryl R. Atkins has improved himself as a human being while incarcerated, and his reward? Death.

Virginia prosecutors are now dragging Atkins through the legal process once again, in an effort to enforce capital punishment on the once-retarded murderer. The legal argument is logical: If he isn’t truly retarded, then he must suffer the same consequences as any other murderer. The situation is unique in the sense that Atkins’ mental capacity was not determined until after being sentenced to death. Usually, a judge must decide before the trial if the accused is mentally retarded or not.

Atkins’ legal team is now demanding that they get the chance to prove he is retarded. Atkins silently concurs. What Atkins may not understand is that he is being forced to degrade himself in order to keep his life, a situation no one should never be placed in. The lawyers around him, both prosecution and defense, surely realize this, but one side shamelessly tries to put him to death, and the other to degrade his humanity. We are left to question, is it Atkins on trial for being retarded, or is America on trial?

About 65 percent of Americans would say that they favor imposing the death penalty. But that number drops to about 45 percent when asked if they prefer the death penalty to life in prison. Only about 35 percent say that the death penalty deters criminals from committing murder. If a majority of Americans don’t think capital punishment deters murder, then why else should we support it? Revenge and retribution are personal motives, not social forces. Just as society should not enforce personal beliefs, it should not indulge personal motives. Other countries have already realized this.

Most of Europe, including all of the countries you’ve probably heard of, has abolished the death penalty. Only 78 countries still have capital punishment, the most significant being China, India and the United States And if you were to look up the list of the rest of the countries, I don’t think it would boost your national pride. The most shameful fact of all? Only the United States and Somalia still permit execution of minors under special circumstances. And for the record, there is no real government in Somalia; they’re pretty much in anarchy. We, the self-proclaimed model of perfect democratic governance, share common ground in public policy with an anarchy.

So are we guilty of being mentally retarded? In the industrialized West we are the only country still putting people to death. If we are the true leaders of the world, then it seems wrong that we are still behind on this one issue. There is a chance for change; it’s in the numbers. Most people don’t believe murder will deter murder. All that’s needed is a re-awakening of what society is meant to be. Not that we will ever be perfect, but the abolishment of the death penalty is a needed step in that direction.

Why should we still believe in the righteousness of capital punishment? There are alternatives. Last October Archbishop Desmond Tutu spoke here at the University about the use of restorative justice, of confession and reconciliation, rather than the retributive and punitive justice of capital punishment. The goal would be to end the cycle of violence that exists, a cycle that is in fact codified by law.

Part of our call as Christians is to end the cycle of violence. Remember the Gospel of Matthew, chapter five, verse seven: “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy,” and verse thirty-nine, “When someone strikes you on the cheek, turn to him the other also.” The so-called “Evangelical Christian Right,” which seems to have become a dominating force in America, seems to ignore this part of the Christian message. They praise the faith of our president, but they seem not to mind his excessive enforcement of the death penalty while governor of Texas, or his willingness to continue the cycle of violence in Iraq or his unwillingness to end the cycle of violence in Africa. It seems more and more evident that America is guilty.

The story of Daryl Atkins illustrates the ultimate irony of capital punishment. Through his interactions with people, Atkins has become smarter, quite literally become a better person, more capable of understanding the immorality of his crime and feeling sorry about it. As a result of his growth as a human being, he is now being threatened with death, rather than being given the opportunity to continue his growth, and perhaps someday give a sincere apology to the family of his victim. An apology would provide much more closure than an execution.