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Legal News
Backing the Death Penalty: Expectations vs. Reality
Psychiatric News
Volume 37 Number 14 page 2-24
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When the historic Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia opened in 1829, it represented a new idea in criminal punishment inspired by Benjamin Rush and others to reform the criminal mind through solitary penitence, hard labor, and religion. Closed in 1971, it is now a registered historic site.

James Smith, M.D., a forensic psychiatrist in the Midwest, knows what it’s like to visit prisoners on death row.

"First you go through metal detectors," he explained. "You are then searched several times. You then go into a very small cell where the inmate is led in in handcuffs. If you agree, the inmate’s handcuffs are taken off, and the guard remains on the other side of the door while you talk with him."

What are death-row prisoners like? "You expect these people to be monsters or something, but they are not," Smith said. "They are probably more like you and me than we would like to admit."

It may appear from these comments that Smith has a soft spot for prisoners on death row, but he can see them from another perspective as well: His own father was murdered when he was a boy.

What does Smith think about the death penalty? "We aren’t getting our money’s worth," he said. "I mean, it costs some $2 million or even more to execute a prisoner, and the public isn’t getting nearly enough bang for their buck for that amount."

Bang for the buck. Settling the score. Justice. Or whatever one wants to call it. Is that the major reason why so many Americans support the death penalty? The answer appears to be yes, a number of psychoanalysts agreed at the recent annual meeting of the American Psychoanalytic Association in Philadelphia in the session "On Settling the Score: Crime, Punishment, and the Death Penalty." Smith was also present, but asked not to be identified by his true name for personal reasons related to the murder of his father.

But there are some other reasons why the death penalty is so popular with many Americans, the analysts indicated. Americans fear that if murderers are not executed, they will eventually be released from prison. They believe that it is cheaper to execute murderers than to keep them in prison for the rest of their lives. They contend that if the state does not execute murderers, then society at large will try to take revenge. And they presume that having the state execute murderers brings emotional closure to the families of victims.

Yet are these reasons justified? The analysts pondered them. For instance, does the death penalty truly lead to justice? Or might it simply be a fantasy that the score can be settled in this manner? Donald Moss, M.D., of New York City and the session’s chair, said that he believes that it is a fantasy. So did Stephen Reisner, Ph.D., of New York City: "The belief that countering violence with violence—that is, the death penalty—will relieve tension is, I think, a fantasy. It will not do this."

If murderers are kept in prison but not executed, will they eventually be released from prison? Session participants did not provide an answer to this question. However, Rogelio Sosnik, M.D., of New York City and Stephen Portuges, Ph.D., of Los Angeles indicated that the death penalty makes society feel safer than it might feel if the death penalty were not in place.

"There is a difference between getting rid of someone because they make you feel bad and removing someone because you are afraid they are going to kill you," Portuges said.

Is it cheaper to execute murderers than to keep them in prison for the rest of their lives? The answer is no, Smith said. While it costs some $2 million or even more to execute someone on death row, it costs only a few hundred thousand dollars to keep the person in prison for life.

If the state does not execute murderers, will society at large try to take revenge against them? Probably not, Moss said. The reason, he explained, is that studies have revealed that "lynching and capital punishment are independent channels of activity."

Finally, will executing murderers bring emotional closure to the families of victims? Probably not, session participants concurred. For instance, as a young woman analyst observed: "I personally do not think that the death penalty leads to closure. Before a person on death row is killed, it can drag on for years. I think that is a horrible thing to do to the families of victims."

"The loss of someone you love can be unbearable and perhaps forever," Portuges asserted. "Closure is a fantasy."

All in all, session participants gave the impression that they were more against the death penalty than for it. They did not, however, take a position on the issue or reach agreement on what should replace the death penalty should it be abolished.

For example, Portuges said, "I just had a perverse idea that is delicious—that murderers be allowed to live and that the families of their victims be allowed to confront them over and over with what they have done." However, Moss said that he found this idea sadistic.

In contrast, when Moss suggested that the idea of being kind to murderers was ridiculous, Smith pointed out that the families of some murder victims have done just that by swaying district attorneys not to impose the death penalty. But in those cases, Smith said, the families were often ridiculed by the public for being too soft and not caring about their loved ones who had been killed. ▪

Anchor for JumpAnchor for Jump

When the historic Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia opened in 1829, it represented a new idea in criminal punishment inspired by Benjamin Rush and others to reform the criminal mind through solitary penitence, hard labor, and religion. Closed in 1971, it is now a registered historic site.

James Smith, M.D., a forensic psychiatrist in the Midwest, knows what it’s like to visit prisoners on death row.

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