We must never forget that the death penalty is permanent.
At the age of 43, Paula Cooper has walked out of prison a free woman, and her story gives us the opportunity to consider calmly and thoughtfully a life-and-death debate usually engaged in the heat of the moment.
If events had unfolded according to the original scenario, this conversation would not be possible. Cooper was, at age 16, the youngest person on death row in America after her conviction for stabbing to death 78-year-old Gary Bible teacher Ruth Pelke and robbing her of $10 and stealing her car. But there was international protest over the execution of someone so young, and the Indiana Supreme Court eventually downgraded her sentence to 60 years. She got out after serving not quite 30.
By all accounts Cooper is not the same person she was at 16. The crime she committed was especially brutal – she stabbed the old woman 33 times with a butcher knife. But in the intervening years, she has turned to education, earning a bachelor’s degree in 2001. She has been befriended by Bill Pelke, grandson of the murder victim.
Assuming Cooper has become a wiser and more decent person as well as a better-educated one, if is fair to ask how harshly we should punish the new, better person for the sins committed by the former, less deserving one. The question takes on added urgency in her case because she was only 15 at the time of the crime, presumably not quite yet capable of an adult’s consideration of actions and consequences. But the question applies to everybody potentially facing the ultimate penalty: If there is such a thing as redemption, when does society have the right not to offer a chance at it?
Or should that not even have anything to do with our views of capital punishment, the overriding goal of which is to protect ourselves from the predators of this world? We can forgive people and still hold them accountable for their actions.
We must never, ever let ourselves forget that capital punishment is permanent. There is no going back to wonder what if. This country is big on second chances, but when someone is executed, a second chance is being denied someone forever. It’s a terrible, awesome power to grant to a government that we sometimes doubt can even pave the roads competently.
But that impermanence affects the other side of the debate, too. Just because we’re told “life without parole” is a good substitute for capital punishment, that doesn’t mean “without parole” will always be there. Circumstances can change. Anybody not yet in the grave can end up back among us.
For good or ill, need we say?