“Life is the great primary and most precious and comprehensive of all human rights . . . whether it be coupled with virtue honor, and happiness, or with sin, disgrace and misery, the continued possession of it is rightfully not a matter of volition.” — Frederick Douglass
Today, many people across the DC region, who lived in absolute terror for nearly a month in the fall of 2002, celebrate the imminent demise of John Allen Muhammad, also known as the DC Sniper. Despite the fear I felt at the time and my sorrow over the lives that were stolen at the hands of Muhammad, I am not among those pleased by the news. Based on the subject matter of my blog, it should come as no surprise that I strongly oppose the death penalty and view the use of execution as a quintessential human rights violation. I hold this belief for a variety of reasons, but perhaps mostly due to my own basic beliefs that all people are entitled to a right to life, that the value of human life is most precious, and that the death penalty completely devalues this gift. Even the most deviant and destructive members of civilized society have the right to be alive, albeit behind bars. Likewise, I believe that humans inevitably lose a part of their humanity when they decide how and when to take the life of another for the primary purpose of reprisal, without taking into consideration the possibility, no matter how remote, of that human’s chance of rehabilitation or redemption.
I remember the terror that Muhammad and his partner Lee Boyd Malvo (who was 17 at the time) inflicted on me. In October 2002, I was a new college grad who had just officially moved to the DC area from my small hometown in Pennsylvania. After the first few random shootings, I started to feel afraid. I recall sitting with my now-husband at a bus stop in Alexandria City; just the two of us, in the dark, with our backs to trees, protected by only a thin wall of plexi-glass. We were convinced that we were going to die. A week later, my husband and I went to the Honda dealer in McLean to buy his first new car. We followed the salesman’s zigzag walking pattern and made sure to shield ourselves between the cars. At one point, the salesman darted back to the main building to grab some paperwork and my husband and I were left in the middle of the lot only to stare at every white van in sight. Crouching between the cars, I thought about how uncertain everyone’s lives had become. The woman who was gunned down outside of the nearby Seven Corner’s Home Depot shopping center was a former teacher of my husband and his friends when they were in DoD high school in Europe. The bus driver who was shot and killed was a close family friend of my husband’s co-worker. After two more weeks, I called my Mom and told her that I was really scared because like most people in the DMV, I was sure I’d be shot. Later, she told me that it was the first time she ever really heard fear in my voice. Two days later, Muhammad and Malvo were apprehended.
In total, 10 people were killed, 3 were seriously injured (including a child) and an entire metropolitan region was shook. Malvo escaped the death penalty since he was a minor at the time the shootings were committed. Muhammad was taken to Virginia Beach in order to receive an impartial jury. There, he was sentenced to death for killing Dean Harold Meyers in Manassas, Virginia.
In 2008, China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia were the only countries who imposed more judicially sanctioned deaths than the United States. While the United States largely remains a retentionist country, 139 others have abolished the death penalty, either in law or in practice. Moreover, The International Criminal Court cannot and will not subject any criminals to the death penalty, even those who committed genocide, war crimes, and the most egregious crimes against humanity. Across the Atlantic, the European Union made the abolition of member states’ death penalty practices a pre-condition for entry into the bloc. Our North American neighbors, Mexico and Canada, will not extradite individuals to the United States unless guarantees are made that the death penalty will not be sought. Perhaps most telling, the American Bar Association called for a death penalty moratorium through their long-standing Death Penalty Moratorium Implementation Project.
In the United States, the connection between “the death penalty” and “human rights” is not often made. Rather, when speaking of the death penalty, US policy makers and politicos often refer only to the constitutional rights or civil rights of the individual, which pushes the human rights aspect to the periphery and narrows the death penalty debate to one focused on race and class alone. I ask everyone, no matter your stance, to consider the death penalty as intersecting with the sphere of human rights. I also challenge everyone to consider the sort of society in which you prefer to live; one that is concerned solely with “retribution and deterrence,” as stated in Gregg v. Georgia, or one committed to assessing appropriate punishments, promoting rehabilitation and recognizing the possibility of personal reconciliation.
If you are interested in learning more about the death penalty as a human rights issue, please read the following in addition to the hyperlinks provided above:
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