Revenge Has No Place in the Justice System

Supporters of capital punishment sometimes claim that death-penalty opponents would change their tune if a family member became a murder victim. They say the opponents would want to take revenge by having the murderer executed.

Their argument is refuted by the example of Coretta Scott King, widow of Martin Luther King Jr., and many other relatives of murder victims.

Mrs. King opposes the death penalty because it contributes to a cycle of violence. Her husband, a champion of nonviolence, frequently denounced this cycle. He taught that responding to problems with violence and hatred increases evil in the world.

As he said: “The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. . . . In fact, violence merely increases hate. . . . Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.”

Under his reasoning, the death penalty is not a solution to anything. Instead, it is a violent and hateful act that makes the world worse.

He also pointed to history’s lesson that vengeance can decimate nations and individuals. Revenge often produces a chain of destructive acts, with each side taking turns avenging an injury and calling the result justice. The outcome is an unending, internecine cycle of violence.

For this reason, revenge and hatred should be considered base emotions ranking on about the same level as greed and envy. And for the good of individuals and society, such emotions need to be kept under the control of rational thought processes.

Most people wouldn’t want parents or schoolteachers encouraging children to be vindictive and hateful. It makes no more sense for the government to possess and encourage those attitudes.

But that’s exactly what government does by using revenge in the justice system. Its example teaches the public that malice, retaliation, and violence are appropriate means of handling problems. As a result, people are likely to apply the lesson in their daily lives.

Moreover, the victims of revenge and their supporters often develop bitterness and a desire to strike back. Many of them may destructively vent those feelings in society. In the case of prisoners, this often occurs after they are released, particularly if they were abused or unnecessarily humiliated in prison.

Because vengeance causes such problems, it’s not surprising that no reputable study has ever shown that capital punishment deters murder. In fact, states using the death penalty have higher murder rates than those that don’t.

Of course, society needs to protect itself from criminals. This is done by improving law-enforcement methods, correcting social conditions that contribute to crime, incarcerating those who are a danger to society, rehabilitating criminals who aren’t incorrigible, and deterring people from becoming lawbreakers.

But when government goes beyond the steps necessary to protect society, and sinks to the level of using vengeance and hatred, the wrong message is sent. And the results are destructive.

Mrs. King has also criticized capital punishment as being racist in its application, as making irrevocable any miscarriages of justice, and as setting a dehumanizing example of brutality unworthy of a civilized society.

Additionally, she says the death penalty actually harms families of murder victims. “The death penalty adds to the suffering of the surviving family members and loved ones of victims,” she explains. “For them, revenge and retribution can never produce genuine healing. It can only deprive them of the opportunity for forgiveness and reconciliation that is needed for the healing process.”

This means prosecutors often unwittingly cause additional pain to families of murder victims. They tell them that their anger and sorrow will be allayed when the state imposes capital punishment on the murderer.

The families are thereby set up for years of frustration and pain as appeals drag on. Each court proceeding can reopen their emotional scars. All the while, they hold the unwarranted belief that the death penalty somehow possesses curative powers.

If the execution is eventually carried out, many of those families find it to be a severe disappointment, particularly in terms of improving their emotional state. Some come to see that its main effect was not to heal them, but to inflict similar pain on innocent relatives of the executed prisoner.

Thus, contrary to what some prosecutors and politicians say, executions are not “healing.” When the death penalty is recognized as having no real therapeutic qualities, relatives of murder victims can find that true healing is not produced by hatred and revenge.

Healing is more likely to be found through positive acts. These can include seeking to understand the causes of violence, working to help correct the social conditions that contribute to crime, and comforting the victims of crime and their families.

Mrs. King’s views on capital punishment are shared by persons who have suffered similar losses and are members of the national group Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation (www.mvfr.org). This group opposes the death penalty in all cases.

Its members are convinced that, as Martin Luther King Jr. also said, “The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everybody blind.”