Michael Anthony Morales narrowly averted death yesterday as the courts, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, and the public at large wrestle yet again with the ramifications, constitutional and otherwise, of the death penalty. The family of Terri Lynn Winchell, who Morales tortured, raped and murdered has been waiting for justice for 25 years. Those opposed to the death penalty have been actively protesting – again - citing the standard array of rationale for opposition; and those in support – likewise. This would have been the third execution in California in as many months. For the moment at least, it will have to wait.
My purpose here is not to come out for or against the death sentence, although I do have an opinion and it will be revealed. My angle, rather, is to examine what this ongoing debate is doing to us. The victim’s family is going through nothing that I could even begin to conceive. The press is swarming and the state is reeling. Morales? He’s still locked up and will never see the light of day. His life has been at least temporarily spared. But what about the rest of us?
Questions regarding morality, constitutionality and deterrence abound. A society that values both liberty and security is seemingly at odds when it comes to appropriate punishment in regards to violent offenders and the rights granted to them under our system of laws. We want justice - no question about it, but how to exact it remains one of a few passionately debated topics of the political, social and moral landscape today. A hot button issue to be sure.
And so the beat goes on. Every time a condemned murderer’s number comes up, the furor reignites. The arguments change little. The proponents argue that capital punishment represents justice, a deterrent and security. Opponents remain steadfast that it is not any more a deterrent and grants just as much security as life without parole and that killing a murderer is tantamount to “two wrongs don’t make a right.” Proponents claim that death in the humane fashion of the execution is better than the victim was granted. Those opposed claim that execution represents “cruel or unusual punishment.” Not much has changed of late.
In this particular case, the execution has been delayed due to the possibility raised by the defendant's attorneys and decided by the courts that the current method of lethal injection represents a potential violation of the Eighth Amendment’s guarantee against cruel and unusual punishment. Yet the delays, the uncertainty and the legal wrangling must surely be cruel in their own right. Morales was minutes away from his execution twice yesterday. In my mind, simply knowing the time, place and manner of my death, never mind the uncertainty of a last minute appeal would meet the criteria set down by the Eighth Amendment.
Then there is the family of the murdered teen. What have they done to be worthy of the same anguish? Some have argued that the finality of a sentence such as life without parole would be the closure a family needs to put this behind them. How arrogant! Who can claim to be able to speak for those who have lost a loved one to a hideous murderer such as Morales? Even those that have had like experiences have differing views on what closure looks like, if at all possible. And not all victims are pro capital punishment. In this case, there is no question as to Morales’ guilt; the law allows the penalty of death and Morales has earned this judgment in a fair trial. Yet opponents to the death penalty have been able to use Morales as a legal guinea pig to delay the adjudicated outcome for over 20 years.
Here’s where I come down on this issue. I am opposed to the capital punishment, as it stands, not because of moralistic issues, not over concerns of guilt or innocence (in this case at least) and not because of potential Eighth Amendment violations. I can’t know if it represents closure for the families, (although this legal foot-dragging certainly is extending their pain), I can’t say if the possibility of death prevents murders and I doubt that killing killers makes us any more secure. I am opposed to it because every time the day approaches that one of these monsters is scheduled to meet his maker, we go through this all over again.
I don’t care if lethal injection is cruel or unusual. It is certainly more humane than he deserves. I don’t care if Morales is put to death or not. Either way his life is and has been over. What I care about is that this process takes years and years and years and when, finally, it looks like the end is near, one more “newsworthy” delay occurs and we get to do it all over again. To those that think Morales got off, that he got himself a lucky break because he gets to live another day – well, I don’t call that living. To those that think the country is somehow a better place because the moral high road prevailed, ask Winchell’s family what they think about that. I’ll tell you what I think: Do it or don’t. Kill him or lock him up forever. I don’t care how and I don’t care if it hurts for a few seconds. Finish it and be done.