What do we really know about the death penalty?

September 16, 2015

“I couldn’t stop thinking that we don’t spend much time contemplating the details of what killing someone actually involves.”

Bryan Stevenson writes this in his 2014 memoir Just Mercy, which details his decades of experience representing and exonerating people on death row. Here he is referencing the discomfort he observed as the prison guards charged with carrying out the death penalty actually did the deed. We rarely see those moments of human conflict, but more than that, we live in a place where in more than half our states, it is legal for the state to execute a citizen; yet most of that process is veiled in secrecy or hidden by cultural assumptions.

“The state has transformed executions by moving them inside and away from mass observation,” writes Daniel LaChance in a 2007 paper which examines the last meals and last words in the U.S., particularly in Texas.

These are highly ritualistic acts that serves to show the humanity of the state through the transference of that humanity onto the condemned. Perhaps America is able to sleep a little easier knowing that a man on death row is allowed these last dignified moments before execution.

These last moments and meals are rarely so cinematic. As we probe each other for the most decadent last meals we would choose for ourselves, last meals served rarely live up to these high culinary expectations. In Oklahoma, an inmate’s last meal cannot exceed the cost of $25. In a number of other states, meals must be prepped in the prison kitchen with available ingredients or chosen from the prison menu. In 2011, Texas did away entirely with requests for last meals.

The devil is often in the details, and that’s surely the case with the death penalty. How can we examine death row as a pop culture icon? A cost saver? A political tool? A sign of our humanity?

From the data points to the diary entries, we have a lot to learn.

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