There is vengeance at the heart of justice — and nothing brings this out more inescapably than the debate on the death penalty. Moreover, every time the loved ones of a murder victim enjoy the satisfaction of knowing about — or watching — the execution of the murderer, it is the state which actively appeases what may be seen as a hope for revenge. Witness the spectacle of Timothy McVeigh’s execution a couple of years ago, arranged by the justice department of the United States of America. The debate on capital punishment was opened again, rather dramatically, when the governor of Illinois, Mr George Ryan, commuted the sentences of all 167 “death row” inmates in his state. Coming from a conservative Republican who had once staunchly supported the lethal injection, this has immense legal, political, philosophical and human implications — not only for a nation-state obsessed with the idea of vengeful retaliation, but also for an estimated 90 countries around the world (including India) where capital punishment remains lawful.
The remarkable thing about Mr Ryan’s public defence of his own decision is the way it shifts the terms of the debate. His argument is not ultimately philosophical or sentimental, but a profound critique of the specific ways in which the “American system of justice” is meted out. His rationale is founded on a relentlessly empirical examination of fairness and unfairness — a mortal unfairness arising from prejudice, caprice, arbitrariness and error. The number of innocent men freed from Illinois’s death row stands at 17, which, for the governor, is “an absolute embarrassment”. He also shows how the death penalty continues to be inflicted upon the weak, the poor, the ignorant and against racial minorities. Half of the nearly 300 capital cases in Illinois had been reversed for a new trial or re-sentencing. Of the more than 160 death row inmates, 35 were African-American defendants who had been convicted or condemned to die by all-white juries. More than two-thirds of the inmates on death row were African-American. An overwhelming majority of those executed in the US are psychotic, alcoholic, addicted to drugs or mentally unstable. These realities speak of a mechanism of justice “haunted by the demon of error”, involving breakdowns in the system which implicate the police, prosecutors, defence lawyers, doctors, psychiatrists, jurors and judges. In exercising his power to pardon, Mr Ryan has made firmer the basis for a rational discussion on the death penalty. This is perhaps the only way through the labyrinth of inhuman error and human revenge.