On the Resumption of Federal Executions

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Reflections by our intern, Heejae Jung. Heejae is a sophomore at Vassar and is with us for the fall 2020 semester.

In mid-July, the embers of fireworks were still ingrained in my memory from the celebration of
Independence day and reawakened by the occasional crackling from my neighbors (a new trend to deal with
quarantine boredom). I felt the familiar crinkle of the morning news from my outstretched fingers. The Wall
Street Journal and I had been good breakfast companions since January of 2020–part of my New Year’s
resolution to be more well-read and on top of current events. My first-year advisor at college had told me
once that, “Economics makes the world go round,” and I could now say the same for the news.

Yet unlike any other Sunday, I did not fill my mind with the solace of eggs in American kitchens,
missed social cues from face masks, North Korean defectors discussing the officers’ corruption, or Susan B.
Anthony’s defiance against America’s unrepresentative usage of the pronoun “he” in the law when it came to
voting. That day, one headline seared past all the monthly clutter: “U.S. Executes Second Federal Inmate This
Week After a 17-Year Hiatus.” In the story of Wesley Ira Purkey’s execution for the rape, murder, and
dismemberment of a sixteen-year-old girl despite his impaired rationality as to the reasoning behind his
punishment, it cast a cloud of doubt over the constitutionality of such a permanent and crude judicial
reprimand. The only word that came to mind upon finishing the article was “rage,” one experienced by both
parties. The bereaved victim’s father and the tormented inmate were both severely hurt and wronged: one
enraged by grief for the heinous murder of his daughter and the other tormented by his condemnable
actions, in many ways a byproduct of his childhood abuse and mental illnesses. The back-and-forth dissent
among Supreme Court justices that ultimately resulted in the ending of Purkey’s life did not do either side
any favor.

Cloaked in modern-day euphemisms–“as painless and quick a death as possible”–and drenched in
pathos language–“a danger and harm to society that wastes government and citizens’ taxes”–the defense for
the death penalty has gaping holes no one can fill. I can see no way around the egregious breach of justice
that ending a person’s life entails. Opposing the death penalty does not excuse the criminal, it does not
overlook the victim’s suffering, and it certainly does not misuse the law. It simply acknowledges that one
does not have to endorse killing to rightfully punish inexcusable crimes. I admit to being largely ignorant of
these alternative methods and any historical context that led to the maintenance of this policy. But the tone
of vengeance that accompanies those who talk of a “rightful killing” reflects the lack of mercy and basic
humaneness, all of which do not promote anyone’s well-being. Two murders never make a right. This “eye
for an eye” approach to delivering punishment must come to an end.

Reading this article forced me to come face-to-face with the reality that capital punishment is still legal
and still practiced in parts of the world. It made me question the American legal system and the rightfulness
of its conduct. At the bottom of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is “air, food, water, warmth and rest”–who are
we, who is anyone, to deny others such primitive needs? The moment we say another person’s life can rest in
the hands of others, regardless of how harmful that person is, we are endorsing an unethical hierarchy that
gives permission to act upon the idea that certain lives are more important than others. When I celebrate the
Fourth of July, I celebrate America’s independence and its citizens’ livelihood. The bright fireworks grow dull
at the threat of such a foundational basis in this country.


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