A few months back I told a friend in the US that 2009 was the first year – ever – that no one anywhere in Europe was legally executed. He found the notion difficult to grasp.
He, like a majority of Americas, supports capital punishment. Polls consistently show that more than half of Americans don’t have a problem with the state maintaining the authority to legally fry or lethally inject felons guilty of very serious crimes. It remains an option in 38 states. In 2009, 52 were executed in the US, nearly half of those (24) in Texas. (My old Ohio home was a distant third, with four.)
The view on this side of the Atlantic couldn’t be more different. Forty-eight of Europe’s 50 countries have abolished the death penalty altogether; only Belarus still holds on to the practice along with Latvia, but the latter only for crimes committed during wartime. The divergent views on state-mandated murder is one of the widest of trans-Atlantic chasms, one that won’t be bridged any time soon.
I thought of that conversation yesterday when reading and listening to Doing Time, And Doing Good, In La.’s Angola Prison, an NPR story about Wilbert Rideau, a man sentenced to death after he shot and killed a teller during a failed bank robbery. He spent the better part of his 44 years in the notorious Louisiana prison working on the institution’s in-house magazine, doing lots or reading, and doing lots of writing.
Rideau lived on death row at Louisiana State Penitentiary — better known as Angola — from the time he was 19 to the time he was 31. In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court abolished the death penalty as it was then practiced, and his sentence was commuted to life in prison.
Problems with his initial trial (check out a wiki synopsis here) led to subsequent retrials, and finally to a reduced charge of manslaughter, for which he was sentenced to 21 years. He had already served 44, so we was freed.
While imprisoned, Rideau won awards for his work, serious journalism that exposed some of the more gruesome aspects of life behind bars. He’s a gifted and thoughtful writer, and recently published a memoir, In the Place of Justice. Check out the excerpts – riveting reading.
But to get the gist of what the capital punishment debate is like in the US, be sure to also check out the comments, particularly on NPRs Facebook page. Some of it is forgiving, but much of it is ludicrous and baffling. Some obviously didn’t even listen to the report but decided to chime in anyway. For most, the idea or the possibility of rehabilitation doesn’t even enter the picture, even for a man who even the Governor conceded was fully rehabilitated. Rideau did take a life. But the 19-year-old boy who went to prison in 1961 was not the same 63-year-old man who was released. In a civilized society, isn’t that enough?