Death Penalty? Of Course … Perhaps

A half-century has changed a lot of things for me, including opinions.

A half-century ago, my hair was black. My chest muscles were on my chest instead of sagging around my bellybutton.

I actively supported the death penalty. Eye-for-an-eye Denny, that was I.

Then I went to college, where I was certain that I would learn more certainties.

Instead, they taught me to doubt. At a Catholic college, no less. Before college, the “pray, pay and obey” church in which I had had spent much of my childhood listening to priests tell us altar boys to “Put the wine cruets here,” and “ring the bells now,” led me to believe that I would always just listen to the priests, because everything was black (evil) or white (good).

I went to Gannon College in 1960.

In 1962-65, along came Pope John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council.

The “God the Accountant” I had been immersed in as a freshman became “God is Love!”

For those of us in college at the time, the study of philosophy and theology became something akin to trying to draw pictures at our desks during a mild earthquake. Beneath us was the same old Earth. But it was changing.

How can something change and still be the same?

See what I mean about doubt?

So, was it still right to kill killers? And if we could do it – should we?

Just to complicate things, along came Vietnam. It erased the certitude of World War II.

World War II taught us about the Japanese and the Germans. They were evil incarnate. Everybody said so. And they certainly did evil deeds. I saw those John Wayne movies as a kid.

But by 1960, the Japanese and the Germans were our friends. It was the Communists who were the bad people.

In 1962 or so, along came Vietnam. Friends from earlier graduating classes, commissioned through the ROTC programs, started coming back from Vietnam and saying, “Don’t go. This isn’t what we thought it was. It’s a civil war. We don’t belong there. And we aren’t being allowed to fight to win. We’re just getting chewed up, ‘advising’ Vietnamese who don’t want to fight.”

Some came back in body bags.

Were we supposed to not support a war in which my country was involved? Could it be that the Vietnamese fighting us were nationalists who just happened to be Communists, rather than fanatical pursuers of world domination? That if we left Vietnam in the 1970s, by today we would be peaceably trading with Vietnam?

The philosophical earth quaked even more strongly.

Ever since, as each year succeeded the previous one, I became more and more certain that I actually knew less and less, that solid, dependable constants were in fact shifting like sands in a storm.

I read stories about how juries had convicted people “beyond a reasonable doubt” only to later learn that those people were innocent.

So, I said, let’s do away with the death penalty.

Then I read stories about convicted murderers who continued to kill other inmates or prison guards.

So, I said, let’s kill them and be done with it.

Then I heard the nonsense that killing only teaches youngsters to be killers.

Houseflies provided the clear rebuttal to that. I kill flies. I taught my kids to kill flies. I taught them to distinguish between flies and bunny rabbits, between flies and people. We’re rational beings. That can be done. Today, my grown kids probably do kill houseflies (I haven’t asked them recently), but they don’t kill people.

It is not always wrong to kill. Neither is it always right to kill.

It depends.

We Americans don’t like to hear “It depends,” because that means we need to use our intellects, our judgment, our rational thought processes and the accumulated knowledge of our civilization to come to complex conclusions.

But it does depend.

On a jury, I would vote to convict “beyond a reasonable doubt.” But I would not vote to execute on that standard. For me, it has to be “no doubt,” e.g., caught in the act, unassailable confession, etc.

For serial killers, repeat murderers, traitors, etc., I support the death penalty – if guilt is established beyond all doubt. But let’s forget this “lethal injection” stuff. A pistol shot to the head is instantaneous enough. Let’s not make a huge fuss about it. We do not torture houseflies. We simply kill them, quickly, quietly and efficiently.

That’s where I stand with respect to the death penalty – today.


I’m still trying to hold steady and draw pictures while the ground beneath my desk is shifting. Will I feel tomorrow the same way that I feel today?

I doubt it.