from Red Menace
written by Lois Ruby
Carolrhoda Books/Lerner Publishing Group, 2020
My sister and brother and I were not allowed to have pets with fur. We were allowed fish or turtles and preferred turtles. Each one lived in the same clear, oval, plastic bowl with a built-in ramp and a plastic palm tree. We bought them at the dime store (predecessor to the dollar store) with our allowance money and only had one at a time.
None of the turtles lived very long. We named them all Oscar. Oscar I, Oscar II, Oscar III… and when their times came, we buried them in old shoeboxes in the backyard. After a succession of Oscars, we agreed to stop buying turtles. Maybe we were too sad. Maybe we just got tired of cleaning out the bowl time after time.
Some years after we had buried our last Oscar, I had my first real experience with death. My grandmother, Daddy’s mom, passed away after a fairly long illness (leukemia). Shortly after, my grandfather, Daddy’s dad, followed. I’m sure he was sick, but I chose to believe he died of a broken heart.
I was eleven.
Not long after, I was still in fifth grade, my best friend died of a rare genetic disease that no one had recognized. When her brother turned eleven, he died too, the same way.
Sometimes death shocks us. Sometimes death is a guilty relief. Always there is grief. It is universal. We all grieve, but each death is singular, individual.
It is a tragedy when someone dies before they have grown old enough for us to think they have lived out their “allotted” years. But who’s to judge how many years is long enough? And who does the allotting?
When a young or even young-ish person dies, we console each other and ourselves, by claiming it is the will of the Universe. When an old person dies, we console each other and ourselves by claiming the person had touched many people and lived a long life.
People die accidentally. People die of disease. And people die on purpose, by their own hand or someone else’s.
In our country, we have laws about death. It is against the law to kill someone, but there is an escape clause: self-defense.
Some states impose the death penalty for particularly heinous crimes. DeathPenaltyInfo.org states that [a]ll of the prisoners currently on death row and all of those executed in the modern era of the death penalty were convicted of murder. In 1972, the Supreme Court declared capital punishment unconstitutional as it was then applied. It was reinstated in the US in 1976, but in 2008, the Court advised that the death penalty could only be applied where a death occurred.
The states are pretty evenly divided, 24 allow capital punishment and 23 do not. The governors of California, Oregon, and Pennsylvania have declared a moratorium on the death penalty. Each state that allows it has its own laws about capital punishment.
Although Ohio has been a death penalty state since it became a state in 1803, no executions were carried out between 1963 and 1999, including 1972-76 when the Supreme Court considered capital punishment unconstitutional. Since then, several people have landed on death row in Ohio. Many sentences have been postponed. Many others, commuted.
Here are a few facts you might find surprising. All are from DeathPenaltyInfo.org
- The death penalty does not deter murder. Since 1990, the earliest date I found, murders in death-penalty states consistently outnumbered those in non-death-penalty states.
- While proponents claim the perpetrator’s death offers closure for the victim’s family, the reality is a prolonged time of appeal. In Ohio, the average time for a prisoner on death row is 17 years and two months.
- Life in prison without parole is less expensive for tax payers than an execution. Consider the high number of costly appeals, the cost of judges, the time involved in jury selection, the cost of the trial itself, expensive experts on both sides and a true cost of the death penalty comes into focus.
- Sometimes, mistakes are made. Sometimes a person is wrongly convicted and put to death. Since 1976, at least 186 innocent people have been exonerated. Since the founding of The Innocence Project at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University in 1992, 329 people have been exonerated through DNA testing in the United States, including 20 who were at one time sentenced to death. See here for more information.
Two bills to repeal the death penalty are working their way through the Ohio congress .
Some crimes are heinous. Some despicable people commit heinous crimes. People die, some needlessly.
Death is always a tragedy. We will always grieve, each in our own way. The fact of death and grief is universal.
Mistakes happen. That is inevitable, but let’s keep them from becoming irreversible.
-—stay curious! (and compassionate)