Academic journal article Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology

Further Reflections on the Guillotine

Academic journal article Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology

Further Reflections on the Guillotine

Article excerpt

Perhaps the most moving polemic against the death penalty is Albert Camus' Reflections on the Guillotine. Camus' sharp opposition to the death penalty may have derived from the force of the one story that he repeatedly heard about his father, who had died before Camus was one year old: (1)

   Shortly before the war of 1914, an assassin whose crime was
   particularly repulsive (he had slaughtered a family of
   farmers, including the children) was condemned to death in Algiers.
   He was a farm worker who had killed in a sort of bloodthirsty
   frenzy but has aggravated his case by robbing his victims. The
   affair created a great stir. It was generally thought that
   decapitation too mild a punishment for such a monster. This was the
   opinion, I have been told, of my father, who was especially aroused
   by the murder of the children. One of the few things I know about
   him, in any case, is that he wanted to witness the execution, for
   the first time in his life. He got up in the dark to go to the place
   of execution at the other end of town amid a great crowd of people.
   What he saw that morning he never told anyone. My mother relates
   merely that he came rushing home, his face distorted, refused to
   talk, lay down for a moment on the bed, and suddenly began to
   vomit. He had just discovered the reality hidden under the noble
   phrases with which it was masked. Instead of thinking of the
   slaughtered children, he could think of nothing but that
   quivering body that had just been dropped onto a board to have its
   head cut off. (2)

My (3) emotional response to the death penalty came about under quite different circumstances, and unlike Camus, left me agnostic about the death penalty. The main work that I did in the early years of my career centered on formal aspects of the process of proof, including the constitutional interest in proof beyond reasonable doubt. It so happened that derivatives of these questions were present in every capital case tried during that time, and thus I was consulted by both sides in the legal battles, and began taking some pro bono cases. In representation of this sort, engagement with the record is critical, but as I dug into the records in some of the cases I was repelled by what I found my clients had done. Truth is both stranger and crueler than fiction, and reading about some of my clients' inhuman acts left me unclear as to what it meant to be human, and thinking that execution of these individuals might be no different from putting a mad dog to sleep or cutting out a cancer. At the same time, I found that another incompatible notion exerted an influence on me, even though it seemed strange and almost mystical. Consciousness brings light into a cold and dark universe, and every speck of it, even in these cold-hearted killers, is the product of an infinite evolution that ought not to be extinguished lightly. These two views left me in equipoise, like the proverbial donkey dying of thirst because it was exactly halfway between two wells and found itself unable to decide which one to turn to. I resolved the conflict through agnosticism but one which demanded that the government take appropriate care prior to executing someone; and I was willing to be part of the process of trying to hold the government's feet to the fire through legal representation of capital defendants.

Over the years my agnosticism matured from an irresolvable emotional conflict to a rational conclusion. Like the opposition of equal but opposite emotional forces, the consequentialist arguments for and against the death penalty are likewise in equipoise, in our (4) opinion, although one would not know it by hanging around either law schools generally or conferences such as the one that precipitated this article particularly. Conferences on the death penalty in American law schools typically are self-righteous displays of commitment to revealed truth, the truth being that opposition to death penalty goes without saying and the only issue is how strongly its proponents can be tarnished with either their illogic or moral depravity. …

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