The Courts, the Constitution, and Capital Punishment

By Hugo Adam Bedau | Go to book overview

10 Epilogue: A Right to Die by Firing Squad?

The spectacle in Utah of condemned murderer Gary Mark Gilmore pleading to be shot as punishment for his crimes, rather than serve more time behind prison bars (where he spent half his life and eighteen of the past twenty-one years), has thrust capital punishment before us in some of its most troubling aspects. The events leading up to Gilmore's execution on 17 January highlight the dilemmas posed by the death penalty today.

Gilmore's case, given his confession in open court, his intelligence and apparent sanity, and his unwillingness to appeal his conviction or sentence, poses few problems for defenders of capital punishment. They are likely to greet his eagerness to accept death by firing squad "with grace and dignity" (his words), with grim satisfaction and perhaps even grudging respect. They might regret the way Gilmore overnight became a creature of the media ( Newsweek put him on the cover of its 29 November 1976 issue), because his readiness to die in a blaze of rifle fire could transform him into a kind of hero. Nevertheless, proponents of the death penalty will insist that by willfully taking the life of innocent victims, Gilmore forfeited any right to his own. Especially in Utah, with its Mormon traditions, the biblical doctrine of "a life for a life" epitomizes the seeming justice of executing Gilmore. From a moral point of view, therefore, advocates of capital punishment had no ground for quarreling with Gilmore's wish to die by firing squad.

But for opponents of the death penalty, the Gilmore case poses a cruel dillemma. If they insisted that Gilmore not be executed, where was the fairness in that to the condemned man? Was it not unfeeling of them to protest his execution even though he freely admitted his guilt and declared that, for him (and he should have known), the prospect of life imprisonment was much worse than death? When Gilmore said, as he did in a letter to his mother, "I wish to be dead," was it not unseemly for others to interfere? Did he not have the right to die at the time and under the circumstances of his own choosing? Moreover, was Gilmore not correct when he charged that the attorneys seeking to prevent his execution were not only acting without his authorization, but that they were not "motivated by concern for [his] own welfare"? Was it not true that these lawyers (from the American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund) wanted to keep Gilmore alive largely for the benefit of their other clients on death row, thereby seeming to use the very kind of reasoning denounced by opponents of capital punishment when executions are defended on grounds of general deterrence?

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