Punishment and possibility
Examining Americans' deep-seated beliefs about crime and retribution

Murdering Myths

Murdering Myths: The Story Behind the Death Penalty
Judith W. Kay
209 pages, Rowman and Littlefield

Interview by Andy Boynton

About 1 or 2 percent of all murderers actually receive the death penalty. Yet many Americans see severe punishment as the only way to provide closure to victims’ families. In her book Murdering Myths, Judith Kay—an associate professor of ethics at Puget Sound and past president of the Washington Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty—explores the origins of the death penalty in America, profiles both perpetrators and victims of violence, and advocates “a better way of responding … one that breaks the seemingly endless round of action and reaction, harm and retaliation.” Kay spoke with Arches about the book.

What does the title Murdering Myths mean? What are the myths?
The title has several innuendos, but the main myth is the story about who the bad guys are, that the bad guys deserve to be treated with harm, and that punishment produces good things, such as rectifying the wrongdoer.

In the book you mention that this is a deep-seated belief in our society—this idea of punishment that helps define our value system.
In my work on the death penalty I found that most people cannot articulate why they support it. It comes down to this: When someone does something wrong, we’ve always been told that they deserve an equal negative response, and that this punishment will correct the offender. It will also, somehow, make the victim feel better. But retribution is a misguided attempt at justice. People believe that if we can eliminate these “monsters” from society we will truly be safer, and that we can draw this easy, clean line between genuinely bad, evil people and us, the totally good and innocent people. This view denies our collective responsibility for failing to help people become law-abiding citizens.

So what do you propose as an alternative?
Well, the biggest insight for me is what some people want as a response when something serious has happened, such as the murder of a loved one. Ideally, they would get a response from the perpetrator herself, and they want a human response: “I take responsibility for my action. Here are the reasons I did it. This is my story and how I came to do this.” They, of course, would like shows of remorse and an apology.

Victims want their injury addressed in a way that requires something of the offender—that she is going to grapple with what caused her to engage in this action. This is not an easy thing—to actually look at the harms one has done and take responsibility. And then families want real help with their ongoing suffering from having lost their loved one. They want a response, but it does not need to be a harmful response. It does not need to be a punitive response. That is not going to bring Johnny back.

In the introduction to the book, you talk about Bud Welch. His daughter was killed in the Oklahoma City bombing, and he actually sought out Timothy McVeigh’s family.
I think Julie was 23 or 24 when she was killed. Bud subscribed completely to the whole narrative: that the only thing he could do to end his pain was to make somebody else hurt worse than he did. For a couple months, he says, he was crazed with rage, fear, grief, and everything else—if he had gotten near McVeigh he would have ripped him apart with his bare hands.

As he emerged from his immediate shock, he began to realize that execution was not what Julie would want and that McVeigh’s death would not honor the memory of Julie. McVeigh’s execution meant another father was about to lose a child.

He couldn’t bear that thought and contacted the McVeigh family. McVeigh’s father responded and met with him. They talked, and when McVeigh’s sister came in—she was not that different in age from [Welch’s] own daughter—Bud started sobbing because now a young woman was going to lose her brother. This meeting was healing for Bud. My book contains accounts of family meetings with perpetrators that were powerful and transforming.

This kind of human response is ultimately, I think, much more satisfying and hopeful for all parties involved than the punitive response. All of which doesn’t mean that we just let murderers off the hook to roam the streets. But restoring human relationships is the kind of possibility we ought to be encouraging in the criminal justice system.

You also talk about how those who perpetrate violence and those who are victimized by it are often driven by the same feelings and motives.
Victims want recognition of their suffering and condemnation of the offense. They don’t want to ever feel victimized again. They want to see themselves as the initiators rather than people being acted upon, and those are the same motivations driving many perpetrators.

The U.S. is the only Western industrialized country to have a death penalty, and it’s widely supported here. Most other industrialized countries have moved away from it. Why is that?
European countries took the lead on abolition after World War II, when the Nazi regime had the power to kill its own citizens. I think Europeans saw ending the death penalty as a restraint on the power of the state. Maybe we have not quite witnessed such abuse in the way [Europe has], with two world wars on its soil.

Beyond that, the state has been very effective in couching capital punishment as therapeutic. We are doing this for the victim’s family; it will give them closure. But what is closure? It is a word murder victims’ families who I interviewed uniformly hate.

How did you first get involved in this issue?
I have been against the death penalty for as long as I can remember. My best friend from seminary became a minister with a primary focus on prison ministry. She eventually began counseling men on death row in a state with one of the largest death row populations. She counseled these men weekly for years. Then the state, after a moratorium in the ’70s because of Supreme Court decisions, started executing again, and executed men [she’d counseled] weekly for, say, 10 to 15 years. My contact with the death penalty got very up-close and personal.

I was a primary support person for her as she went through her first execution. Have you seen Dead Man Walking? She went through that nine or 10 times. I concluded that if my friend was putting herself on the line, I could not sit by and be against the death penalty in my heart of hearts. I was moved to do something; that is when I became involved.

What have I missed?
I made a stunning discovery during my research: killers use the same story to justify their crimes as the state tells to justify the death penalty. The story says that certain people deserve grave, even lethal harm; that the victims’ status is restored by destroying perpetrators. The story promises that harming others cures the pain of victimization. The story encourages moral blindness to the humanity of those who allegedly deserve harm. Just as the killer could not see the humanity of his victim, so are we blinded to the humanity of the executed. The story endorses the motto, “do unto others as they have done unto you,” except now the state does the dirty work for us. This story is damaging to us as citizens and fails to protect society or achieve justice. It’s a story that lies.

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