I took a college course last year called “The Innocence Project.” It was based on the premise that some men on death row are innocent. Over the past decade our professor has enlisted students as investigative journalists charged with assessing guilt or innocence.
We are not defense attorneys, judges, or juries, but we are committed to discovering the truth. And hopefully the truth will set an innocent man free. Because of this effort, several men have been found innocent after having been wrongfully convicted.
Subsequent to the course, I’ve done further reading. One especially moving piece was “The Hanging” by George Orwell. This brief essay was based on the time in the 1920s when Orwell (real name Eric Blair) served in Burma with the Indian Imperial Police. The death march from the jail cell to the gallows is especially strong: “I watched the bare brown back of the prisoner marching in front of me…. At each step his muscles slid neatly into place, the lock of hair on his scalp danced up and down, his feet printed themselves on the wet gravel. And once, in spite of the men who gripped him by each shoulder, he stepped slightly aside to avoid a puddle on the path. It is curious, but till that moment I had never realized what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man. When I saw the prisoner step aside to avoid the puddle, I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide.”
My experiences have convinced me that capital punishment is itself a crime. Based on the Orwell piece, one can infer that it was legal in Gandhiji’s India. Did he comment on the morality of this legalized form of murder?
“I cannot in all conscience agree to anyone being sent to the gallows. God alone can take life because He alone gives it.” (M. K. Gandhi).
One must speak out when one sees unspeakable wrongness. Orwell and Gandhiji did so. Others have protested the wrongness of legalized murder in America (Troy Davis case) and India (Rajiv Gandhi assasination case).
It is with little pride that I consider myself a citizen of a country that is one of the few remaining democracies that has not yet abolished capital punishment; I cannot even take solace in my birth country having a higher moral ground since both India and the U.S. continue to perpetuate the barbarity of killing men who are judged by others to be unworthy of living. For those who find honor, retribution, and closure in murdering a murderer, one has to inquire if there is infallible justice in taking the life of one who is wrongfully convicted.
When our elected government executes a fellow human, we all have blood on our hands.
[Dr. Rajesh C. Oza serves as a consultant to organizations and individuals requiring change leadership. We invite questions for consideration in the PMG column at firstname.lastname@example.org.]
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