And Katharsis For All

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Donald Reith

And Katharsis For All: Challenging H.L. Mencken’s Arguments for Capital Punishment
Justice should be a higher priority than “katharsis” when it comes to capital punishment.

H.L. Mencken makes a spirited case for the need of victim’s families’ to experience katharsis, “a healthy letting off of steam.”

Katharsis, more than revenge, is what the victim’s families’ seek through capital punishment, according to Mencken. Yet katharsis, no matter how satisfying, is no replacement for the equitable and fair meting out of justice.

I will demonstrate through some recent studies and careful analysis that the death penalty is not carried out equitably and is extremely inefficient.

In order for any law to be considered just, it should be seen to be applied fairly across the board.

While providing “katharsis” will certainly help the families whose loved ones have been murdered feel much better about the justice system, it does not materially benefit society as a whole.

Laws should not adversely affect one race or community over another.

There should not be an inherent bias when it comes to judicial process.

“Katharsis” has good intentions but it should not outweigh the more important priority of fairly administered justice. This is a prime flaw in Mencken’s argument for “katharsis.”

A Connecticut study by John J. Donohue, “Capital Punishment in Connecticut, 1973-2007: A Comprehensive Evaluation from 4,686 murders To One Execution,” shows not only extreme inefficiency in the meting out of the death penalty but a helter skelter criminal justice policy that fails at both deterrence and retribution.

The study found that the relatively few who are sentenced to death are predominantly minority men, they come from poor neighborhoods, and their victim was a white person. Other cases that were just as egregious that involved white murderers did not result in death sentences.

Mencken’s call for katharsis notwithstanding, “the death penalty system can only be feasible if it can be shown that the few death sentences, and even less frequent amount of executions, are reserved for defendants who because of the heinous nature of their crimes are most deserving of death.”

Mr. Donohue’s study refutes that claim undeniably by showing the haphazard and racist nature in the death penalty’s application.

Efficiency in the application of capital punishment is strongly desired according to Mencken.

Mencken makes the case in “The Penalty of Death” that the process should be speeded up. “Why should he wait at all? Why not hang him the day after the last court dissipates his last hope?” Mencken writes.

Yet the ultra inefficient manner in which the death penalty is administered raises doubt as to whether the practice serves any legitimate social purpose.

Northwestern University Center on Wrongful Convictions concluded in a study, ”While innocence has not been proven in any specific case, there is reasonable doubt that some of the executed prisoners were innocent.”

Indeed since 1992, fifteen people have been exonerated by DNA evidence in the United States. Thirty-nine applications of the death penalty have been undertaken where it has been shown later that those capitally punished where either innocent or there was serious doubt as to their guilt.”

This is certainly not convincing evidence for a speedy execution.

These cases in the Northwestern University study portend that with speedier executions there is a greater possibility for even more innocent people to be put to death unjustly.

This not only makes a mockery of Mencken’s outcry for swift capital punishment; it also raises serious doubts as to the fairness of the system.

What good is swift punishment if it is not administered fairly and innocent people are put to death?

Mencken’s arguments for “katharsis” and “speedy executions” center more on what human beings want to appease their individual psychosis rather than what is good for society as a whole.

The discriminatory and wrongful applications of the death penalty in too many cases are profoundly unjust.

The constitution states,” And justice for all,” and so it should be in the administering of the death penalty.

For the rule of law to be universally respected and followed it must be shown to be clear of any sense of inherent unfairness.

This is true for the lowliest crime all the way up to the more serious ones.

Mencken’s arguments for “katharsis” are based on human psychology; undoubtably “katharsis” aids victims’ families.

Yet “katharsis” fails at ensuring the most basic concept of a fair justice for all.

While Mencken’s arguments have good intentions in mind for relieving the victim’s families suffering: as “katharsis” is an important psychological aid in overcoming grief.

Justice, fairly meted out, trumps “katharsis.” – H.L. Mencken “The Penalty of Death”


Published by The Appeal to Safety LLC

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