Why I No Longer Support Capital Punishment

Netflix has decided that any documentary about psychopaths and serial killers must be a 98% match with my interests.  Thanks, algorithm.  All I want is something to run in the background while I do my daily workout… and now you’ve got me so depressed that I’m back to running 30-year-old video cassettes.  On the other hand, I suppose I profited from learning something about Ted Bundy.  (I originally thought I was opening a serial about the Unibomber—got my Teds confused.)  The sea change that my attitude about capital punishment endured wasn’t anything I’d remotely anticipated, but I’m no doubt the better for it.

My reaction to the serial’s first segment was one of irritation.  These dramatic profilings… “a misfit in school… wasn’t popular… kept to himself, a loner… classmates described him as peculiar….”  Well, that might as well have been me.  I’d better start digging up my back yard—maybe I’m such a psycho that I have a split personality and don’t even realize what carnage I have wreaked over the past half-century.

(Seriously, the yearbook chronicling my final dose of high school has a random photo of me sitting directly behind a young girl and peering forward under my then-heavy brows.  The caption reads, “John Harris contemplates violence.”  I tossed that book and all of its brethren in a dumpster within a few days of reading the caption, which I know was intended humorously and so taken by everyone but me.  After a seven-year diet of such humor, though… and, no, the remarks of all those years were not humorously intended.)

Also not appreciated: the harping on Bundy’s early activism in the Richard Nixon campaign.  You’d have thought that Woodstock was healthy America going about its anodyne business and that Charles Manson, meanwhile, was rooting for Tricky Dick from solitary confinement.  Oh, yes: Nixon, I’m sure, is the key to understanding Ted Bundy!

But to cut to the chase… by the end, I was particularly disgusted to learn that Bundy had brutalized and murdered a twelve-year-old child.  That final atrocity put the hellish gilding on his monstrous psychological deformity.  You can see the contradiction, though, can’t you?  No man was ever more convincingly, inhumanly insane—and we don’t punish a human being who freakishly acquires the soul of a shark.  We lock him up tight for life, but we don’t handle him as though he truly understands what he has done. If ever a man were incapable of distinguishing between right and wrong… in fact, from my psychologist’s armchair, I would hazard the guess that Bundy genuinely believed himself innocent of the crimes. I imagine him so schizoid in his identity that he could not recognize the ravening beast (some of his victims actually bore deep bite-marks) as the suave, smiling grad student in the mirror.

Yet this dangerous lunatic was not only condemned to the electric chair; he was permitted by a clueless judge to defend himself in court.  No doubt, we should be grateful that the client had such an arrogant, unfocused attorney in this case, because the evidence was circumstantial: a competent defender might well have put Ted back on the streets.    Our judicial system, one must conclude, reached the right verdict for the wrong reasons, proving to me yet again—and my recent work has buried me in painful examples—that justice in America is a crap shoot.

If the guilty verdict was the correct one, however, the sentence essentially executed our mutant shark for being hard-wired to attack where he smelled blood.  Yet my newly acquired reservations to the death penalty aren’t primarily a matter of concern over undiagnosed insanity.  I have two observations at this point.  One is that, were I the father of that twelve-year-old girl, my daughter would not have been restored to me by seeing Bundy fry.  Her restless spirit would not have been somehow placated, as if the old videos of opening presents under the Christmas tree were now easier to watch because the animal’s brain had sizzled beneath a lightning strike.  No, I think my girl’s ghost would have been better satisfied to know that this one-in-a-million blunder of personality were being preserved under glass for further study, perhaps thereby reducing the possibility that another girl would have her vital thread cut by such a freak.

Somewhere at the bottom of the shrunken pit that had once contained Bundy’s soul, as well, lingered a spiritual ember.  I believe that, based on the testimony of the FBI agent who passed much of Ted’s final night with him.  To have that ember fanned until it warmed again into something human, and to know that the creature who savaged my and thirty-some-odd other daughters of grieving fathers would spend the next fifty years grieving with them—with us… that would have offered a far more pleasing sacrifice to my girl’s spirit than the scent of scorched flesh.

For Bundy, and the all too many of his ilk among us, is something like us.  He is not us… but he is not completely not us.  He is not the anti-human.  The seed of his depravity travels through human societies on a breeze that strokes all of us.  We deny this at our utmost peril.  We cannot exile that evil inspiration from the darkest reaches of our hearts by seizing upon someone in whom the seed has germinated and boiling him in oil.  The loathing we display in annihilating the darkly flowered plant is too emphatic in its obvious wish to nullify the species.  We run the risk of not recognizing that baleful sprout if it should happen to nudge up through the detritus of our own lives.

I’m not going to decry, from here on out, the proponents of capital punishment as worse animals than those whose lives they would terminate.  I am not going to mark out a morally superior high ground for myself.  I’ve occupied the other side of the line for most of my life, after all.  But I’ll finish with this.  If the spate of recent revelations about predatory males has revealed anything to us, it’s that the strange, quiet boys with dark eyes haven’t necessarily matured to be the men whom women should most avoid.  The fair charmer, confident and cajoling, may just be the last fellow whose sports car you’d want your daughter to enter at two in the morning.

To extirpate the poisonous plant entirely, you would have to vaporize the human race.