Many years ago, my brother was senselessly ripped from this world. I was furious at the man who took his life, and I wanted him to suffer the same fate my brother had. I wanted him to be put to death and was relieved when he received the death penalty at trial.
But over time, my perspective has changed. I now believe that the death penalty is morally wrong and that we must support sentencing that allows those who perpetrate harm to learn and change.
The media often talk about those who are sentenced to die in prison and the families of victims as though they are distinct and opposing groups. But the reality is that many families have lost loved ones both to gun violence and to death by incarceration.
A few years after my brother was killed, my son was arrested. His co-defendant killed someone during a burglary of a drug house – a burglary that went terribly wrong when the people who owned the house came home. My son is incarcerated under the felony murder rule. He didn’t kill anyone, but he is sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for committing a crime alongside someone who took another’s life.
Though I had already begun to question my stance on the death penalty before my son was convicted, now that I have a loved one in prison, I fully realize that people can and do change – and that we need to leave room for that possibility at the time of sentencing.
Today, I fight for a second chance not only for my son but also for the people who killed my brother.
If the courts had honored my wishes initially, the person who murdered my brother would be dead. But I’m glad he isn’t. Today, I’d like to have a dialogue with the person who took my brother’s life. I want justice that recognizes the possibility of transformation and healing; not just for those who have committed harm, but for those of us who have been harmed, who have survived violence, or lost our loved ones to violence.
I believe that society should set a limit on the kind of punishment it can dish out. Once upon a time, we tortured people to punish them, but then we decided that was wrong. Today, if someone said at trial, “I’d like you to torture the person who killed my brother,” we would say: “We are sorry for your loss, and you are right to be furious, but we cannot do that.”
The death penalty is an extremely costly practice that takes money from the things that truly make us safe, like public schools and anti-violence programs. In Pennsylvania, capital punishment remains indefinitely on hold, while government officials await a report, now years in the making, analyzing capital punishment’s history, effectiveness, and cost in our state. I hope that Pennsylvania, like 19 other states in America, will make the death penalty illegal — and soon.
The death penalty is morally wrong.
Just as we should not torture people, we should not kill them, and we should not lock them away forever. We should give people the tools and the opportunity to change for the better, and have them try to make up for the harm they caused. We call it the Department of Corrections rather than the Department of Revenge for a reason.
I extend my deepest sympathies to the families who have lost loved ones to violence. I know your pain because I have felt it.
But the death penalty is not the solution.
Lorraine Haw is a member of the Coalition for a Just DA and the Coalition to Abolish Death by Incarceration.