What are you doing Wednesday night?
Right to Life
Where will you be on Wednesday night, after your last day of classes? I imagine quite a few of you have big plans to hit the local drinking establishments, or perhaps Turtle Creek and College Park and/or maybe you will just sit around playing Nintendo.
But one man, Mr. D.H. Fleenor, will be at the maximum security prison in Michigan City, getting his last shave and a hair cut and preparing to die at the hands of the state of Indiana. Somewhere he has family and friends, even concerned students and citizens, who may have written to him or visited him while on death row. They will be anxiously praying that at the last second, Governor Frank O'Bannon will put a hold in Mr. Fleenor's execution.
Especially when it is politically unpopular to be "soft on crime," it is admittedly difficult to stir up enthusiastic and widespread opposition to the death penalty. Even among citizens and public figures who are ardently opposed to abortion, one finds many just as committed to capital punishment. One can justify the defenseless little baby much more easily than the murderer.
D.H. Fleenor killed two people. He is mentally retarded and has abused alcohol. He and his wife sought help for his habits just days before the murders occurred, but treatment was denied. A recent Indiana law bars the death penalty for the mentally retarded, but this will not affect Mr. Fleenor, who was sentenced before the law's passage. These circumstances do not change the fact the D.H. Fleenor committed murder, and that murder is wrong, but they should challenge us to think about how our society uses the death penalty.
We can express opposition from several perspectives. Death is final and irreversible. The death penalty is expensive, and when considering the legal costs involved, it is more expensive than holding someone in prison for life. Do you want your tax dollars supporting this act?
If you support the death penalty because you think the perpetrator of a heinous crime should suffer, consider this: several years ago, Maryland executed a man named John Thanos. Shortly before his death, Thanos remarked that death was a better punishment than sitting in a cell watching "Oprah" for the rest of his life. So why not let him watch "Oprah?" And if you define this as suffering but aren't so inclined to it, why not let him "live with his guilt" and give him a chance to think about it? Why not give him a chance to use the prison libraries or chaplains and make something meaningful out of his life, or to turn himself back to God?
We start treading on sensitive ground when we consider the loved ones of victims. If someone killed one of my family members, would I want him to suffer? Would I want him dead, so he could never kill again? Absolutely. As an instinct, I don't think that can be helped. But remember the movie "Dead Man Walking" and how one parent changed his mind on capital punishment?
What is remarkable "but not unusual" in Mr. Fleenor's case is that both the daughter and the granddaughter of Mr. and Mrs. Harlow, the murder victims, testified that they opposed the death penalty, and that the dead couple would also not wish its imposition. Indiana's lawyers, nevertheless, did what they are paid to do, and the state will get its revenge on Mr. Fleenor in the wee hours of Thursday morning unless, by some miracle, we can make it stop. So is D.H. Fleenor being put to death in order to alleviate the sufferings of the victims' family, or because they want assurance he can never hurt them again? Clearly not. First the Harlows were dragged through 15 years of trials and appeals. Now this death may add to their anguish.
In these cases the aggressor and the supreme judge is the state. Does something strike you as wrong about this?
Another thought: nations and states used to execute with the guillotine, by hanging or by burning at the stake. Once great public spectacles, we now call them barbaric. Just because most execution in the U.S. is now carried out by lethal injection or the electric chair, just because it is a little more sanitary and is kept within the walls of a high security prison, is execution any less wrong?
For those of you who call yourselves pro-life, I especially encourage you to think long and hard about any support you may have for capital punishment. One line I've heard before is that people who commit murder are no longer human. But consider D.H. Fleenor. Somewhere he has a mother; she turned him in for his crime and pleaded for his life. He has a body temperature of 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. He has a wife and children that he once held in his arms. Perhaps he awaited word of his fate with cold and clammy hands. Perhaps he lies awake at night and wonders what it will be like to get strapped down and wait to die and how much it will hurt. Maybe he cries when he thinks about what events in his children's lives he will miss. Maybe he wishes more than anything that he could take back that night in 1984. Or maybe he doesn't, and this is where our faith is most put to the test.
Some will say that we college students are apathetic. We live in a bubble, and unless we are forced to do otherwise, we will continue to exist in our Abercrombie world, frolicking through fields with gorgeous blondes or just sitting around drinking or watching "Party of Five" or maybe doing some studying because we'll fail if we don't. Can we prove them wrong?
Laura Antkowiak is a senior Government major and is co-president of Notre Dame Right to Life.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.
All Viewpoint Stories for Tuesday, December 7, 1999