What do you do when helping someone means advocating for his death?
I am a Board Certified Clinical Psychologist and have been in practice since 1993. I entered the field, as most do, to be of assistance and support to people in dealing with the difficult, the unimaginable, and the often painful circumstances of life. The goal has always been simple: to help. The manner may differ, but the central goal is the same: to help. I have encountered many challenging situations in my work: times when I felt unbelievably sad upon hearing someone’s story; when I felt righteous indignation at injustices encountered; when I worried for someone’s safety; when I laughed and rejoiced in someone’s experience. In each of these situations the path to helping was clear of moral dilemma. But what about when helping results in execution – the state enforcing the legally imposed punishment of the death penalty? While some decisions involve the potential for moral and emotional distress, there is usually a way of understanding “helping” as giving voice to an individual’s right to choose. What do you do when helping someone means advocating for his death as punishment?
Several years ago while I worked for a state Department of Corrections (DOC), an inmate on death row was executed. The state had not conducted an execution for decades. I was the Supervising Psychologist for the DOC facility, and as such it was my role to facilitate mental health treatment for this inmate. I was also the liaison to DOC custody staff regarding policies, treatment, and the impact of the process of an execution on staff, the involved inmate and other inmates in the facility. The DOC staffers were split in their views of the situation. Some staff were adamantly opposed to the death penalty, a portion were relatively neutral and the largest number of staff were strong proponents of the death penalty—some to the point of relishing the execution.
He had confessed and been convicted of heinous crimes, including the rapes and murders of several young women. Innocence was not a question. He readily admitted his responsibility for these crimes. The legal process was long and involved, including several different trials and penalty hearings, all with the same result: he was sentenced to death. Now all mandatory appeals associated with the death penalty were exhausted. Having already spent a great many years on death row, he did not want to pursue further appeals. He made the “choice” to [End Page 95] not file a voluntary appeal and instead to proceed with the death penalty process.
It is a curious thing, but when the required appeals (the checks and balances of the legal system) were completed and this man said, “I want to proceed with the imposition of my sentence,” all the rules changed. This individual, who had been competent to assist in his defense and his appeals to fight his sentence for over twenty years, was suddenly seen as “incompetent” to choose to accept his sentence. Opponents of the death penalty viewed execution as “state–assisted suicide” and believed the inmate had “death row syndrome,” and therefore was not competent to make the decision to move forward with his sentence. Those who agreed with the death penalty believed he was fully competent and supported the completion of his sentence through lethal injection. And then there was me.
I had always been against the death penalty. From a moral perspective, I believed in the sanctity of life, that we do not have the right to take the life of another human being. I shared in others’ horror and outrage at horrific crimes, but felt justice belonged to the legal system (through incarceration) and to God. I did not believe in retribution or revenge, although I supported consequences and accountability. I argued against the death penalty in high school debates, college round–table discussions and in theoretical conversations with my peers, family and friends.
When faced with this situation as a psychologist, I found myself splitting a very fine hair. I did not support the death penalty, but I did support the ability of an individual to make a conscious choice. And...