Justice And A Call For Public Hangings

We’ve seen the Hollywood version:

The gallows is assembled.  The dust is high and a sense of anticipation ripples through the air.  There’s a hanging come tomorrow and it’s looking to be a good day.  The condemned man manages to hoist himself to the jail window.  He watches the ongoing construction.  He doesn’t say anything.  Fixing his jaw, he looks up at the sky and we know he’s silently wondering if he can keep it together, not cry out like a little girl.  Or soil himself.

The morning of?  Mothers pack a lunch because the hanging is midday and the children might get hungry.  The righteous men in town think a hanging is a good, fine thing.  God Almighty Hisself said it–An Eye for an Eye.  And their sons, these righteous men whisper, will see what hard justice looks like then buck up, choose the straight and narrow.

The whole town turns out.  Dogs bark, babies cry and the sun burns down.  The condemned man turns his eyes away when the black clad minister offers up a prayer.  He looks beyond the crowd as if he sees something way off, something no one else can see.  Or maybe his mouth is trembling and the sweat is running in his eyes but we don’t get to see much because the thin-lipped sheriff yanks a black hood over the man’s head.

A few heartbeats later, the sheriff nods to the executioner. The lever creaks, the hatch opens.  The man drops with a creaking whoosh. He drops like a stone, straight into eternity.  He twitches–once, twice.  But then all is still.

The crowd is quiet now.  Some people look away.  Some smirk. Others stare at the dead man, look right through him, only to turn with a quiet resignation and everyone, even the dogs and old timers, shuffle back to whatever they’ve left undone or are loathe to go back to.

Until the next time.

I’ve always watched these scenes and thought, Thank God, I wasn’t born back in the day when an execution was considered entertainment, a welcome respite from the hard-pressed, often dreary, short lives our ancestors lived.  Cultures and mindsets change, evolve.

But sometimes they don’t.

Republican Representative Larry Pittman, District 82 from the great State of North Carolina wants to bring back public hangings.  A deterrent to crime, he says, but noted abortion doctors first in line for the gallows.

I could brush this off as a joke, the product of a small, twisted mind but it turns out Representative Pittman expressed his view via a note, which he then emailed to every member of the North Carolina General Assembly.   Seems like a particular prisoner really ticked Representative Pittman off, yanked his chain good, when said prisoner wrote a letter to the local paper [published by a most discriminating editor] in which he bragged about his cushy prison life and how endless appeals would keep his hide from the executioner for years on end.

According to the email, Representative Pittman’s reaction was, in part, the following:

We need to make the death penalty a real deterrent again by actually carrying it out. Every appeal that can be made should have to be made at one time, not in a serial manner,” Pittman wrote in the email. “If murderers (and I would include abortionists, rapists, and kidnappers, as well) are actually executed, it will at least have the deterrent effect upon them. For my money, we should go back to public hangings, which would be more of a deterrent to others, as well.

To be fair to Representative Pittman, I do not know the details of this prisoner’s crime.  As far as I know, he may deserve to rot in prison forever. He may even deserve to swing from a rope.  Personally, I’m not a huge fan of the death penalty, particularly when I read stats like this:

Since 1973, at least 121 people have been released from death row after evidence of their innocence emerged. During the same period of time, over 982 people have been executed. Thus, for every eight people executed, we have found one person on death row who never should have been convicted. These statistics represent an intolerable risk of executing the innocent. If an automobile manufacturer operated with similar failure rates, it would be run out of business.

Our capital punishment system is unreliable. A recent study by Columbia University Law School found that two thirds of all capital trials contained serious errors. When the cases were retried, over 80% of the defendants were not sentenced to death and 7% were completely acquitted.

But that’s an argument for another day.

Representative Pittman did, in fact, back pedal on sending his ‘opinion’ to every member of the General Assembly, claiming it was intended for a single member.  He was fatigued, he said, hitting ‘Reply All’ in error.  He also said that perhaps he’d gotten carried away when he vented his disgust and agitation, but he was over-wrought by his concern for the victim of the letter-writing prisoner.  He was concerned about the family’s right to see justice done.

But I missed this part:

Oh, and you know the inclusion of abortion doctors, saying that they should be first in line for the gallows?  I apologize.  Because even I know that since abortion is still legal in this country, hanging a doctor who has performed a legal abortion would be  .  .  .  murder.  As a State Representative of the Great State of North Carolina I would not want to give the impression that murder is a good thing or understandable when committed against Pro-Choice Physicians, even those who perform abortions.  Because to do so would set a bad example to the very populace I’m pledged to represent.  Sending that email was a foolish, unseemly thing to do.

Sadly, he did not write or say that.

As for public hangings acting as a deterrent to crime?  Though Timothy McVeigh’s execution was viewed on closed circuit TV for family members of the deceased and rescue workers, the last public execution in the US, a hanging, occurred in 1936 in Owensboro, Kentucky.  It was that particular execution, the carnival nature of the hanging and the coverage received, that convinced public officials that going public was not a good idea. We can go back further to find ample examples of public hangings, death by firing squad, horse and quartering, beheadings, etc.

And lo and behold, we still had crime, oodles of it.  Frequently during those festive-like affairs, pickpockets flourished and prospered.

Executions were good for business.

I vaguely recall Phil Donahue calling for televised executions, back when the electric chair was still favored.  His reasoning was not a pretense that viewable executions would deter crime but that seeing a man or woman electrocuted, the true ugliness of  the act, would serve as a deterrent to the death penalty itself.

Was Donahue right?  I don’t know.  At the time, I thought the suggestion was crazy.

But calling for public hangings, including doctors who perform legal abortions, even from a fatigued state legislator is, in my opinion, a step too far.  Maybe we should thank Representative Pittman for offering a window into his mind’s secret workings.  We can theorize that since his opinion was ‘intended’ for a single legislator, Representative Pittman assumed his recipient was a kindred spirit, someone who shared his ‘frustrations.’

That makes at least one like-minded person serving in the NC General Assembly.  We can only guess how many others.

Oh, and there’s this–in addition to being a NC representative?  Mr. Pittman lists his occupation as: Pastor, Shipping Worker and Company Chaplain.

You cannot make this stuff up.


15 Comments on “Justice And A Call For Public Hangings”

  1. ralphb says:

    When I read this story originally, just about the only thing that didn’t surprise me at all was that he was a “pastor”. That’s really sad.

  2. Fannie says:

    Somebody put an X through those hanging photos.

  3. Thanks for posting this peggysue. This incident – the email – should get wide pubic attention but it probably won’t.

    I am against the death penalty, specifically because of the chance of a wrongful conviction. Cops want to solve the case and have been known to force false confessions out of the person they are certain committed the crime. Witnesses often make claims that are later found to be inaccurate or even outright lies. Prosecutors want another win so may not release all of the info to the defense that is required by law. Juries more often than not don’t want to serve and make quick judgments so they can go home. The justice system is broken, especially for the poor and people of color.

    And let’s not forget that the burning of witches was a public spectacle as well. Women found guilty of witchcraft – by the Church – would have their breasts sliced off, often times, and then tied to a stake where they were burned alive. There were also the dunkings, where if she drowned she was innocent. And, their familiars, their cats, were killed along with them.

    Some in the rescue community feel that euthanasia should be televised to make people see how dogs and cats are killed in local “shelters.” Personally, I think that the people who should watch – those who neglect, abuse and dump animals – won’t watch or, if they do, they will derive some sick pleasure from it. I feel the same about televising executions.

  4. bostonboomer says:

    I refuse to be dragged back into the dark ages by religious extremist freaks!

    Thanks for writing this, Peggy Sue.

  5. OT but another devout Christian cause, immigration laws: http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/456/reap-what-you-sow It’s primarily focused on Alabama. The politics of fear & hate. Near the end the narrator asks one lawmaker if Jesus would vote for the law if all the proposed changes were made. His answer? Probably not.

  6. This is so silly. He made a comment probably in jest. Does no one have a sense of humor these days? No…tut tut..what a thing to joke about. How could he? Let’s use it against him. Let’s make it sound bad. OK, what is happening is that YOU sound bad for being such a stick in the mud. He can’t really bring back hangings. No one wants to really do that. It was an exaggeration to make a point. Have you ever studied human behavior or persuasive speech? It’s OK if you haven’t. You probably know abut it firsthand since you have probably used the same type of illustration yourself for opining without even realizing it. He is saying he wants to make a dent in crime. What would get people’s attention? Maybe hanging is the only thing that will. He is not for DOING it. He is speculating, joking, illustrating, exaggerating to make a point. There will probably be more of this nonsense as election time draws near. Look for the meaning not for something to pick on to make your side look good. Why polarize us further? This is not a football game. If we pick like this, neither side will win.

    • And the drama with which you present his statement is not helping either. Makes for a great novel, though. Maybe you missed your calling.

      • bostonboomer says:

        That’s a bit rude. Actually, though, I believe Peggy Sue is a novelist–so good call even though you apparently meant your remark to be unkind.

    • bostonboomer says:

      And you know this how? Are you aware that crime has dropped dramatically in the past decade? So it can’t be that he thinks crime is increasing, can it? If he is joking “to make a point,” just what is that point? Do tell.

      Was the guy in OK “joking” when he got a law passed banning fetuses in food?

    • hanging won’t deter crime, it will fuel more unrest and violence

    • janicen says:

      He called for violence against abortion providers. Professionals who perform a legal service who have been murdered in the past by unstable individuals who have justified the murders because of similar statements and beliefs. Jokes about murdering specific people are not jokes, they are calls to action for every misfit who reads or hears it. The statement was wildly irresponsible regardless of what point Pittman was trying to make. People have lost their lives because of the attitude expressed in his statement. I can’t imagine choosing a more appropriate battle.

    • peggysue22 says:

      I couldn’t disagree with you more, Virginia. I don’t think this is a joke. I think it’s a mindset.

      Frankly, I’m sick and tired of off-the-wall, cavalier comments made by the Religious Right, people who seem to take pleasure in disparaging women, reproductive rights and physicians who perform legal and safe abortions. This particular prisoner who riled the Congressman up may, in fact, deserve the harshest treatment. But bringing back public hangings, a comment you suggest was made in jest, is unbecoming and unseemly for a Congressman to make.

      You’re right, I find no humor in it. It’s about time this nonsense was called out for the small, narrow-minded attitude it represents.

      I wish it were a fiction. But clearly, it is not.

  7. northwestrain says:

    On one hand — every single sperm that merges with an egg (human) must be SAVED. If the extreme religious right has their way — soon all women of child bearing age — will be monitored 24/7. Cannot kill the sperm er ….. unborn — whatever.

    On the other hand — these same wing nuts want to murder/eliminate a long list of living humans — gays, feminists, abortion providers, witches, liberals, women who have abortions — which would mean a huge number of women would be murdered by these fascist creeps.

    Love the fetus — hate the person. These same christians also want to toss all sorts of people in jail. Years ago I went to a WA Republican caucus — this is where the grass root voters sent their recommendations to the legislature — the biggest demand was more jails.

    The United States of America has an incarceration rate of 743 per 100,000 of national population (as of 2009), the highest in the world.[2] In comparison, Russia has the second highest 577 per 100,000, Canada is 123rd in the world with 117 per 100,000, and China has 120 per 100,000.[2] While Americans only represent about 5 percent of the world’s population, one-quarter of the entire world’s inmates are incarcerated in the United States.[3]

    When are we going to see the increase in the jail population for women who miscarry? It is happening now — but with all the stupid laws by stupid people that number will increase.

    Today’s young women are going to be repeating history — at some point women have to say enough.

    Did any of us old feminists realize that this generation would be fighting the same damned battles. (And the anti-feminists would be in the white house???)

  8. dakinikat says:

    The death penalty isn’t a deterrent to anything. It’s strictly iron age revenge via what sez the angry sky gawd. The hallmark of civilization has to be the lack of religion. I’m just waiting for the day when science and reason rule. This country that was born of agnostics during the age of reason sure has sunk to new lows.