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Miscellany: Letters From Michigan: Number II

Miscellany: Letters From Michigan: Number II image
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Incommon with her eider sisters, Michigan has found it necessary to provide a Penitentiary for the safe keeping of crimináis, where.they are also made to remunérate society by their labor, for a portion of the expense incurred in their apprehension, conviction, and punishment. Imprisonment at hard labor seems to be much more appropriate as a punishment than the old plan of whipping, cropping &nd branding. In this State, all atrocious crimes ar e punished in the Penitentiary, except murder, vhichis here punished. as in most other parts of the world by death. But death is rarely inflicted here. Homicides seldom occur, and when they do, the circumstances are usual ly such that the oifender is not capitally punished. - During the last seventeen ycars, in a population which has averaged perhaps 100,000, onlv one execution is known to have taken place. The propriety of inflicting capital punishment at all, has been a matter of discussion here as well as elsewhere. The same diversity of opinión is manifested by legislators, editors, ministers, lawyers, and people. The Democracy, on the whole, aresupposed to be 'favorable to its ábolition, although with large exceptions, tvhile a considerable portion of the clergy and of the religious part of community are for retaining it. It is, indeed, a question involving, in its the most important principies of legislaüon, The argument in favor of capitaí pimishrn'ent is of a twofold nature,that derivedfíorrí Rëteïatiön, and tlmt which is alledged to be the result of reason and experience. The íírst is founded chiefly, I believe, on a passage in the ninth chapter of Genesis, in which God tells Noah and his sons, that "who so shoddeth mans blood, by manshall his blood be shed." The argument fromthis texf, I apprehend, vrüï have bvrt ïittle weighf with the mass of comtnunity That command can be of no more binding obligaiíon than one in a preceding verse, by which Noah and Jiis family were forbiddeii; fc' eat blood.-The two commands proceeded from the same Lawgiver, were addressed to the same persons, and, for aught that appears to the contrary, were intended to be in force an equal period of time. Yet who has any religious scruples about eating blood, because God told Híaah not ío eat itl It can scarcely be supposed, without the most convincing evidence, that the Supreme Legislator would establish a penal statute for the punishment of a single crime, which should be inflicted in all states of society, the most civilized and the most savage, under the most diverse circumstances, and which should prevail among myriads of beings of every degree of morality and intellect, as long as the world should exist- perhaps some hundred thousand or million of years. For if this precept, thus given to Noah was meant for us, it must apply equally toall the multitudes of coming time, and be the supreme legislation to them as well as to us. A statute, thüs claiming to be derived from Heaven, extending toall the human race, superseding all human legislation, and enduring through almostillimitable ages, should be well established before it is admitted as an unalterable rule of action. But whatever may be the opinión of divines or theologians upon this point, the mass of the people and their legislators will decide upon the continuance of capital punishment upon very different data upon its adaptation to prevent crime, and promote goöd order in community. The proposed reform is met al the beginning by formidable objections. The punishment of death is venerable by its continual use, almost from the beginning of the world. Cain expressed hisapprehen sion of suffering capitally for the murder of.his brotherj and since that time hanging, drowning, beheading, strangling, impaling, burying alive, and various other modes of putting people out of the world have been practised by the highest civilauthonties, and approved by the most solemn sanctions of the expounders of everv religión. But all this does not prove that capital punishment was indispensable in former ages, or, if it was, that it is useful and necessary now. Death has been inflicted for almost every oiience of which man can be guilty. In England, Blackstone informs us that when his Commentaries were written, (about forty years since,) no less than one hundred and sixly offences were capitally punished. And what was the consequence of such sanguinary legïslation? Let the learned Judge answer: "So dreadful a list, instead of diminshing, increases the number of oilcndrp.nv, ijuicu, nnuugji cuuipassion, wm o - ten forbear to prosccute; juries, through compassion, will sometimes forget their oaths. and either acquit the guilty, or mitigate the nature of the offence; and judges, through compassion, will rcspite one half the convicts, and recommend them to the royal mercy. -Among so many chances of eseaping, the needy and hardened offender overlooks the multitude that suffer; he boldly engages in some desperate attempt to relieve his wants, or supplv hjs vices; and if unexpectedly the hand of justice overtakes him, he deerns himself peculiarly unfortunate in falling at last a sacrifice to those laws which long impunity has taught him to contemn." In arguing against multiplying capital offcnces, the author refers to the example of Russia where under the two princesscs. Elizabethand Catharine II, not a single execution took place. The Jatter gave orders forabolishing it throughout her extensive dominions, and yetnonecouldsoy but that the suhjects of these princesses were as secure in their social and civil rights as were the subjects of their sanguinary predecessors. If capital punishments deter from crime by their severity, ofcourse ihoso communities where the laws are the most rigorous wijl bc the least troubled with violations of law.-Iñatthisis not üje case, we may satis fy ourselves without going out of our own country. Michigan punishes one offence with death, Mississippi twefoc; y et the amount of crime, and especia! ly of homicides, is far greater in fhe latter State than in the former. In Virginia, white persons are punished with death for three offences, slaves for ninctecn, yet homicides are more frequent there than in Michigan or New England. The truth is that public sentiment in tíie Cree States will not sanction executions for any crime except murder; and practically the whole discussion must turn on the punishment of this crime. The hope of reforming the criminal by putting him out of the worldcannot be aïledged; and the main reason that can be urged for nanging in any case, is, that it wilj deter othera ft&m committing that crime fot which the cuípríí suffers, But does it have this effect aL all. and if so, to what exteiit? A careíuí analysis of the feelings andi thoughts of every pffender when meditating the commission of crime would probably show that, in most cases, the simple fear of punishment, whatever itv-■■-■■ be, is but one of many influences that crowd upon the mind. The gratificaron of violent passions is usually the predominant motive for murder; and from these the offender takes counsel, without adjüsting with very nioe balan?es,tho amount of punishnoent the law has affixed to that crime he intends tocommiU So faf as he thinks of it all, he hopes to eaiape its penalties, or intends to brave them out.- Persons in this situatidh revolve many circumstances in their minds, and are influenced by many motives, arnong which the fear of punishment has probably only tl secondary influence. ít will be observed that the question is not about the propriety of abolishing all punishment for murder, but whether imprisonment for life would not opérate quito as well as a preventative as capital punishment Were the fear of punishmenf Ihe oxly Ihing which would determine the offender to commit or to refrain from committing a crimp, we might answer this question with some degree of certainty: but if this be but one element of action among many conflicting ones, and this is very often of a secondary nature, it must be plain that all calculalions based on its uniform action upon minds of all characters must be fallacious in the extreme. Too much dependance has been placed by legislaíors upon the efficíicy of legal penalties as a means of preventing crime. The number of persons who would commit murder were the present law altered to perpetual imprisonment, who will not commit it while the law remains unaltered, must be small indeed. But admitting there would then be one hundred murders where there are now ninety-nine, the positive evil of capital punishment may justly be brought in to balance the small increase of crime. This svil consists principally in the conviction ind execution of raany innocent persons,who are thus placed beyond the reach o! a just recompence, and ín the escape oi the guiity, through the compassion or conscientious scruples of a jury. I know it is said the exa?npïe of capita] punishment will deter from crime. Bul to what extent can this be true? We have had one exccution in Michigan in seventeen years. In some of the Slave States, the number of exccutions must be at lensr five times as many in the same population, yet crime is not suppressed! The maxim involved in the argument, that the more rigorous the punishment, the less will crime abound, can be true only to a certain extent: because the amount of crime is afTectcd by many other considerations. If the executions bo few amidst a large population, and at long intervals, the impression on the mass of community wijl be slight, feeble in its effects, and quiekly eradicated. On the contrary, if frequent and of every day occurrcnce, the effect of them would only be hnrdening and debasing. What parent would send his child to an execution every day. that he might learn to acquire an abhorrence of murder? On account of the immoral effects ofsuch exhibitions, ourlegislators have ordered executions to be held in private; and yet if crimináis are hanged for the sake of benefitting others by the example, the execution should be as public as possible.As to the result of the discussion now progrcssiftgon capital punishment, every attentive observer can sec that, having come up for investigaron before the people, it will not be put aside until a verdict shall be rendered upon it. Present appearances indícate tliat executions will be abolished soon, at least for a season. - Should experiencc prove tbat they are indispensable to the welfare of society, they may be revi.ved again. But at present, a considerable portion of community are opposed to them. The taking of human life is ahvays an ungracious, unpleasant task; and to take it under circurnstances in which a largo portion of the peuplo regard such an act as cruel, injudicious. and unnecessary, will invest the transaction with such an odiousness as will secure its entire t'.bandonment.


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