EDWARD I. KOCH
Death and Justice
Outspoken and controversial, Edward I. Koch (born 1924) served as the
Democratic mayor of New York City from 1978 to 1989. He has always been
eager to engage in public debate on controversial issues in his three
books, in his hundreds of speeches, and in his published articles. In
1985, he contributed the following essay to The New Republic, an
influential public affairs magazine generally considered
middle-of-the-road in its outlook.
Last December a man named Robert Lee Willie, who had been convicted of raping and
murdering an 18-year-old woman, was executed in the Louisiana state prison. In a statement
issued several minutes before his death, Mr. Willie said: "Killing people is wrong.
makes no difference whether it's citizens, countries, or governments. Killing is wrong."
Two weeks later in South Carolina, an admitted killer named Joseph Carl Shaw was put to
death for murdering two teenagers. In an appeal to the governor for clemency, Mr. Shaw
wrote: "Killing is wrong when I did it. Killing is wrong when you do it. I hope you have
the courage and moral strength to stop the killing."
It is a curiosity of modem life that we find ourselves being lectured on morality by
cold-blooded killers. Mr. Willie previously had been convicted of aggravated rape,
aggravated kidnapping, and the murders of a Louisiana deputy and a man from Missouri. Mr.
Shaw committed another murder a week before the two for which he was executed, and admitted
mutilating the body of the 14-year-old girl he killed. I can't help wondering what prompted
these murderers to speak out against killing as they entered the death-house door. Did
their newfound reverence for life stem from the realization that they were about to lose
Life is indeed precious, and I believe the death penalty helps to affirm this fact. Had
the death penalty been a real possibility in the minds of these murderers, they might well
have stayed their hand. They might have shown moral awareness before their victims died ,
and not after. Consider the tragic death of Rosa Velez, who happened to be home when a man
named Luis Vera burglarized her apartment in Brooklyn. "Yeah, I shot her," Vera admitted.
"She knew me, and I knew I wouldn't go to the chair."
During my 22 years in public service, I have heard the pros and cons of capital
punishment expressed with special intensity. As a district leader, councilman, congressman,
and mayor, I have represented constituencies generally thought of as liberal. Because I
support the death penalty for heinous crimes of murder, I have sometimes been the subject
of emotional and outraged attacks by voters who find my position reprehensible or worse. I
have listened to their ideas. I have weighed their objections carefully I still support the
death penalty The reasons I maintain my position can be best understood by examining the
arguments most frequently heard in opposition.
1. The death penalty is "barbaric. " Sometimes opponents of capital punishment horrify