‘The Highest Attribute of Man’

In — what? — 20 minutes or so, we’ll put another convict to death at San Quentin (and yes, I’m against the death penalty for all the reasons opponents usually give). The case and our governor’s refusal to really consider clemency, much less grant it, made me think about Clarence Darrow’s hours-long summation in the 1924 Nathan Leopold-Richard Loeb case in Chicago. Darrow’s clients had pleaded guilty to killing a 14-year-old boy for no other reason than that they wanted to commit “the perfect crime” and conduct an “experiment in sensation.” The only issue for the judge to decide was whether the killers would be hanged or sentenced to life in prison. Darrow concluded:

Your Honor stands between the past and the future. You may hang these boys; you may hang them by the neck until they are dead. But in doing it you will turn your face toward the past. In doing it you are making it harder for every other boy who in ignorance and darkness must grope his way through the mazes which only childhood knows. In doing it you will make it harder for unborn children. You may save them and make it easier for every child that sometime may stand where these boys stand. You will make it easier for every human being with an aspiration and a vision and a hope and a fate. I am pleading for the future; I am pleading for a time when hatred and cruelty will not control the hearts of men. When we can learn by reason and judgment and understanding and faith that all life is worth saving, and that mercy is the highest attribute of man.

I feel that I should apologize for the length of time I have taken. This case may not be as important as I think it is, and I am sure I do not need to tell this court, or to tell my friends that I would fight just as hard for the poor as for the rich. If I should succeed, my greatest reward and my greatest hope will be that for the countless unfortunates who must tread the same road in blind childhood that these poor boys have trod—that I have done something to help human understanding, to temper justice with mercy, to overcome hate with love.

I was reading last night of the aspiration of the old Persian poet, Omar Khayyam. It appealed to me as the highest that I can vision. I wish it was in my heart, and I wish it was in the hearts of all.

So I be written in the Book of Love,

I do not care about that Book above.

Erase my name or write it as you will,

So I be written in the Book of Love.

What a quaint sentiment, viewed from an age in which our only real public faith seems to be in what we might achieve by force and coercion. (Leopold and Loeb got life sentences (plus 99 years each for kidnapping their victim). Later, Loeb was killed in prison; Leopold was eventually paroled.)

One Reply to “‘The Highest Attribute of Man’”

  1. Maybe I’ll have a go at this one. I too am against the death penalty for the same reasons you are. It strikes me as pretty empty exercise in revenge. And with the nation passing the 1000 mark for executions over the last 30 years or so, you have ask yourself if we’re batting a perfect .1000 on accuracy in conviction. Probably not, I’d reckon. Also, I wonder about how a guy like Stanley Williams goes to the death house while convicted mob hit-men, who arguably do things that are as bad as a street-gang member don’t. It adds up to uneven justice. And of course it is seen as racist and no amount of pro-death penalty rationalizing is going to change that. Over the long haul, the death penalty ends up being corrosive to a civil society like some sort of diminishing return on investment….in time and effort… administering it and meting it out. So that is my unscientific opinion.

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