A Death Penalty Advocate’s Sad Argument

July 17, 2015

The modern American death penalty has few advocates as aggressive and outspoken as Dale Cox. He is the acting district attorney of Caddo Parish, La., a poor region in one of the nation’s poorest states. From 2010 to 2014, prosecutors in Caddo Parish won more death sentences per capita than anywhere else in the country.

In March Mr. Cox drew national news coverage for his response to a former colleague’s public apology for putting a man on death row who later turned out to be innocent. “I think we need to kill more people,” Mr. Cox said.

The purpose of the death penalty, he has said repeatedly, is not to deter crime but to exact revenge. “Retribution is a valid societal interest,” he told The New York Times.

He has denied that the death penalty is racist or arbitrary, even though Caddo Parish, like most places in the country, applies it disproportionately in cases involving black defendants.

His concern about the method of execution is whether it inflicts enough pain. In a recent case of a man sentenced to death for suffocating his 1-year-old son, Mr. Cox was upset that lethal injection would be used. The convict, he said, “deserves as much physical suffering as it is humanly possible to endure before he dies

But on July 14, Mr. Cox — who took over as top prosecutor when his boss died suddenly in April — announced that he would not run for election in the fall, as he had originally planned.

His reasoning? Beyond the usual comment that the media attention was a distraction, he said, “I have come to believe that my position on the death penalty is a minority position among the members of this community.”

It was an interesting admission for several reasons, not least of which is that Mr. Cox himself used to be opposed to capital punishment. Raised Catholic and educated in a Jesuit school, he left an earlier job in the district attorney’s office because of his discomfort with such cases, according to a New Yorker profile of Mr. Cox published this month.

Over the years he changed his mind, he explained, in reaction to the cases of unspeakable brutality that he was exposed to as a prosecutor. “The nature of the work is so serious that there’d be something wrong if it didn’t change you,” Mr. Cox told The Times, saying also that he now takes medicine for depression.

It is easy to caricature Mr. Cox as little more than the angry, unrepentant face of vengeance behind America’s ever-narrowing campaign of state-sponsored killing. But it is important to listen closely to what he is saying about his job, which subjects those who do it to daily trauma and cruelty on a level most people never experience.

And that is another reason the death penalty must end: It dehumanizes not just those put to death, but everyone involved in the process — from the prosecutors who seek it to the juries who impose it and the executioners who carry it out.

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