The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Death is a serious business. Only tyrants are excited by executions.

Speaking at the White House on Friday to announce he was declaring a national emergency, President Trump spoke fondly about the practice of executing drug traffickers.
Speaking at the White House on Friday to announce he was declaring a national emergency, President Trump spoke fondly about the practice of executing drug traffickers. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

Patti Davis is the author of the new novel “The Wrong Side of Night” and the daughter of Ronald and Nancy Reagan.

On the night of April 11, 1967, hundreds of candles flickered on the street outside California Gov. Ronald Reagan’s residence. The vigil was for Aaron Mitchell, a 37-year-old black man who had killed a police officer, Arnold Gamble, during an armed robbery on Feb. 15, 1963. His plea for clemency had landed on my father’s desk; previously, Gov. Pat Brown had declined it. Weighed down by the somber responsibility of putting a man to death, my father had instructed Edwin Meese III, his legal affairs secretary, to comb through the case and look for any reason the death penalty should not be enforced. Meese came up empty. It was the coldblooded murder of a police officer, who had a wife and two children, and he could find no reason to stay the execution.

Inside the governor’s residence, my father sat quietly with the Rev. Donn Moomaw, our family’s pastor of many years. Moomaw had flown in from Los Angeles at my father’s request to pray with him. The two men talked about the Bible and about Jesus’ teachings. Then they knelt in prayer, asking for God’s guidance and help in making the decision that had haunted my father for weeks — the decision to end a man’s life. His thoughts kept veering to the officer’s family, to their grief and loss, and he was unable to justify staying the execution that was scheduled for the following morning. He said that this decision was the most painful and difficult of his eight years as governor.

That’s how it should be. Whether you believe in capital punishment is irrelevant. What is relevant is how you regard the taking of a life, whether you take it lightly or with the somber reverence that should always accompany matters of life and death. My father was driven to his knees because, he said, it’s one thing to believe in capital punishment, quite another to hold a man’s life in your hands.

He would later tell me that he slept fitfully that night, if at all. He said he didn’t mind that church bells had been scheduled to ring at the time of the execution, but he wished that church bells would ring for the victims of such violent acts. He went to the office on the morning of April 12 and saw more demonstrators outside. At 10 a.m., Mitchell died in the gas chamber at San Quentin. No one in the governor’s office, least of all my father, rejoiced. There would be no other executions during the eight years of the Reagan governorship.

Some time after that, my father said that no part of a governor’s job is approached “more prayerfully” than a death penalty decision.

It’s a good thing he isn’t here now to hear President Trump express excitement over China employing the death penalty for drug dealers, and to strongly suggest that we here in the United States should do the same. Of course, that would mean that Alice Marie Johnson, whom Mr. Trump released from prison after 21 years on a drug trafficking conviction, would have been put to death, but then when has consistency ever been part of this presidency?

Tyrants take life and death casually. Trump has boasted of a “great relationship” with Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, who has encouraged the citizens of his country to kill people who are suspected of drug trafficking and even drug addicts. Trump has defended Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose enemies frequently turn up dead under suspicious circumstances, and negotiated with Kim Jong Un, who had his uncle, Jang Song Thaek, executed, and whose half brother, Kim Jong Nam, was assassinated. It’s not difficult to assume there was rejoicing among the rulers in Saudi Arabia when Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered.

If someone can express excitement over the killing of another human being, that says everything about them. It says that, within that person, where humanity and empathy and respect for life should reside, there is just empty space.

A leader is supposed to search for the balance between humanity and enforcement of the law. A leader is supposed to feel the crushing weight of responsibility when decisions of life and death arise. A leader who does not do that is the sort of person our Founding Fathers tried to keep away from this grand experiment called America.

Read more:

George F. Will: Abolish the death penalty

Richard Cohen: Why haven’t we abolished the death penalty and moved on?

Elizabeth Bruenig: The pope’s death penalty announcement reminds us what is pure and holy

Bob Taft and Joseph E. Kernan: End the death penalty for mentally ill criminals

Charles Lane: Most Americans don’t like the death penalty, right? Wrong.