Civil Rights and Conflict in the United States: Selected Speeches


Remarks from a debate on Capital Punishment with Judge Alfred J. Talley, New York City, October 27, 1924

by Clarence Darrow
Additional Information
  • Year Published: 1924
  • Language: English
  • Country of Origin: United States of America
  • Source: Clarence Darrow, (: , 1924)
  • Readability:
    • Flesch–Kincaid Level: 6.3
  • Word Count: 3,919
  • Genre: Speech
  • Keywords: capitol punishment, justice
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I hope I will not be obliged to spend too much time on my friend's address. I don't think I shall need to.

First, I deny his statement that every man's heart tells him it is wrong to kill. I think every man's heart desires killing. Personally, I never killed anybody that I know of. But I have had a great deal of satisfaction now and then reading obituary notices, and I used to delight, with the rest of my 100 percent patriotic friends, when I saw ten or fifteen thousand Germans being killed in a day.

Everybody loves killing. Some of them think it is too mussy or them. Every human being believes in capital punishment loves killing, and the only reason they believe in capital punishment is because they get a kick out of it. Nobody kills anyone for love, unless they get over it temporarily or otherwise. But they kill the one they hate. And before you can get a trial to hang somebody or electrocute him, you must first hate him and then get a satisfaction over his death.

There is no emotion in any human being that is not in every single human being. The degree is different, that is all. And the degree is not always different in different people. It depends likewise on circumstances, on time, and on place.

I shall not follow my friend into the labyrinth of statistics. Statistics are a pleasant indoor sport—not so good as crossword puzzles—and they prove nothing to any sensible person who is familiar with statistics.

I might just observe, in passing, that in all of these states where the mortality by homicide is great, they have capital punishment and always have had it. A logical man, when he found out that the death rate increased under capital punishment, would suggest some other way of dealing with it.

I undertake to say—and you can look them up yourselves, for I haven't time to bother with it(and there is nothing that lies like statistics)—I will guarantee to take any set of statistics and take a little time to it and prove they mean directly the opposite for what is claimed. But I will undertake to say that you can show by statistics that the states in which there was no capital punishment have a very much smaller percentage of homicides.

I know it is true. That doesn't prove anything, because, as a rule, they are states with a less diverse population, without as many large cities, without as much mixtures of all sorts of elements which go to add to the sort of question but what those states in the United States where there is no capital punishment have a lower percentage than the others. But that doesn't prove the question. It is a question that cannot be proven one way or the other by statistics. It rests upon things, upon feelings and emotions and arguments much deeper that statistics.

The death rate in Memphis an din some other southern cities is high from homicide. Why? Well, it is an afternoon's pleasure to kill a Negro—that is about all. Everybody knows it.

The death rate recently in the United States and all over the world has increased. Why? The same thing has happened that has happened in every country in the world since time began. A great war always increases death rates.

We teach people to kill, and the state is the one that teaches them. If a state wishes that its citizens respect human life, then the state should stop killing. It can be done in no other way, and it will perhaps not be fully done that way. There are infinite reasons for killing. There are infinite circumstances under which there are more or less deaths. It never did depend and never can depend upon the severity of the punishment.

He talks about the United States being a lawless country. Well, the people somehow prefer it. There is such a thing as people being too servile to law. You may take China with her caste system and much of Europe, which has much more caste than we. It may be full of homicides, but there is less bread and there is less fun; there is less opportunity for the poor. In any new country, homicide is more frequent than in an old country, because there is a higher degree of equality. It is always true wherever you go. And in the older countries, as a general rule, there are fewer homicides because nobody ever thinks of getting out of his class; nobody ever dreams of such a thing.

But let's see what there is in this argument. He says, " everybody who kills, dreads hanging." Well, he has had experiences as a lawyer on both sides. I have had experience on one side. I know that everybody who is taken into court on a murder charge desires to live, and they do not want to be hanged or electrocuted. Even a thing as alluring as being cooked with electricity doesn't appeal to them.

But that hasn't anything to do with it. What was the state of mind when the homicide was committed? The state of mind is one thing when a homicide is committed and another weeks or months afterward, when every reason for committing it is gone. There is no comparison between it. There never can be any comparison between it.

We might ask why people kill. I don't want to dispute with him about the right of the state to kill people. Of course, they have got a right to kill them. That is about all we do. The great industry of the world for four long years was killing. They have got a right to kill, of course. That is, they have got the power. And you have got a right to do what you get away with. The words "power" and "right," so far as this is concerned, mean exactly the same thing. So nobody who has any knowledge of philosophy would pretend to say that the state had not the right to kill.

But why not do a good job of it? If you want to get rid of killings by hanging people or electrocuting them because these are so terrible, why not make a punishment that is terrible? This isn't so much. It lasts but a short time. There is no physical torture in it. Why not boil them in oil, as they used to do? Why not burn them at the stake? Why not sew them in to a bag with serpents and throw them out to sea? Why not take them out on the sand and let them be eaten by ants? Why not break every bone in their body on the rack, as has been done for such serious offenses as heresy and witch craft?

Those were the good old days in which the should have held court. Glorious days, when you could kill them by the million because they worshiped God in a different way from that which the state provided, or when you could kill old women for witchcraft! There might be some sense in it if you could kill young ones, but not old ones. Those were the glorious days of capital punishment. And there wasn�t' a judge or a preacher who didn't think that the life of the state depended upon their right to hang old women for witchcraft and to persecute others for worshiping God in the wrong way.

Why, our capital punishment isn't worth talking about, so far as its being a preventive is concerned. It isn't worth discussing. Why not call back from the dead and barbarous past the hundred and sixty or seventy–odd crimes that were punishable by death in England? Why not once more reenact the blue laws of our own country and kill people right? Why not resort to all the tortures that the world has always resorted to to keep men in the straight and narrow path? Why reduce it to a paltry question of murder?

Everybody in this world has some pet aversion to something, and on account of that pet aversion they would like to hang somebody. If the prohibitionists made the law, they would be in favor of hanging you for taking a drink, or certainly for bootlegging, because to them that is the most heinous crime there is.

Some men slay or murder. Why? As a matter of fact, murder as murder is very rare; and the people who commit it, as a rule, are of a much higher type than others. You may go to any penitentiary and, as a rule, those who have been convicted of murder become the trusties; whereas, if you are punishing somebody as a sneak thief or a counterfeiter or a confidence man, they never get over it—never.

Now, I don't know how injustice is administered in New York. I just know about Chicago. But I am glad to learn from the gentleman that if a man is so poor in New York that he can't hire a lawyer, that he has a first–class lawyer appointed to defend him—a first–class lawyer appointed to defend him. Don't take a chance an go out an kill anybody on the statement made by my friend.

I suppose anybody can go out and kill somebody and ask to have my friend Sam Untermyer appointed. There never was such a thing. Here and there, a good lawyer may have defended people for nothing. But no court ever interferes with a good lawyer's business by calling him in and compelling him to give his time. They have been lawyers too re3cently themselves to ever work a trick like that on a lawyer. As a rule, it is the poor and the weak and the friendless who furnish the victims of the law.

Let me take another statement of my friend. He said, "Oh, we don't hang anybody of they kill when they are angry; it is only when the act premeditatedly." Yes, I have been in courts and heard judges instruct people on this premeditated act. It is only when they act under their judgment and with due consideration. He would also say that if a man is moved by anger, but if he doesn't strike the deadly blow until such time as reason and judgment has a chance to possess him, even if it is a second—how many times have I heard judges say, "Even if it is a second?" What does any judge know about premeditation? What does anybody know about it? How many people are there in this world that can premeditate on anything? I will strike out the "pre" and say how many people are there that can meditate?

How long does it take the angry man for his passions to cool when he is in the presence of the thing that angers him? There never was a premeditated murder in any sense of psychology or of science. There are planned murders—planned, yes—but back of every murder and back of every human act are sufficient causes that move the human machine beyond their control.

The other view is an outworn, outlawed, unscientific theory of the metaphysicians. Does anybody ever act in this world with out a motive? Did they ever act without a sufficient motive? And who am I to say that John Smith did. My judgment might have a chance to act quicker than John Smith's judgment had a chance to act.

We have heard talk of justice. Is there any body who knows what justice is? No one on earth can measure out justice. Can you look at any man and say what he deserves—whether he deserves hanging by the neck until dead or life in prison or thirty days in prison or a medal? The human Mind is blind to all who seek to look in a t it and to most of us that look out from it. Justice is something that man knows little about. He may know something about charity and understanding and mercy, and he should cling to these as far as he can.

Now, let me see if I am right about my statement that no man believes in hanging, except for a kick or revenge. How about my friend Judge Talley, here. He criticizes the state of New York because a prisoner may be shown moving pictures. What do you think about it—those of you who think? What do you feel about it—those of you who think? What do you feel about it—those of you who have passed the hyena age? I know what they think. What do you think about shutting a man in a penitentiary for twenty years, in a cell four feet wide and seven feet long—twenty years, mind!—and complaining because he had a chance now and then to go out and see a moving picture—go out of his cell?

A body of people who feels that way could never get rid of capital punishment. If you really felt it, you would feel like the Indian who used the tomahawk on his enemy and who burned him and embalmed his face with the ashes.

But what is punishment about anyway? I put a man in prison for the purpose of getting rid of him and for such example as there might be. Is it up to you torture him while he is there? Supposing you provided that every man who went to prison should be compelled to wear a nail half an inch long in his shoe. I suppose some of you would do it. I don't know whether the judge would or not, from what he said.

Is there any reason for torturing someone who happens to be in prison? Is there any reason why an actor or even an actress might not go there and sing? There is no objection to a preacher going there. Why not give him a little pleasure?

And they really get food there—what do you know about that? Now, when I heard him tell about what wonderful food they get—dietary food—did you ever know anybody that liked dietary food? I suppose the constitution of the state of New York contains the ordinary provision against cruel and inhuman punishment, and yet you send them up there and feed them on dietary food.

And you can take your meals out? Now, some of you might not have noticed that I walked over and Asked the warden about it. The reason I did that is because I am stopping over here at the Belmont, and I didn't know but I'd rather go up and board with him.

Now, this is what I find out: that those who have gained consideration by good conduct over a considerable period—one year—they may spend three dollars a week for board. I pay more than that over here. They ought to pass some law in New York to prevent the inmates getting dyspepsia. And for those who attain the second class, they may spend a dollar and a half a week. And for those below the second class, they may spend a dollar and a half a week. And for those below the second class, nothing can come from outside—nothing. A pure matter of prison discipline!

Why, I wonder if the judge ever took pains to go up there. I will tell you. I have had some experience with people that know them pretty well. I never saw a man who wanted to go to prison, even to see the movies. I never saw a man in my life who didn't want to get out.

I wonder what you would have. Of course, I live in Chicago, where people are fairly human—I don't know, maybe I don't understand the New York people. What would you have? Suppose you could tell yourselves how a person was to be treated while in prison—and it doesn't require a great amount of imagination. Most people can think of some relative or some friends who are there. If you can't, most of you can think of a good many that ought to be there. How would you have them treated—something worse than being shut up in a cell, four by seven, and given light work—like being a judge or practicing law—something worse than dietary food?

I will tell you. There is just one thing in all this question. It is a question of how you feel, that is all. It is all inside of you. If you love the thought of somebody being killed, why, you are for it. If you hate the thought of somebody being killed, you are against it.

Let me just take a little brief review of what has happened in this world. They used to hang people on the crossways an on a high hill, so that everybody would be awed into goodness by the sight. They have tortured them in every way that the brain of man could conceive. They have provided every torture known or that could be imagined for one who believed differently from his fellowman—and still the belief persisted. They have maimed and scarred and starved and killed human beings since man began penning his fellowman. Why? Because we hate him. And what has added to it is that they have done it under the false ideal of self–righteousness.

I have heard parents punish their children an tell their children it hurt the parent more than it did the child. I don't believe it. I have tried it both ways, and I don't believe it. I know better.

Gradually, the world has been lopping off these punishments. Why? Because we have grown a little more sensitive, a little more imaginative, a little kindler, that is all.

Why not reenact the code of Blackstone's day? Why, the judges were all for it—every one of them—and the only way we got rid of those laws was because juries were too humane to obey the courts.

That is the only way we got rid of punishing old women, of hanging old women in New England—because, in spite of all the courts, the juries would no longer convict them for a crime that never existed. And in that way they have cut down the crimes in England for punishment by death from one hundred and seventy to two. What is going to happen of we get rid of them? Is the world coming to an end? The earth has been here ages and ages before man came. I will be here ages and ages after he disappears, and the amount of people you hang won't make the slightest difference with it.

Now, why am I opposed to capital punishment? It is too horrible a thing for a state to undertake. We are told by my friend, "Oh, the killer does it; why shouldn't the state?" I would hate to live in a state that I didn't think was better than a murderer.

But I told you the real reason. The people of the state kill a man because he killed someone else—that is all —without the slightest logic, without the slightest application to life, simply from anger, nothing else!

I am against it because I believe it is inhuman, because I believe that as the hearts of men have softened they have gradually gotten rid of brutal punishment, because I believe that it will only be a few years until it will be banished forever from every civilized country—even New York—because I believe that it has no effect whatever to stop murder.

Now, let's make that simple and see. Where do the murders come from? I would say the second–largest class of what we call murders grows out of domestic relations. They follow those deep and profound feelings that are at the basic of life—and the feelings which give the greatest joy are susceptible of the greatest pain when they go ariot.

Can you imagine a woman following a man around with a pistol to kill him that would stop if you said, "Oh, you will be hanged!" Nothing doing—not if the world was coming to an end! Can you imagine a man doing it? Not at all. They think of it afterwards, but not before.

They come from acts like burglary and robbery. A man goes out to rob or to burglarize. Somebody catches him or stops him or recognizes him, and h kills to save himself. Do you suppose there was ever a burglar or robber since the world began who would not kill to save himself? Is there anybody who wouldn't? It doesn't make any difference who. Wouldn't he take a chance shooting? Anyone would do it. Why, my friend himself said he would kill in self–defense. That is what they do. If you are going to stop them, you ought to hang them for robbery—which would be a good plan—an then , of course, if one started to rob, he would kill the victim before robbed him.

There isn't, I submit, a single admissible argument in favor of capital punishment. Nature loves life. We believe that life should be protected and preserved. The thing that keeps one from killing is the emotion they have against it; and the greater the sanctity that the state pays to life, the greater the feeling of sanctity the individual has for life.

There is nothing in the history of the world that ever cheapened human life like our great war; next to that, the indiscriminate killing of men by the states.

My friend says a man must be proven guilty first. Does anybody know whether anybody is guilty? There is a great deal implied in that. For me to do something or for you to do something is on thing; for some other man to do something quite another. To know what one deserves, requires infinite study, which no one can give to it. No one can determine the condition of the brain that did the act. It is out of the question.

All people are products of two things, and two things only—their heredity and their environment. And they act in exact accord with the heredity which they took from all the past, and for which they are in no wise responsible, and the environment, which reaches out to the farthest limit of all life that can influence them. We all act from the same way. And it ought to teach us to be charitable and kindly and understanding of our fellowman.