Tessie Hutchinson and the American System of Capital Punishment

By Earl F. Martin / Maryland Law Review, on 1 January 2000

The story focuses on Tessie Hutchinson, who was selected by the communal lottery for execution; her only sin was to live in a village that had the tradition of stoning one of its inhabitants each year. This paper suggests some ways that the life of America’s death penalty mirrors the art of “The Lottery.” The author comments on the “masking of evil,” the execution of the innocent, the arbitrariness in selecting those who die, the search for justification, and the brutality of the death penalty. In “The Lottery,” the tradition of the stoning was so embedded in tradition and its administration was so formal and precise that the ultimate outcome of the tradition, the killing of a fellow human being, was sanitized and unexamined. In America, the net effect of the bureaucratization of executions is to give those who implement them and those who receive reports of them a sense of sterility and mundaneness that should never accompany the state’s killing of its own. Although proponents of capital punishment in America argue that the chances that an innocent person will be executed are slim, history shows that it has occurred. It was no comfort to Tessie Hutchinson that she was to be the only member of her village to be stoned that year. So it is no comfort to the innocent who are executed that each is only one of a small number of innocent people who have been killed by the state. The arbitrariness of the lottery in selecting who will be executed may not be so obvious in the selection of those who will be killed by the state in America. Still, random and arbitrary circumstances impact who is selected to be executed, circumstances such as the race and wealth of the defendant, the race of the victim, the quality of the defense counsel, the particular trial judge, and the State in which the crime occurs. Although there is no unequivocal evidence that the death penalty achieves some monumentally positive benefit for American society, support for it by the community persists, along with its brutality and cruelty. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that a “thinly veiled cruelty keeps the custom alive.”

  • Document type Article
  • Countries list United States
  • Themes list Networks,