Sunday, September 24, 2006

The One About The Death Penalty

It is morally wrong to kill another human being in a premeditated, cold-blooded manner. I know it and you know it. So stop avoiding the subject by raising other issues like executing an innocent person on occasion. Legal execution is just a socially acceptable way for otherwise decent citizens to act on their murderous inclinations with impunity. Somehow, some way, someday, we have to stop killing each other. Ending the death penalty is a start.
- our boy, in an online discussion of the death penalty

This past week, a jury returned a verdict against a man convicted of killing someone. That verdict was that the man himself should also die. I am disturbed by this. I am disturbed by this response from the victim's father:

I felt all along, for Dru's sake, this needed to happen.

I'd like to think I understand the response, though I've never been in that man's shoes. There was a time I'd have agreed with him, most likely. But that was before I figured out what I see as the key issue regarding the death penalty.

The death penalty is a serious issue, and as befitting a serious issue, there are serious arguments on both sides. Not all of those arguments are necessarily good ones, but each side does have points in their favor. For the longest time, I tried to reconcile these points.

1a. Studies have not shown the death penalty to have any significant deterrent effect on violent crime. There is even some evidence that the death penalty may serve as incentive to commite more brutal crimes than would otherwise be committed; after all, if you're going to die for doing the crime, you may as well make it worth your life, right?

1b. Outside of horror movies, no executed criminal has ever returned to commit more crimes. The death penalty is thus 100% effective at preventing recidivism.

2a. Society shouldn't have to pay to keep those who've committed heinous crimes alive; in effect, that's rewarding someone for doing something bad.

2b. Because of a combination of factors, it's actually more expensive to execute someone than it is to confine them to 'life imprisonment'. For starters, death row inmates are segregated from the rest of the prison population, making their incarceration more expensive by default, as the same number of guards could control a much larger number of traditinally imprisoned inmates. Appeals which might not be granted in a life-imprisonment case are routinely granted and sometimes statutorily required in death-penalty cases, due to the severity of the punishment; you need to be absolutely sure you've not only got the right guy, but that every bit of due process was followed before you can 'legitimately' execute a man, which makes their prosecution even more expensive compared to a 'traditional' inmate. And last but certainly not least, the length of the appeals process in some ambiguous cases, combined with the possibility of parole for life-imprisoned offenders as well as the observation that life expectency in prison is generally much less than the general population means that some death-row inmates will spend more time waiting to be executed than a life offender will spend in prison.

3a. As of the time of this writing, there have been 123 persons sentenced to die who have been exonerated since 1973 - an average of five people each year. In addition, at least seven people since 1993 have been executed despite considerable evidence that they did not, in fact, commit the crimes for which they were executed.

3b. There's a difference between 'innocent because I didn't commit the crime' and 'innocent because I didn't get my due process rights', and the latter shoudn't be confused for the former.

3c. Actually that's not entirely true - this list of exonerees shows all 123 cases. In 71 of those cases, the charges against the death-row prisoner were dismissed, frequently because the actual perpetrator was found to be someone else. In an additional 43 cases, the prisoner was granted a new trial and acquitted, meaning he was found not guilty; knowing for certain that at least one of those juries made an error, it would be hard for me to conclude that in every case the acquitting jury was the one in error.

Ultimately, since the majority of fact is on the side of those opposed to the death penalty, I decided to oppose it as well. Still, there was one pro-death penalty argument I couldn't blunt:

4a. What if someone killed the person you care about most in the world?

Granted, it's another emotional argument, but it's a powerful one - is it possible to be open-minded enough to look at the man who brutally raped and murdered your wife, sister, or daughter and believe that man doesn't deserve to die?

Then I stumbled across the quote that leads this essay, and I found my response.

4b. If I think he needs to die, I'm not going to contract the state to do the job for me.

The reason that a judge or jury can pass a death sentence, and that those carrying out the sentence are not technically guilty of murder is because of the concept of justifiable homicide. This is also the ultimate justification behind killing in self-defense - if someone is truly trying to kill you, and they're not going to stop until either you or he is dead, you are legally justified in killing that person to defend yourself.

The trick, of course, is proving that in court - that definition linked above isn't a statutory definition, but a dictionary definition. At the very least, you have to convince a prosecutor that you acted in self-defense so that she doesn't bring charges against you, and if she's not convinced, you'll have to convince a judge and jury.

Interestingly enough, the state of California tracks what it calls 'justifiable homicides' committed by either police or private citizens. California defines 'justifiable homicide' as the killing of a felon by a peace officer or private citizen during the commission of a felony, and in 2002 there were 35 such killings by private citizens in California. Interestingly, California also tracks the location of these killings, and the most common location isn't the one you'd expect - six felons were killed in a domicile that wasn't the felon's own residence (the 'burglar' scenario), but seven were killed in a domicile where the killer and felon shared residence, while ten were killed in a commercial establishment. At least in 2002 in California, you were far more likely to need a gun for self-defense at work than against an intruder in your own home, and more likely to need one against your spouse or roommate than against an intruder as well.

The problem with my counter-argument, intellectually, is that such a system has been tried before - it's almost exactly what's referred to as 'vendetta justice', and from Renaissance Italy to the American frontier West, everywhere it's been tried has found it to be a lawless, chaotic, and completely unsuitable system from actually bringing justice. In proposing my counter-argument, I pretty much admit that my ad-hoc 'system' isn't based on a desire for justice, but for revenge. In doing so, however, I also point out that the person I'm arguing with is doing exactly the same thing.

The death penalty isn't about justice. It's about hiding behind the power of the state to exact vengeance without having to suffer the consequences of that vengeance. I don't believe it has any place in civilized discourse or society.

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