A few more thoughts on the death penalty

I wanted to briefly respond to a few points inspired by Sonny Bunch’s defense of the death penalty from last week. First, Andrew Sullivan suggests I have “mixed feelings” about executing prisoners. Well, not really. I may not have been very clear in my original post, but for the record, I oppose state-sanctioned execution. In an abstract sense, I suppose I don’t have any moral qualms about killing criminals, but abstract concessions mean very little in the context of a legal system that seems woefully incapable of overcoming human bias.

I very much doubt that technology will ever solve this problem, either. If anything, Radley Balko’s series on Mississippi’s fraudulent forensic investigators suggests that technology has made juries and judges more amenable to pseudo-scientific claptrap, not less. Science is also unlikely to replace or diminish the emotionally-charged circumstances surrounding capital punishment trials.

In a follow-up post, Bunch argues:

Will doesn’t say it this way, but you often hear the argument that life imprisonment is worse than execution because the criminal has to suffer in prison and then he dies anyway. But if life imprisonment is just as awful — nay, worse — than execution, why should we be happy that supposedly innocent people have been stuck in prison with no hope of parole for the rest of their lives? And how many of these innocents will manage to prove their innocence without the neverending legal process that has freed the innocent from death row?

I’m not sure if life imprisonment is worse than execution. The death penalty, however, is irrevocable. Setting an innocent man free isn’t a perfect solution, but it is better than offering our belated condolences to his family after he is wrongfully executed.

Imprisonment also allows us to address many procedural questions after defendants have been tried and found guilty. The finality of execution, on the other hand, means that every procedural concern must be addressed before punishment is carried out. As I’ve argued elsewhere, I think this detracts from any deterrent effect derived from capital punishment. And because of the system’s inherent fallibility, we still risk executing innocent defendants.

UPDATE: Here’s an excellent op-ed on the death penalty from McClatchy.

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9 thoughts on “A few more thoughts on the death penalty

  1. There is an awesome comment by Shannon Love over at Reason.

    http://reason.com/blog/2009/11/10/john-allen-muhammad-and-the-de#comment_1449686

    Read the whole thing but here’s the money graf:

    “The death penalty is the State reduced to its essence. We’ve built a grand facade of rationalizations around the idea of the State. An execution strips that away. The white marble and corinthian columns fall away and we see the ancient axeman clothed in bloody furs standing over his victims. Before they draw the curtain once more, we see for those few moments the true heart of the State. For that reason alone, the death penalty should remain. “

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    • I’m also opposed to the death penalty (on moral, rather than principled libertarian, grounds) and I’m sympathetic to broadly libertarian impulses, but rhetoric like execution being ‘the true heart of the State’ is the sort of hyperventilating Randian nonsense that reduces sympathy for the libertarian cause.

      Since 46 out of 50 European countries have abolished capital punishment, does it meant that those States have no heart? New York state has no death penalty. Is it therefore immune from revealing its ‘true heart’?

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      • “New York state has no death penalty.”

        Tell that to Amadou Diallo.

        This isn’t intended to be the snarky answer it probably reads as. If you think that the cops ought to have these tools and if you understand that we have to deal with such things as the Justice Department not charging officers with having violated Diallo’s civil rights (let alone with Murder).

        The death penalty is something that New York continues to have to this day.

        And that’s the point that (it seems to me) the rest of the comment explores. At the same time that it is hyperventilating Randian nonsense, it’s Maoist nonsense (all political power, etc).

        But, fair enough.

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