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.