Thursday, November 18, 2004

Issue: The Death Penalty

There are a number of contentious issues that have been part of our political discussion for years, regardless of which party is in power. There are reasons these issues don't go away. First, opinions on all sides are deeply felt and enduring, and second, definitive solutions are beyond the strength and will of politicians. I'd like to talk about a few of these issues, starting with the death penalty.

Richard Cohen's column in the Washington Post today on the death penalty is interesting, aside from a few gratuitous parting shots at John Ashcroft. He makes two of the arguments that are most persuasive for me--the certainty of error and the morality of killing.

Our legal system may be among the best the world has ever seen, but it isn't infallible. We all know that, regardless of how we feel about the death penalty. One glaring fallacy in the system is the fact that justice, plainly put, is for sale. Not because of corruption, but because those who can buy the best lawyers have a better chance of winning. That means the ultimate outcome of the system, death, falls most often on those who have the least money.

Even if our system could be improved to eliminate the effect of class and money, it still wouldn't be perfect. Mistakes will be made because human beings are involved. That means that innocent people will be killed by the state. Once that killing has taken place, correcting errors is meaningless.

Finally, there's the morality of it. From my first days in basic training in the Army, I was taught that soldiers don't kill prisoners who do not present a threat. If that's morally correct, and it is, then how can we permit the state to kill its prisoners? The question is not whether captured enemy soldiers should have a right to live, while convicted murderers should not. The question is whether the state, acting through its soldiers or its courts, should have the authority to kill people in its custody.

Personal feelings and public policy are too often confused in debates over issues like this. I personally feel little sympathy for enemy soldiers on the battlefield or for people who commit murder and other capital crimes. And yes, I would not hesitate to blow away anyone who was in the act of committing one of these crimes. Nor would I lose any sleep over it. But those are gut feelings, animal reactions. Public policy is another matter. It must be made on a rational basis, separate from the cold fury of emotion and the bitter demand for righteous vengeance.

I'm against the death penalty, at least until it doesn't matter how much money an accused person has and the legal system doesn't make mistakes. And even in the unlikely event these problems are solved, I doubt I'll ever be able to accept that our social contract should include empowering the state to kill us.


Blogger Anastasia said...

The death penalty enters my mind on occasions where a crime is so horrendous (most crimes are from every angle) or heinous and the assailant has little hope for rehabilitation. Sometimes the notion of rehabilitating people, or the idea thereof, remind me of politically correct policies or ‘words’ that aren’t too different from equal opportunity policies in corporations that serve as words only (there being so many loopholes in between). I tend to be opposed to people living when they are repeatedly commit the same crimes - pedophiles, serial killers, psychopaths, rapists and the like, those who have no hope of being rehabilitated in the sense that they can then live in general society and intermingle with the rest of us.
What I tend to resent is the notion of rehabilitation in that these people will forever live in prison, yet be accommodated, fed, given free medical that is paid by the tax payer because it is ‘their duty’ as a citizen to partake in a just society. So effectively, people who have lost children through crimes committed by people who have little ‘hope’ of rehabilitation (the Charles Mansons and all the rest in prisons and/or states that don’t have a death penalty) have to effectively ‘pay’ through their taxes to house these people. This is the conflict that I have; why should they be kept alive? For studies? The individual personality is manifold and unique to the individual such that no psychologist or psychiatrist will ever figure out why they do what they do nor be able to set protocols in place to prevent such things.
The rise of television shows with trendy technology, whose enforcers capture criminals within a great time frame is another unrealistic representation. After I read Mindhunter, I was shocked because the reality was detailed in that book; killers that are organized aren’t caught in any decent time frame, it can take years or decades and in many cases they aren’t caught (was it the Zodiac Killer that was never caught? I forget with all the nick-named killers that are out there) but there are also cases that aren’t investigated properly, because people are fallible and have their own interests to serve and this is the other aspect that makes me wonder how accurate an investigation is especially if it doesn’t involve a psychotic killer and it involves a person associated with one murder, let’s say, like recent cases where the advent of DNA technology got people off death row after they were found not to be related to the crime scene or the victim as an assailant.

There are times I’m not so sure about certain people being permitted to ‘live’, after their crimes, and these people are those who I term extremely debased in a psychological sense. The rise of fascination toward these people really unsettles me. The phenomenon surrounding male prisoners and their female groupies is another aspect that’s made the news ( Richard Ramirez and his ‘wife’), the rise of serial killers becoming ‘artists’ and the like; the general celebrity of these people repulses me and they get the celebrity because they’re permitted to live. People still write letters to Charles Manson, a sector of those letters not being hate mail. Although I’m not a big fan of Thomas Harris (after Hannibal), he did include an important aspect in Silence of the Lambs; how a cold killer can still influence people that are unstable.

Another thing that’s always intrigued me are countries with more severe public death penalties such as Saudi Arabia. Their punishment is archaic and perhaps considered barbaric, but it’s very swift, direct to the point. Theft there is dealt with by severing the hand, in our society however people (depending on the nation) are given good behavior bonds in some cases or paroled really early and the example this gives in western societies is that theft is no big deal, that they’ll serve a minimal amount of time and get out but theft costs consumers, workers, companies and families.

But ultimately, because the death penalty is the most severe punishment, investigation procedures need to be streamlined and efficient and that’s the problem.
The most scary part of all is the wrong person being tried and this final thought is what really makes me think twice about the thoughts I can have about the death penalty (when I lean toward the ‘for’ aspect).

5:42 AM, July 21, 2005  
Blogger Tom Carter said...

I understand what you're saying, L'etranger, and sometimes I agree that we would be a lot better off if a particularly bad criminal were executed. But that doesn't change the problem of unfairness and mistakes that will inevitably be made in any judicial system.

10:59 AM, July 21, 2005  
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