The Death Penalty
November 26th, 2005
I am against capital punishment. Here's why. First, the nature of the punishment itself is irreversible. Yes, imprisonment cannot be reversed--if you're put in prison for five years, you can't get that time back. However, you can be released, and possibly given some form of recompense. But there is no return from death, no way to compensate for what was done. The very idea of the death sentence presumes either an infallibility of the criminal justice system, or that killing innocents is an acceptable price to pay for what capital punishment may gain. I accept neither. Then there is the fact that the death penalty is unevenly administered, poverty and race being deciding factors. Poverty mostly because the ability to hire a top-flight defense attorney will at the very least protect you from the death penalty and perhaps even any punishment at all; it is difficult to see any solution to this problem. But race is a factor for several reasons, none of them necessary. A side factor: an overwhelming number of district attorneys are white, as many as 97%+. This in itself does not prove a disparity in sentencing, but it certainly cannot help. But the real proof is in analyses of how the death sentence is distributed, accounting for the severity of the crime. Studies done in Philadelphia, for example, show that all other factors being equal, blacks are four times likelier to receive the death penalty than whites. The death penalty is more likely to be administered for the killing of a white person than for the killing of a black person, even when the number of killings overall is adjusted for. There is no real question that there is a racial influence where the death penalty is involved. Now, a counter-argument could state that the same is true in non-capital punishment as well, and this is probably true; should we therefore shut down any punishment for any crime where the punishment shows disparity? My answer would be of course "no," the reason being in the difference in reversibility: one cannot withdraw a penalty of death once administered. This heightens the stakes, making enough of a distinction to differentiate in how we deal with the punishments involved. (Source) Another factor comes back to the issue of fallibility: we kill innocents. Those in favor of the death penalty try to deny it, skirt around it, but it is true, and there is evidence for this beyond the obvious nature of the fact. George W. Bush, for example, in the 2000 election, tried to claim that there has never been any evidence that an innocent person has been put to death. This is disingenuous, of course: the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence. Furthermore, who would find proof? Those sentenced to death are overwhelmingly poor, and their families cannot afford investigations; those who prosecute have a strong and vested interest in finding that no errors were made, not the reverse. And to top it off, it is standard procedure that when a person is executed, all evidence pertaining to their trial is destroyed. So, even if well-funded anti-death-penalty organizations were to investigate after a sentence is carried out, there is little chance of success--not because we don't kill innocents, but because the deck is stacked against finding evidence that we do. We cover up after ourselves, as if knowing what we did was wrong and trying to hide evidence of it. When Bush made his statement back in 2000, we must also assume that he was intentionally disregarding statistical evidence, of course. When DNA analysis became possible in the 1990's, a certain number of people on death row were proven innocent of the crimes they were sentenced for, in cases where no other evidence could have cleared them of the conviction against them. Without DNA evidence, these people would have been put to death. Without this analysis available before the mid-nineties, there must have been innocents being put to death. The only alternative is to believe that before the mid-nineties, we never made mistakes in sentencing innocents, but from the 90's on forward, we suddenly began making lots of them. This is highly improbable, to say the least. Furthermore, not all cases can be proved one way or the other with DNA evidence, and that means that we are still killing innocents. And recently, there has been positive evidence that we killed an innocent: Ruben Cantu was executed in Texas in 1993 for a murder he allegedly committed when he was 17 years old in 1984. And now, evidence has come to light that Cantu was indeed innocent. The only eyewitness has recanted, saying he was pressured by police to identify Cantu as the killer, even though he was certain Cantu was not guilty of the crime. Cantu's co-defendent swears that Cantu was not with him on the night of the crime. There was no physical evidence that placed Cantu at the scene of the crime, and the investigators failed to interview people who could have provided Cantu with an alibi. It is suspected that the police framed Cantu, in part because he escaped charges of wounding an off-duty police officer in a bar fight, a charge dropped because of tainted evidence and "overreaction" by police officers. Read the story. One way to solve the problem of killing innocents would be to allow the death penalty only in cases where there is absolute and overwhelming knowledge of the guilt of a defendant; but even if this is accounted for, the disparities of race and poverty, as well as other factors I will get to shortly, would still make the death penalty unacceptable to me. Arguments for the death penalty include the idea that capital punishment is cheaper. While this would be true if we practice summary executions without appeals, we do not and should not. The appeals process actually costs more than life imprisonment. Highly fallacious claims for the death penalty give us an either-or choice of executing killers or letting them go loose to kill others; naturally, this is flawed in that there is a third choice, that of lifetime imprisonment. The apparent stronger arguments for the death penalty concern, first, using the penalty as a deterrent against future crime, and second, the claim that those guilty of heinous crimes deserve the death penalty, and the families of the victims deserve closure and justice. As for the former, there is no evidence that the specter of the death penalty deters crime. Many pro-death-penalty studies claim this, but all are seriously flawed in one or more ways: none probe the actual reaction of any murder suspects to find how they were affected by deterrence, and by definition we cannot directly test the deterrent effect on people who chose not to commit crimes. The studies ignore data from states which contradict their thesis and sometimes focus only on states that have a death penalty; they ignore intervening factors, such as universally declining murder rates. And the results of the different studies are contradictory and inconsistent. (Source--PDF file) If the death penalty has any deterrent effect, it is so negligible as to be lost in the noise of alternate influences and the statistical margin of error. As for deservedness and justice, that leads to my final and most powerful argument against capital punishment: it is wrong to kill people. Those who claim justice or closure are really talking about what some actually outwardly propose: vengeance. Let's face it, that's what we want when we favor the death penalty. We want to kill the bastards who did this to us or our loved ones. The problem is that vengeance is wrong. It is, in my opinion, the greatest source of suffering, violence and killing in the world today. It is an ugly desire, such as selfishness, greed or jealousy. And while we have a system of justice, we do not have a system of vengeance. It is argued that not carrying out the death sentence is a gift to the criminal; how many times have we heard the criticism of life in prison that the victim got death, and the killer got "life"? But this is fallacious: life in prison is not by any means a reward. It may be desirable to execution, but then it is also desirable to years of painful torture, which would also be desirable for the family of the victim in some cases. Should we do that? Is the idea of the justice system to torment criminals to the greatest extent possible, to simply remove them from society as a danger to others, or somewhere in between? My opinions on this matter revolve around the concept of responsibility: we are responsible for what we do, regardless of the actions of others. "I hit him because he hit me" is not an excuse. That others do evil is not just cause for us to do so also. People talk about the heinous actions of a criminal and of how the criminal deserves death. This may be true. But it does not obviate the fact that in carrying out such a penalty, we as a society are responsible for killing people when it is not necessary to do so. That makes us killers. It's not about who the criminal is or how bad he is; it's about who we are, what kind of society we choose to have, and what we decide to do. And the fact that we killed someone bad does not mitigate the fact that we did it, nor does it lessen our responsibility for it. In the end, the actions of a criminal do not excuse our imitating them, no matter how we dress it up in custom, ceremony, and the respectability of the justice system. We do not torture criminals: why not? We do not rape rapists: why not? It is because that is not who we are, and such a reaction to rape or torture (however much it would please some people) would demonstrate much more clearly our culpability in committing something which is clearly wrong. We are not the kind of people who rape and torture. We may often, yet wrongly, take pleasure in the idea that a rapist may be raped in jail, or that they may suffer something analogous to torture. But that is only because we hide behind others doing the wrong, just as we feel less culpability when we send captives to other countries to be tortured. It just "happens" to them, we didn't do it directly, so, good for us. But in reality we are responsible, and it is not right if it happens. We would not be willing to do it directly, how can we be less culpable if we allow others to do it for us? Am I a bleeding-heart criminal coddler for believing so? No. This philosophy is not borne out of care for the criminal as a human being (god forbid), but out of concern for who and what I am, who and what we are, separate from the actions of the criminal. Do we wrong criminals by incarcerating them, as in imprisoning a kidnaper? No: incarceration is a means to prevent criminals from committing further wrongs. It is also a penalty, sometimes even applied when a criminal commits a crime unlikely to be repeated. But imprisonment is a deterrent, and so defends us as well, and self-defense is a justified case for penalties. However, the death penalty itself is not self-defense. It is not a deterrent beyond other punishments. It is therefore a punishment of preference, an act we cannot blame the criminal for. It is our responsibility, our choice. And as such, it is wrong.