Friday, September 23, 2011

Can capital punishment be justice?

You might not expect me to be undecided, but I am.

I've jumped from side to side on this issue.  My first stand was pro-death penalty.  I was a teenager, and encountered -- in a brochure about fighting child abuse, not about criminal justice -- a story of a little boy's death after abuse so horrible that it seemed that such criminals have forfeited their right to live, in the sight of the community, God, in every way.

Later, I changed my mind, then still later, changed it back.  Altogether, I've re-thought it probably half a dozen times and ever since the execution of the OK City bomber, I've been stuck in a muddy, uncertain middle.  I thought that one was the right thing.  I still do.

Here's my thing.

When I read that laws have been written to say that the burden of proof no longer falls on the prosecution at a late stage in appeals, even when the evidence and testimony that is now available would have brought acquittal if it had appeared at the original trial;

when I see that some states fight to execute people who are asking for DNA testing of their evidence, which didn't exist years ago at conviction, and the state takes the unconscionable stand that procedure has been fully carried out and that this makes execution "right";

when I encounter these things, I know that, if capital punishment can be just, it is not now. 

And my own endless heart-changes indicate that, like the people who crafted the system, my stand had been based on primitive emotion.  Not reason, or justice, but pre-verbal, primitive gut reaction.

I think we're hardwired to react with fear, rage and revulsion against the deeds of some, and that we write up loads of procedural legal convolution and spin reasonable arguments, to feel OK about claiming the right to kill.

I think this because, if we really wanted simple justice, deterrence, and safety for the community, we would write laws that never, ever tolerated anything less than going to the utmost length to make sure that only the undoubtedly guilty are executed.

Whenever we can do that, then I will revisit the issue of whether the death penalty can possibly be right or just.  Maybe it can.  I can't even imagine it now because all I see is barbarism cloaked in robes and business suits.


Sherwood Harrington said...

Ruth, I've taken the liberty of posting a link to this on Facebook. It so thoroughly meshes with my opinion that I have nothing further to add.

ronnie said...

I believe that, by definition, capital punishment cannot be just. No regime has ever practiced it justly and none ever will.

If you step back from the ordinariness of it, the normalizing of it, it's breathtakingly brutal. The state murders a human being, literally takes away his very life, his existence, doing so by bringing the sheer weight of the entire government down on him.

People do unspeakable things, but lowering one's society to murdering in the name of the state in response isn't justice, it's revenge.

35 years after abolition polls show that Canadians are overwhelmingly against reinstatement, although a vocal minority do complain bitterly that it should be brought back. The crime rate didn't go up after abolition, either, and has been steadily declining throughout the intervening years.

I take it it's trickier in the US because it's the States' call. It was a federal law in Canada, and was abolished at the federal level.

Anyway, my .02 after reading your last two posts...

Nostalgic for the Pleistocene said...

Sherwood - I'm glad it seems to ring true and hope it does with others too.

ronnie - I suspect that if we ever did manage to disable the revenge motive as i think we have to do, we would very likely find no other way to justify it.

I recall --since my knowledge often comes from movies-- 10 Rillington Place and how the discovery that the wrong man had been executed for that crime helped end the death penalty in England, and it shorts out my brain that, here in the US, we try hard to circumvent efforts for exoneration.

New evidence or technologies are used to free the innocent, and we claim(?) to want the real guilty party to pay the price. Any system that not only shrugs off convicting the innocent but in doing so gives the guilty a free pass, proves that, like money, anyone's blood will "pay" the price we want paid. Once we recognize that as barbarsim, what's left?