Life vs. Death

Sunday, September 25th, 2011

I keep seeing death penalty supporters make arguments similar to this one:

The death penalty is irreversible, and in the case of a miscarriage of justice there can be no reparation to the condemned . . .

There are rejoinders: someone who is wrongly executed cannot ever be compensated, but can someone who was wrongly imprisoned for 10 years ever truly be compensated in any meaningful way? Punishment of the innocent is terrible to contemplate whatever the punishment, and yet society must punish and will always be imperfect.

Everyone who makes this argument should spend 20 minutes with a few people who were convicted of a capital crime, then exonerated and released after a decade or more in prison. I obviously can’t speak for every exoneree, but I’ve spoken to many. And I’d wager a good deal of my next paycheck that every one of them will tell you that (a) they’re pretty darned happy they weren’t executed, and (b) there’s a huge difference between incarcerating an innocent person and executing one.

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69 Responses to “Life vs. Death”

  1. #1 |  Aresen | 

    I have heard this defense of capital punishment and its cousin the “I’d rather be dead than spend the rest of my life in jail’ argument.

    I think the one given by Radley should be referred to as the “Oopsie” argument.

    The other could be referred to as the “Zombie” argument.

  2. #2 |  dsmallwood | 

    i’ve never heard this argument. does it mean, “we might as well kill you, because if we’re wrong, what we were gonna do anyway is so horrible that there’s nary a difference.”?

    is that an actual argument put forward by a proponent (politician, cop, talking head, etc)

    i’ve always heard the opposite argument from the pragmatic liberals. no death penalty as it DOES NOT require perfection.

  3. #3 |  captainahags | 

    Can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good, especially on something as important as human life.

  4. #4 |  Judas Peckerwood | 

    It’s the classic lazy douchebag argument: “X is already so far down the shitter that you might as well keep flushing.” Of course, in this case they’re talking about flushing innocent human lives.

  5. #5 |  CyniCAl | 

    Some arguments are so stupid on their face that even acknowledging them reduces the global IQ. Really, I understand these people vote, but you could still ignore them.

  6. #6 |  Dr. Q | 

    At least the wrongly incarcerated can be awarded financial compensation. Dead people don’t have much use for money.

    It’s just too bad whatever compensation they’re awarded will come from taxpayers instead of the savings accounts of the cops, prosecutors, judges, etc. who put them in prison.

  7. #7 |  JOR | 

    Exactly, at least 10 (or however many) years in prison can be partly compensated, which is more than you can say for the dead.

  8. #8 |  Standard Mischief | 

    Death Penalty abolitionists really need to push for truthful sentences. I’d totally be on their side if I knew that a 22 year old, rightly convicted of first degree murder wouldn’t then be out on the street in 12 years , paroled after good behavior and credit due to an overcrowded prison.

    “life” as a sentence needs to go away.

    “life without possibility of parole” needs to go away too, or be globally understood as “99 years”

    That’s the minimum it would take to get me into the abolitionist camp.

  9. #9 |  Stephen | 

    OT but might belong in the militarisation of police category.

    http://www.foxnews.com/us/2011/09/25/nypd-chief-police-could-take-down-plane-if-needed/?test=latestnews

    Police departments with anti aircraft missiles?

  10. #10 |  Exe | 

    The coward couldn’t even leave comments enabled on that post.

  11. #11 |  David | 

    “I have heard this defense of capital punishment and its cousin the “I’d rather be dead than spend the rest of my life in jail’ argument.”

    Which has always puzzled me. If you’d rather be dead than spend the rest of your life in jail, then why use the death penalty at all? Why give the worst criminals something you think is more lenient?

    Answer: You don’t actually think that, you’re just full of shit.

  12. #12 |  josh | 

    OT (not trying to hijack thread):

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=moD2JnGTToA&feature=share

    Thoughts?

  13. #13 |  Fascist Nation | 

    Wow, what a fucking monster. I can understand why he closes comments. Just because you cannot truly monetarily make amends someone for their loss of life (rotting in prison) and in a capital case, under the threat of death from the state we shouldn’t bother to consider eliminating the power of the state to put its people to death. I mean wow!

  14. #14 |  Carl Bussjaeger | 

    #6 | Dr. Q | September 25th, 2011 at 8:29 pm: “At least the wrongly incarcerated can be awarded financial compensation. Dead people don’t have much use for money.”

    Which, I suspect, is his real intent. Killing the innocent is cheaper.

  15. #15 |  SJE | 

    A lot of death penalty proponents just want to be seen as “tough on crime,” but the theatrics of the entire tough on crime movement is more interesting in finding someone to pronounce as guilty, rather than finding the actual perpetrator. No one wants to find out about ACTUAL innocence. Even if they argue that this is an “acceptable risk” there seems to be little interest in the fact that a real criminal is running around committing more crimes. Under that scenario, the death penalty is as much about the state covering their ass as it is about punishment.

  16. #16 |  Dave Trowbridge | 

    My wife is active in MVFHR (Murder Victim Families for Human Rights), working here in California for an initiative that would abolish the death penalty in favor of a strict life-without-parole sentence. She’s written movingly about her reasons here: http://deborahjross.blogspot.com/2011/09/september-grieving-part-three.html. (The first two parts of the essay are also worth reading, although they don’t directly address the death penalty.)

  17. #17 |  homeboy | 

    “Some arguments are so stupid on their face that even acknowledging them reduces the global IQ.”

    Oddly, I don’t believe I have ever encountered such an argument.

  18. #18 |  John Thacker | 

    However, it is almost surely true that the probability of being exonerated if you’re innocent and put on death row is considerably higher than if you’re innocent and convicted of life.

    I do strongly suspect that if we eliminated the death penalty that the percentage of innocent people later freed would decline, because we wouldn’t worry so much about them, for precisely the reason that the death penalty *is* a much worse punishment. People simply do accept a higher error rate for being thrown in jail than for being killed– the occasional arguments of death penalty opponents about “saving money on appeals” (pretty sure that Biden has said this one) gives hints of that.

    Under the right set of conditions (including enough appeals on death row, high enough probability of being exonerated if innocent, low enough probability of being exonerated if innocent and sentenced life without parole) you can make a logically consistent argument that it can be better for someone who is innocent to be sent to death row than convicted for life.

  19. #19 |  CyniCAl | 

    You must be quite young then, Homeboy. Or perhaps you’re not paying careful enough attention.

  20. #20 |  bacchys | 

    Neither is much of an argument for the death penalty, but “reversability” isn’t much of an argument for getting rid of it. How many folks are getting exonerated who *weren’t* on death row? Especially after a decade or more in prison?

    Once they aren’t at risk of being executed, there’s no strong push to ensure justice is being served, AFAICT.

    I support capital punishment in principle. Some crimes are so heinous that death is as close as we can hope to get to justice. But, given the well-documented problems ensuring that death *is* justice, I’ve come to oppose it in practice.

    *Just noticed that Thacker stole my thunder…

  21. #21 |  supercat | 

    #18 | John Thacker | “However, it is almost surely true that the probability of being exonerated if you’re innocent and put on death row is considerably higher than if you’re innocent and convicted of life.”

    I’ve made this argument as well, and agree with the corollary: if the government is overly willing to convict people without regard for whether or not they’re guilty, will removing the death penalty make it more or less likely that that fundamental problem will ever be dealt with?

  22. #22 |  John P. | 

    Folks that attempt to make pro death penalty arguments such as this one are simply, idiots…

    Too stupid to even try to talk to.

  23. #23 |  CyniCAl | 

    These non-sequiturs are baffling in the extreme.

    So, because there’s the possibility that a person who is wrongly convicted and sentenced to life has less of a chance of exoneration than a person who is wrongly convicted and sentenced to death, the death penalty should persist?

    The abolition of the death penalty will somehow forever divert the public’s attention away from rectifying wrongful convictions, therefore the death penalty should persist?

    Although he is one in a million, Dallas DA Craig Watkins right now is exonerating dozens of wrongly convicted persons, and I can’t believe he is limiting his work to death row inmates.

    “I support capital punishment in principle.” Wow, some principle. You are a very principled person, if you say so yourself.

    I’m not much of an incrementalist, I would prefer everything were fixed at once, but to argue for the death penalty on these grounds is quite an eye-opening experience for me. I didn’t know such people existed. I am almost more comfortable with the brain-dead automata foaming at the mouth for vengeance against the brown and unwealthy than with these “nuanced” arguments.

    I mean, we’re talking about the LIVES of INNOCENT people here! That innocent person could be you, or if you don’t care much about yourself, then maybe there’s someone you do care about?

    Or maybe you’re wealthy. Or an agent of the State. Then you have NOTHING to fear from the death penalty.

  24. #24 |  a_random_guy | 

    “Folks that attempt to make pro death penalty arguments such as this one are simply, idiots… Too stupid to even try to talk to.”

    This is not useful. In fact, it is very disappointing to see that several posters have said much the same thing on this thread. This makes you look pretty damn stupid.

    Welcome to the real world, folks, people hold different opinions. Calling the other side “stupid” is not the most convincing argument you can make for your point of view. Ad hominem attacks concede the argument.

    There are several very rational arguments to be made on both sides of the capital punishment issue. If you hope to convince others that capital punishment is wrong, then you have to address the strongest arguments on the other side, not the weakest.

  25. #25 |  CyniCAl | 

    So ignore the ad hominems, Random, and address the other arguments. Belaboring an ad hominem argument is a continuation of the ad hominem argument. Let’s get on with it. I’m curious as all get-out, what’s this “rational” argument in favor of the death penalty to which you allude?

  26. #26 |  Kyle | 

    That argument is so appallingly dumb that God kills a kitten every time he hears it.

  27. #27 |  karl | 

    Your god kills kittens, eh? Mine imprisons them for life.

  28. #28 |  Jay | 

    It seems like someone proposing that argument is more interested in people being executed. “The risk of executing an innocent person is high and we should run it anyway because we can’t afford to not execute a guilty person.”

  29. #29 |  jdb | 

    It’s troubling that anyone would have difficulty understanding why killing an innocent man is worse than imprisoning him. More likely that Gobry is offering the few defenses he can for a political stance that is prima facie inefficient and immoral, including proposing and then accepting a narrow definition of the word “vengeance.”

    Anyone know of a serious philosophical/ethical defense of capital punishment that’s worth engaging?

  30. #30 |  JOR | 

    The only one I can think of that’s coherent is a utilitarian deterrent argument, on which the guilt or innocence of the execution victim is simply irrelevant. As long as it deters more than one killer, the execution is justified (no this is not my view).

  31. #31 |  a_random_guy | 

    As far as I can tell, the strongest argument for the death penalty comes in two parts: If one is certain beyond reasonable doubt that a person has committed a crime, and this crime is so heinous that the person can never again be allowed access to society, then (1) Why should society pay enormous costs over decades to feed and house the person in a prison? and (2) Why allow any risk that this person can commit a further crime, either through escape or through some ill-considered parole or early-release program? If you have Hannibal Lecter in your fingers, do you want to feed and house him, and allow any chance at all that he can commit another crime?

    The strongest argument against the death penalty is the risk to an innocent person; it is no longer possible to correct a judicial error. Can you really be sure that you have Hannibal Lecter? Or is it possible, in the emotional frenzy surrounding a horrible crime, that an innocent person been framed or unjustly convicted?

    These two points of view can be discussed and argued. Posts that state “if you don’t agree with me, you are an idiot” are neither useful nor interesting.

    p.s. You will note that I have carefully not stated my opinion on the matter, either in this post or in the earlier one. It is fascinating that my objection to ad hominem posts has been taken as proof of my position on the issue.

  32. #32 |  Leonson | 

    My sister has spent the better part of the last 10-20 years in jail (repeated multiple offenses).

    Between that and living on the street she is incapable of operating a computer, most cell phones, modern cash registers, etc.

    I cannot imagine trying to reintegrate after 10+ years in jail, especially when society, friends, family, technology and everything has has moved on without you.

    That said, I’m still pro death penalty. I’d just prefer it only be used in situations with clear physical evidence, or (even more preferably) as a last resort for those already incarcerated for life (Because tacking on more life penalties isn’t really a deterrant).

  33. #33 |  Leonson | 

    Addendum-

    As long as someone is alive they can still try to prove their innocense. Someone executed by the system is almost never able to prove their innocense.

  34. #34 |  David Chesler | 

    Consider a wrongful death lawsuit. The deceased was elderly, and arguably lost less than 10 years of his life. The issue is the loss of those years, not that the Oopsie goes to his estate, and rather than to him personally. That’s how it works.

    That death is more serious (especially for the more usual 20-something or 30-something convict) just means we should be more careful with the death penalty.

    Any significant prison sentence includes the possibility that the wrongly convicted will never be exonerated while alive nor even get out of prison.

    The full argument being disparaged must be understood to ask “Why don’t we freeze and avoid any punishment out of fear that we are harming an innocent?” What is the answer? Why are we willing to take that risk?

    Assume the death penalty worked for all the other reasons when applied to actually guilty people (deterrent, there’s a bunch of lifers committing more crimes, general sense of justice) — does the possibility of error stop us more than it stops us from doing anything else (like driving, or using a gun in self defense) where there is a slim possibility that an innocent will be killed?

  35. #35 |  David Chesler | 

    Imprisoned people don’t usually prove their innocence. Outside investigators and other agents working on their behalf do. Applies the same if the wrongly convicted is dead or alive.

  36. #36 |  JOR | 

    Nobody said “if you don’t agree with me, you’re an idiot”. They said “people who make this one particular argument that happens to be really, really stupid are idiots”. That happens to be true. It’s not that useful to say it, but it’s about the most useful thing that can be said to people like that. Anything more interesting than that basic overview is just an elaboration.

    Yes, people in the real world have opinions. And some of them are really stupid. Some of them are so stupid that it’s sort of pointless to do anything but ridicule them.

  37. #37 |  Mike T | 

    Anyone know of a serious philosophical/ethical defense of capital punishment that’s worth engaging?

    Most philosophical systems that aren’t based on materialism have some sense of cosmic scales that must be balanced by the victimizer paying back what they have taken. From those perspectives, there is no way a judgment against the perpetrator can be considered just unless he pays with his life for having purposefully taken a life unjustly.

    From the materialistic perspective, all morality is inherently utilitarian because transcendental morality is impossible under materialism since that perspective completely lacks a metaphysical framework or transcendental adjudicator of morality (the Tao, God, etc.)

  38. #38 |  jdb | 

    The full argument being disparaged must be understood to ask “Why don’t we freeze and avoid any punishment out of fear that we are harming an innocent?” What is the answer? Why are we willing to take that risk?

    The question is not whether we should punish the criminal and/or remove him from society, but how. What are the benefits of execution vs. imprisonment? Briefly, deterrence has been discredited, vengeance is irrelevant, no economic benefit exists, and chance of escape/early parole for death-row candidates is negligible. None of these points are even remotely reasonable counterweights to the downside of executing innocents on a semi-regular basis, not to mention eliminating the potential for reform and rehabilitation.

  39. #39 |  Mike T | 

    The real issue here isn’t the death penalty, it’s the lack of controls we have on the outcomes of the system. As Radley has shown time and again, there are virtually no controls at all on prosecutorial misconduct short of altruism by their peers and the distant threat of vigilante justice. Since successfully securing a death penalty conviction is a great career advancement opportunity, there is ample incentive on the part of selfish, career-minded folks to take short cuts and focus more on victory than the truth.

    What is needed here is to engage pro-death penalty advocates about making the system work better in general. Stricter standards of evidence, abolishing immunities, things of that nature. A cop who fakes evidence or prosecutor who behaves unethically should not only be easily targeted in a lawsuit, but be barred by law from receiving representation provided at taxpayer expense.

    Frankly, it might also be time to start discussing something even more radical: merging the civil and criminal courts into one unified legal system that would allow private parties to convene grand juries and bring their own civil-criminal charges against public employees.

  40. #40 |  JOR | 

    “Assume the death penalty worked for all the other reasons when applied to actually guilty people (deterrent, there’s a bunch of lifers committing more crimes, general sense of justice) — does the possibility of error stop us more than it stops us from doing anything else (like driving, or using a gun in self defense) where there is a slim possibility that an innocent will be killed?”

    Yes, because in the case of execution you’re deliberately killing someone, rather than accidentally (and no, it doesn’t count as an accident just because you don’t know they’re innocent; there are two facts that matter for purposes of moral justice – the person is innocent, and you deliberately killed them). Furthermore, even for someone very optimistic about the “justice” system it should be obvious that the proportion of innocent people executed is much larger than the proportion of people who come into contact with drivers or gun owners without getting killed by them; it’s a weak analogy just on mathematical grounds.

    And yes, because people are held liable when they accidentally kill an innocent person with a gun or car. Nobody is held liable for executing an innocent person.

    I do agree that prison sentences and punishment in general are wrong (even if justifiable in principle) for many of the same reasons, or at least have the same kind of moral weight against them. But in any case, none of this has anything to do with the argument being ridiculed.

  41. #41 |  Jeff | 

    Random, by my read, the “your an idiot” comments are directed specifically at pro-death-penalty people making the kind of argument Radley cited.

  42. #42 |  David Chesler | 

    @JOR: “Yes, because in the case of execution you’re deliberately killing someone, rather than accidentally (and no, it doesn’t count as an accident just because you don’t know they’re innocent; there are two facts that matter for purposes of moral justice – the person is innocent, and you deliberately killed them).”

    The same applies to the situation of using deadly force against, for instance, a home invader, which is also a choice not to be made lightly. I have no problem demanding an even greater degree of caution in the case of executions, because the exigency is not there, but I’m not ruling them out on those grounds. Every choice we make has the chance of hurting innocents: those who make the disparaged argument are claiming the case of execution has not been sufficiently distinguished from the case of life imprisonment.

    “The question is not whether we should punish the criminal and/or remove him from society, but how. What are the benefits of execution vs. imprisonment?”

    Those in favor of the death penalty must remember to quote @jdb next time someone against the death penalty brings up the “we might make a mistake” argument. Arguing against the death penalty on other grounds, while enough to convince people to be against the death penalty, does not refute this apparently stupid argument.

  43. #43 |  MattN | 

    Radley, I think you let your emotions cloud your judgment on this one. Or at least, you focus on the wrong thing.

    The quote you select is odd — surely it’s less of a crime to wrongly imprison someone for 10 years than it is to wrongly execute someone.

    But that’s not the right comparison — is it less of a crime to wrongly imprison someone for life than it is to wrongly execute them? The standard argument against capital punishment (or at least one of them) — that executing an innocent person is profoundly wrong — seems to imply at first blush that imprisoning an innocent person for life is less wrong. Can you really make that case? I don’t think so. Thus, that particular moral argument against capital punishment falls apart.

    I think your point would be better made by explicitly pointing out that, with a life sentence, at least there’s an opening — the entire remaining life of the incarcerated — for them to be exonerated, and actually granted some form of pardon (not necessarily using that word in the legal sense).

    However, even that presupposes that there is some reasonable level of doubt about the conviction in the first place. If the sentence is partially based on a reasonable doubt about the conviction, then isn’t the entire trial in question? The defendant is “supposed” to be convicted only if the evidence creates a picture of guilt that is “beyond a reasonable doubt.” I understand that we’re talking about cases where the jury goofs, or the evidence is tampered with, or technology was not available at the time that would have exonerated the accused, but if one is to presume a reasonable doubt about every conviction, then the proper action is simply to dismiss every case — not limit sentencing.

    Having said all of that, I’m not a supporter of capital punishment. I just think the arguments made by prohibitionists leave a lot to be desired. They almost invariably appeal to emotions, but the other side has strong emotions of their own — that certain people must be hit with the most severe possible punishment, both as a punitive measure, and as assurance that they will not be able to do any harm ever again.

    I think that capital punishment prohibitionists should focus on the only arguments that have any chance (even if very small) of being made convincing to supporters of capital punishment:

    1) Life sentencing instead of death at least allows the state to ‘correct’ (in the loosest sense) its mistake, should such mistake be discovered in the future — once the convicted is dead there’s no going back. Yes, we might be going “too easy” on someone who by all rights should be dead, but that’s preferable in the same way that letting the guilty go free is preferable to imprisoning the innocent.
    2) It makes killers out of those who perform the execution. Can a people consider itself peaceful if it can so readily find people within its midst to do this task? The only reason it isn’t considered murder is that it is government-sanctioned. If anyone else did it outside the “sanctity” of the “execution chamber,” it would in fact be murder — even if it was done with no pain, one day before a planned state-sanctioned execution. It’s a case of logical and moral inconsistency.

    Granted, these arguments are not likely to make many converts… but they still are the only substantive arguments against capital punishment.

  44. #44 |  SJE | 

    “Imprisoned people don’t usually prove their innocence. Outside investigators and other agents working on their behalf do”

    Unfortunately, actual innocence is something that courts and the states seem not to care about, only process.

  45. #45 |  homeboy | 

    “You must be quite young then, Homeboy. Or perhaps you’re not paying careful enough attention.”

    No, neither is the case; I have simply never encountered such an argument, nor any indication that one could exist.

  46. #46 |  homeboy | 

    Excellent post, MattN. As for the two arguments you endorse, I find the first of them compelling.

  47. #47 |  Boyd Durkin | 

    …and yet society must punish…

    This is not a fact, and yet it is often presented as one.

    Yes, we might be going “too easy” on someone who by all rights should be dead,

    Not “by all rights”. Just “in your opinion”.

    The state’s actions are misguided if they are going after revenge, and that is what is hinted at with statements like “too easy”. Protect the public? Sure.

    The state has overwhelmingly shown incompetence in one of the most important acts it conducts (killing citizens). Time to stop as I don’t trust the state to operate a decent banana stand*, let alone an execution.

    *No way there’ll be money in the banana stand if the state get ahold of it.

  48. #48 |  pam | 

    I’m friends with a kid doing life without. It’s no different than a living death sentence. He has told me when his appeals run out he will kill himself. He assures me he won’t do life, and can’t. I believe him. I don’t believe in life without parole. There are too many actually innocent doing life. He’s the living dead, I know.

  49. #49 |  Fritz | 

    In terms of data, how many exonerations are there for wrongly convicted prisoners serving sentences of life without parole? Does the rate of exoneration differ in any measurable or significant way based on type of sentence?

    That is, given that the death penalty is irreversible, we, as a society, have built in certain protections (two trials, guilt and punishment; automatic appeals; etc…). Since life without parole inmates cannot avail themselves of all of these additional protections, are they more likely to serve an unjust sentence without relief?

    Aren’t exonerations of death penalty inmates a feature, not a bug?

  50. #50 |  pam | 

    Is anyone truly guilty or truly innocent? I know people who have destroyed others who are legally guilty of nothing. I know people who are guilty of crimes who have been legally destroyed by others. LWOP and DP are for people who are beyond reproach which is who?

  51. #51 |  pam | 

    strike that 2nd legally.

  52. #52 |  c andrew | 

    Mike T wrote,

    Frankly, it might also be time to start discussing something even more radical: merging the civil and criminal courts into one unified legal system that would allow private parties to convene grand juries and bring their own civil-criminal charges against public employees.

    Mike, I’ve been advocating for about 20 years that we ought to allow criminal juries, once they’ve rendered a verdict in the trial at hand, to re-convene as a grand jury and indict anyone in the process they’ve just witnessed for malfeasance, including police, prosecutors and judges.

    Since jury members are not part of a permanently constituted group, we could thereby avoid the type of regulatory capture that occurs in almost every other instance of trying to hold the State responsible, eg., Citizen Review Boards (for cops) and the like.

    I don’t think that it would solve all the problems, but I think that it would help remove some of the insulation from reality that these actors currently enjoy.

    And such an indictment would remove immunity from the person in question for both criminal and civil motions.

  53. #53 |  Deoxy | 

    I’m friends with a kid doing life without. It’s no different than a living death sentence. etc

    This is an argument FOR the death penalty, pam. Indeed, it is essentially the argument that Radley is arguing AGAINST at the top!

    IMO opinion, as a death penalty supporter*, the ONLY argument that holds any water to me is that the system does too poor a job of determining guilt and innocence – that it is insufficient to the task. As best I can tell, that is the only argument that holds water to any well-reasoned death penalty supporter.

    The state sanctioning execution? Well, who should sanction it instead? Because it needs sanctioning in certain cases. The callus and casual murderer? Yeah, gone from society. Permanently.

    It is inherently and always unjust? Um, ok, we have nothing to talk about. We are talking past each other.

    Can’t be undone? Yeah, that’s the point.

    What is needed here is to engage pro-death penalty advocates about making the system work better in general.

    THIS. Oh bloody yes, THIS. Come tell me that the death penalty is evil, blah blah blah, and, unless I’m in the mood for debate-team-style rhetorical sparring, I’m done with you. There’s no reason to listen any further – we have a deep philosophical disagreement.

    But grant me that there are horrendously evil people in the world who need killing, but show me where the current system lets them off, or (most especially) gets the wrong person in their place, and that it needs improvement SO THAT the guilty are properly punished and the innocent properly not punished, and we can discuss how to make the system better.

    As long as you rail against the death penalty itself, you’re not going to get anywhere. That’s a philosophical point.

    Leave the death penalty on the table, just try to improve it’s application (even better, just try to improve justice in general), and you’ll have a lot more allies – actual improvement can be made. Even if you really ARE against the death penalty, I fail to see how having it applied only to those who actually are guilty of heinous crimes would not be a massive improvement over the current system.

  54. #54 |  Deoxy | 

    *I’ve wavering on the brink of the Ron Paul position – state-sanctioned execution for certain crimes is moral, but our actual system is not too error prone to make use of it.

    That’s what I mean about leave it on the table – there’s a very large block of the population that you’re not going to convince philosophically.

    You can show them the problems of the current system, and they can come to a point where they don’t want executions to be carried out right now for lack of certainty, but you won’t ever convince them that it is inherently immoral.

  55. #55 |  supercat | 

    #23 | CyniCAl | “So, because there’s the possibility that a person who is wrongly convicted and sentenced to life has less of a chance of exoneration than a person who is wrongly convicted and sentenced to death, the death penalty should persist?”

    I guess I would put it in terms of priorities. Which would be worse: a government executing one innocent person per year, or a government wrongfully imprisoning 1,000 innocent people per year for ten years each? If a government is doing both, which problem should merit more attention?

    I would posit that the number of people exonerated from death row implies that at least one of the following two problems exists and needs to be fixed:

    -1- An outrageous number of innocent people are being wrongfully convicted of crimes at all levels.

    -2- The government stacks the odds against defendants especially badly in death-penalty cases, which are supposed to have the strongest protections.

    The only way that anyone could argue that the number of people being wrongfully convicted of crimes at all levels isn’t outrageously high would be to argue that for some reason the wrongful-conviction percentage for death-penalty cases is higher than for other crimes. While that may be true, that in and of itself would indicate a problem which needs to be fixed.

    Were it not for the existence of the death penalty, it would be very difficult to get a meaningful and persuasive lower bound on the percentage of wrongful convictions for crimes at all levels. If a state has sentenced 100 people to death and 5 are exonerated, that’s a much more compelling demonstration of a 5%+ wrongful conviction rate than would be a finding of 50 wrongfully-convicted people among the general prison population, since one could respond to the latter statistic by suggesting that the people who worked to exonerate those 50 people chose inmates whose guilt was most doubtful, unlike the people who work to exonerate death-row inmates whose doubt is supposedly most certain.

  56. #56 |  JohnJ | 

    I don’t think that’s fair. The argument is whether it’s more merciful to execute someone slowly through imprisonment or more quickly. You’re creating a false comparison by only looking at those who’ve been exonerated while living, but people on death row have been exonerated before being executed too. What about those who weren’t proven innocent until after they died from languishing in prison? That’s the fair comparison, and I bet they’re not as grateful as you think.

  57. #57 |  Brian Scanlon | 

    One of the purposes of the death penalty is that it satisfies our society’s hunger for ritual murder. A public liturgy of death.

    This need has nothing to do with justice, with deterrence of future murders, with “closure” (whatever that means), or with any other of the many reasons that get trotted out every time someone gets executed.

    We have to keep society safe from dangerous convicted criminals. In the the US this could clearly be done by keeping the criminal in jail. For the rest of his life if necessary. But that would deny us the ritual killing that so many Americans delight in. Note for example the cheering that Gov. Perry received when he said that 200+ executions did not trouble him. Note also that we have brought back torture that something this so-called Christian nation can approve of.

  58. #58 |  JOR | 

    If you want to determine whether it’s more humane to kill someone or imprison them for a set amount of years, just give all the prisoners the opportunity to commit suicide without interference (or perhaps offer to kill them “humanely”). All the ones that kill themselves will be the ones who preferred death to life in prison for however long their terms were.

    There goes the whole “argument”.

  59. #59 |  JOR | 

    “I guess I would put it in terms of priorities. Which would be worse: a government executing one innocent person per year, or a government wrongfully imprisoning 1,000 innocent people per year for ten years each? If a government is doing both, which problem should merit more attention?”

    False premise: People against the death penalty around here are not also against imprisoning innocent people (or for that matter, people who are “guilty” of victimless crimes).
    Related: Anyone around here, to say nothing of Radley Balko, “gives more attention” to the death penalty than legal system corruption in general.

    Come on. This sort of thing is just so internally stupid on its face, how can anyone take it seriously?

  60. #60 |  JOR | 

    “Leave the death penalty on the table, just try to improve it’s application (even better, just try to improve justice in general), and you’ll have a lot more allies – actual improvement can be made.”

    No. You’ll have a few more allies (and lose a few allies), who are at least as politically irrelevant as you are. That’s not something worth abandoning principle for.

    It’s best to just stick to principle and be a crazy radical. Aim for radicalism and you’ll achieve gradual, imperfect change – if you’re lucky. Aim for gradual, imperfect, pragmatic change, and you won’t achieve a fucking thing no matter how lucky you are.

  61. #61 |  Boyd Durkin | 

    The argument is whether it’s more merciful to execute someone slowly through imprisonment or more quickly.

    How did you get this as the argument?

  62. #62 |  JOR | 

    “The same applies to the situation of using deadly force against, for instance, a home invader, which is also a choice not to be made lightly.”

    A home invader is not innocent. But sure, someone could mistake someone for a home invader who isn’t. And if they kill that person on that mistaken assumption they’re guilty of deliberately killing an innocent person, and should be treated accordingly. People who execute innocent prisoners are not treated accordingly.

  63. #63 |  TC | 

    Ya know if prosecutors were held truly responsible for some of the shit they pull to make themselves look better, ta hell with that criminal. I’ll git reelected n shit.

    Send an innocent man to the gallows, you git to change places with him/her!

    End of line!

    Take away their protections, like they take away yours, we would see something resembling a JUSTICE system return to our country.

  64. #64 |  jdb | 

    I haven’t had the pleasure of reading #42’s posts before, but I sense that he’s a rare literary talent renowned for his Byzantine inclinations.

    There is no such thing as a “living death sentence” outside of the existentialist sense in which we’re all marching toward death. The removal of a particular few rights by imprisonment is not comparable with execution, particularly in a nation that affords lwpp convicts the opportunity to continue their educations or intellectual development.

  65. #65 |  Fritz | 

    John Stuart Mill wrote,

    Much has been said of the sanctity of human life, and the absurdity of supposing that we can teach respect for life by ourselves destroying it. But I am surprised at the employment of this argument, for it is one which might be brought against any punishment whatever. It is not human life only, not human life as such, that ought to be sacred to us, but human feelings. The human capacity of suffering is what we should cause to be respected, not the mere capacity of existing. And we may imagine somebody asking how we can teach people not to inflict suffering by ourselves inflicting it? But to this I should answer—all of us would answer—that to deter by suffering from inflicting suffering is not only possible, but the very purpose of penal justice. Does fining a criminal show want of respect for property, or imprisoning him, for personal freedom? Just as unreasonable is it to think that to take the life of a man who has taken that of another is to show want of regard for human life. We show, on the contrary, most emphatically our regard for it, by the adoption of a rule that he who violates that right in another forfeits it for himself, and that while no other crime that he can commit deprives him of his right to live, this shall.

  66. #66 |  JohnJ | 

    #61 | Boyd Durkin: “How did you get this as the argument?”

    The only realistic alternative being offered is life in prison. While there are those who argue for various kinds of third ways, I haven’t heard what I consider a reasonable one. But maybe that’s just me.

  67. #67 |  supercat | 

    #59 | JOR | //False premise: People against the death penalty around here are not also against imprisoning innocent people (or for that matter, people who are “guilty” of victimless crimes).//

    If you really think that’s what I was trying to say, then you grossly misunderstood me. My argument is that if one’s goal is to minimize the harm done by unjust convictions, that goal could be more effectively achieved by using the false-conviction rate in death-penalty cases to raise public outrage over false-conviction rates in general, than by merely using it to argue against the death penalty. I by no means wish to imply that Randy Balko or anyone else who argues against the death penalty doesn’t care about wrongful convictions in non-capital cases, but I think it likely that abolishing the death penalty would make it harder to raise public awareness and outrage about conviction rates in general, and certainly believe that the time and effort spent trying to abolish the death penalty could be more effectively spent other ways.

  68. #68 |  PEG | 

    Thanks for linking to my post. I’ll note that I go on to say that these rejoinders are imperfect and if you disagree with them I won’t.

  69. #69 |  John Thacker | 

    So, does the same argument mean that waterboarding and Gitmo are infinitely preferable to the current policy of just killing suspected terrorists with troops or drones?

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