Back in 1949 a science fiction author named George Stewart wrote a novel called “Earth Abides”, in which some global horror or another (I forget exactly what it was – been a long time ago) pretty much wiped out humanity on the Third Rock. Twas, as I recall, a fairly unremarkable post-apocalyptic tale in which a tiny band of humans attempt to survive and repopulate the planet. But what stuck with me (in fact the only reason I remember this book) was one of the sub-subplots wherein an interloper, unimaginatively enough named ‘Charlie’, crashed the group and created all kinds of havoc. Seems Charlie was a real bastard in just about every way, but the critical menace to their survival that he represented was the venereal disease which he carried … and attempted to share (unsuccessfully apparently) with an attractive but simple-minded young female member of the group. The group, sensing an existential threat, convened a “court” and decreed that Charlie be summarily put to death, which sentence was promptly carried out. And the human species survived even if they didn’t thrive.
Easy enough with the artificial perspective provided by the fictional nature of the situation to grunt and say “Yup – that was the proper course of action; after all, they had a very few women capable of child-bearing, and the loss or compromise of even one would constitute a significant hazard to, even potential extinction of, the human race.” Given the constraints of the story, even the most fanatical pro-life apologist could find any number of reasons to countenance the snuffing of Charlie.
Sadly, real life choices are rarely so straightforward.
I have refrained from weighing in the death penalty fracas currently afoot in our fair state for the very good reason that I don’t much care whether the DP is repealed or not. It seems abundantly clear to anyone not thoroughly blinded by their respective ideologies that the chances of sending anyone off to meet his/her maker in this state are somewhere between vanishingly small and utterly nonexistent. Folks – it’s been nearly two decades since we’ve blown out anyone’s candle in Huskerland. I mean we’ve Green Mile’d only three since the Ford administration for cryin’ out loud. Yeah, yeah – I know … it’s because of all the confusion about the availability of appropriate drugs, equipment, methodologies, etc., etc., yadda-yadda. Fact is, physician-assisted suicide had been going on for most of that time in a number of other states; couldn’t we just have called in some of those cats to legally Kevork the bad guys? No – we haven’t been executing people for years because there exists little public or private stomach for it – and it’s long past time somebody said it out loud. If and when I see compelling evidence that they’re unlimbering Old Sparky again, my level of interest will certainly increase, but until then ….
Though it is of little importance in the larger scheme of things, I admit to being generally opposed to governments killing its citizens – for whatever reason. Let me hasten to add that I also strongly disapprove of citizens killing citizens – for whatever reason. But, again, I see no real possibility that Nebraska (and many other states) will revert to capital punishment – even if codified/legalized/certified statutorily. But hey – politicians and ideologues of all stripes and sorts gotta have something to feed their addiction to attempting to direct the lives and fortunes of everyone else – so this year I guess it’s the death penalty’s night in the barrel. But never forget that capital punishment, perhaps more than any other single subject except possibly abortion, has become an enormously emotionally charged issue, and is central to people’s ideological self-image, usually devoid of any rational or objective support – on either side.
I have thought and read extensively about this subject, from pre-Christian philosophers, through the great Church Doctors, to what modern bioethicists and social scientists have to say and I have formulated a set of five reasons that convince me that capital punishment should be outlawed, which I give below. I ask no one to embrace these tenets – they are presented purely as explanation of why I think as I do on this particular subject.
Death Penalty as a Crime Deterrent (Uhh … Not Really) – I have spent hours sifting through records, reports, etc. both on-line and in college libraries, and have been unable to find any statistics that I am satisfied constitute a truly objective study on this subject. Lots of claims, invariably from people and/or organizations with obvious ideological axes to grind, both pro and con. The best I have been able to find was a statement from a Supreme Court justice stating “there is no convincing empirical evidence either supporting or refuting the claim that the death penalty is a unique deterrent.” And, though I am not in the habit of quoting Janet Reno, consider this utterance from none other than … “I have inquired for most of my adult life about studies that might show that the death penalty is a deterrent. And I have not seen any research that would substantiate that point.” Nuff said.
Death Penalty as Retributive Justice – Here we need to wander back into ancient Greece and listen to what Socrates had to say about good and evil. Socrates claimed that a man harms himself more in the doing of evil than in the suffering of it – making physical retribution redundant and excessive. Note that this implies that the only thing that could harm the good man would be his own wrongdoing, making Socrates one of the first to construct a philosophy on the distinction between physical (or pre-moral) evil and moral evil. Fast forward a few hundred years; in precisely the same vein, Jesus taught men not to fear those who harm the body but cannot sully the soul. To summarize, then, let me quote Theresa Murray, Christian ethicist and author:
“According to the moral philosophy of Jesus and Socrates, good and evil are inner dispositions and can neither be bestowed upon us, nor taken away from us, by the actions of others. But we can do ourselves moral harm through our own actions. By executing criminals out of a desire for revenge or retribution, we diminish ourselves and coarsen and brutalise public life.”
So, at least for moral beings, retributive justice would seem to constitute a remedy more harmful than helpful.
Biased Jury Selection Rules in Capital Cases – Under America’s jury selection rules the prosecution in a capital case dismiss potential jurors if they oppose the death penalty. Note that it takes a unanimous verdict to impose the death penalty, which means of course that jurors must be in favor of it. Here is where things start to go south. The US legal system depends on jurors understanding clearly the distinction between bad things just happening and bad things happening because somebody intended them. In other words they must grasp the meaning of “pre-moral” evil and moral evil. Yet because of jury selection rules, we know that the jury must be composed solely of death penalty supporters, and likely to have little knowledge of or appreciation for that vital distinction. Hence such jurors are in the very worst position to be able to judge the defendant on the only grounds that matter to his guilt or innocence. That seems to me to render Lady Justice anything but blind.
Mistakes (Lots of Them) Do Happen – Different sources give slightly different numbers but the evidence is overwhelming that since the federal government removed the DP moratorium in 1976, approximately 160 people who were on death row (i.e., convicted and sentenced to death) have been found to be in fact innocent of the charges for which they were convicted. This is due in large part to DNA technologies coming on line, but also because of more effective investigative techniques that have been developed. During that same period, just over 1400 people have been put to death nationwide, and about 3000 remain on death row. I will not attempt any extrapolation from the data, but it should be clear to anyone that it is virtually certain that at least some innocent people are included in those two groups.
Philosophical Coherence – And finally, it is a mystery to me how anyone who is, as I am, unapologetically pro-life (by which I mean ANTI-ABORTION) can justify capital punishment. Pro-life means “I support human life”, in all its sundry and sometimes unpleasant manifestations; we don’t get to pick and choose, like we’re at some celestial bazaar. Human life is a gift from God (or from a provident Gaian entity – for those who are troubled by overtly religious references) and, in any moral or ethical system worthy of the name, can only be taken by that same Giver. We can secure that gift, or enhance it, or degrade it … but I do not believe we can take it and remain moral human beings.
The question ultimately arises of what to do with capital criminals if we can’t squash ‘em like bugs? Simple – lock ‘em up and throw away the key. “But wait” you scream – “that’s too expensive – furnishing board and room for these louts for years and years.” True – it costs a bit, but not nearly as much as an execution, with its dozens of appeals dragging on for decades, astronomical legal fees, etc. The preponderance of evidence demonstrating this is (for once) breath-taking, and nearly unanimous. Look it up if you don’t believe me. As just one example, Death Penalty Info.org provides the following information:
- Defense costs for death penalty trials in Kansas averaged about $400,000 per case, compared to $100,000 per case when the death penalty was not sought. (Kansas Judicial Council, 2014).
- A new study in California revealed that the cost of the death penalty in the state has been over $4 billion since 1978. Study considered pretrial and trial costs, costs of automatic appeals and state habeas corpus petitions, costs of federal habeas corpus appeals, and costs of incarceration on death row. (Alarcon & Mitchell, 2011).
- In Maryland, an average death penalty case resulting in a death sentence costs approximately $3 million. The eventual costs to Maryland taxpayers for cases pursued 1978-1999 will be $186 million. Five executions have resulted. (Urban Institute, 2008).
- Enforcing the death penalty costs Florida $51 million a year above what it would cost to punish all first-degree murderers with life in prison without parole. Based on the 44 executions Florida had carried out since 1976, that amounts to a cost of $24 million for each execution.(Palm Beach Post, January 4, 2000).
- The most comprehensive study in the country found that the death penalty costs North Carolina $2.16 million per execution over the costs of sentencing murderers to life imprisonment. The majority of those costs occur at the trial level. (Duke University, May 1993).
- In Texas, a death penalty case costs an average of $2.3 million, about three times the cost of imprisoning someone in a single cell at the highest security level for 40 years. (Dallas Morning News, March 8, 1992).