Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Idle Thoughts -- The Death Penalty

On the death penalty

There are two strategies which could be taken.  One is to discuss the death penalty simply as the death penalty, ignoring such issues as how it is applied both in the judicial system and the actual matter of conducting an execution.  The other is to discuss it in those contexts, which changes the conversation considerably. Of course, it is always possible to do both, but that is a more complicated argument.

I'm not very focused today, but since you have to have this tomorrow let's at least do this one.  I'll just do both arguments. You can take one or the other or combine them together as you please.

That's just look at the death penalty in enough itself without talking about it's broader social implications.  The problem with this situation is that it is almost impossible to run an effective experiment or to accurately analyze the data to come to a clear conclusion as to whether the death penalty does or does not give the benefit of reducing crime.  Many books have been written on the subject, and amazingly, the conclusion is always the same. Whatever the author believed when he started looking at the data is what the data conclusively proves. Well, at least according to that particular author.

Those who support the death penalty say the evidence clearly indicates that it reduces murder rates and possibly even crime in general. Those who oppose the death penalty say it clearly does not reduce the number of murders and may even increase it, along with other crimes as well.  When someone tells you that  the facts undeniably show that...you know that they are making inaccurate statement.  There simply is no clear data set which proves either position. Those who claim that there are are making inaccurate statements.  The same data has been interpreted to prove exactly opposite positions time and time again.

This is a very difficult situation for a person like me, who believes that our emotions must work together with our intellect to come to appropriate conclusions. When the facts aren't clear, then what do you do?

Let's go back in time. Remember the story of Romeo and Juliet? Or the American tale of the Hatfields and McCoys? Families became locked into an endless spiral of revenge killing. This is what the justice system is supposed to prevent. When the government provides justice, families no longer need to do so personally. The fact that we don't engage in such self generating cycles shows of the justice system, however flawed , is doing its basic job.

It is not a popular position, but an element of the sense of justice is a sense of revenge. The family which feels that the justice system has not appropriately punished an individual may very well consider taking the law into their own hands.  It really isn't enough to know that someone got a trial, if victims feel that the accused either got away the crime by being set free or was given a punishment which was too light.

A sentence of many years or even a lifetime in prison is certainly not pleasant, but it may not satisfy survivors whose loved ones have been murdered.  Of course, we cannot go too far. We don't want to go back to the days of public executions and torture. Still, the need for a sense of justice done requires that the penalty be appropriate to the crime.

The other side of this issue points out that by the mere act of executing criminals, society is saying that it is okay to kill people as long as you have good enough reasons to do so.  As far as I know this particular version of the argument is unique to me. It is generally expressed as, a society that does not value human life spreads that concept among its members who then lose respect for life.  My version makes it a little more sharp edged.

Now to the more complex version. All the items above point out that there may  be justification for executing someone. It is possible that executions make the murder rate go down, although that is not been proven or even demonstrated convincingly.  The sense of social stability and security results when a nation feels the justice has been done, which may include executions.

So far so good. Unfortunately the way the death penalty is applied in America clearly shows that it is a very prejudiced process

Race of Defendants Executed  
White 56 %
Black 35 %
Hispanic 7 %
Other 2 %
Race of Victim in Death Penalty Case  
White 76 %
Black 15 %
Hispanic 6 %
Other 3 %

Look at the numbers above. More whites are executed than blacks. However, then take a look at the race of a person who was murdered. If you murder a white person you were very likely to get the death penalty. But if you murder someone of another race you almost certainly won't. There is no way to explain that but racial prejudice.

Also, people who are convicted of murder and sentenced to death are most likely poor. Murderers who are middle-class or wealthy can afford good lawyers and rarely get the death penalty. This is a different kind of prejudice, but it's just as real and unjust.

So, even assuming we do support the death penalty, then we cannot support the current American system of so-called justice. The rule of law is a phrase we hear a lot. It means that everyone is subject to the same law. But that is not really true in the American justice system. The poor and racial minorities are far more likely to be punished than the White or the wealthy.  Wealth is the best protector by far, in case you didn't realize that.

I'm going to send you an additional post because I forgot to add, just how do you execute criminals? I think everyone would agree it's not appropriate to torture them to death, but that is exactly what we did with the electric chair. For a long time the French use the guillotine to chop off peoples' heads, even into the 20th century. But there's some evidence that death is not instantaneous in the circumstances so that also constitutes torture. It's easy to say we should execute someone but then the question arises, how do you do that in a way which kills quickly and painlessly?

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