January 18, 2003
Death versus life

One of the stronger things I've seen written about the recent decision by outgoing Illinois Governor George Ryan to commute the death sentences of every condemned inmate is the following by The Talking Dog:

For the record, I am "operationally opposed" to the death penalty. If we saved it for the McVeighs and bin Ladens (or in New York, for the "Wendy's killer"), and made damned sure these few monsters got an absolutely fair trial, then I would say -- execute away. But as a regular participant in the uneven legal system of a state widely regarded as having one of the BEST court systems in the country, and almost always only dealing with CIVIL matters, I can tell you, justice is dispensed far too arbitrarily for life and death decisions. Further, given that most death penalty recipients tend to have appointed counsel paid absurdly low compensation by the state ("if you can't afford an attorney one will be provided for you") that it’s very hard to conclude the penalty is meted out on a basis that can reasonably called "fair". Better to adopt George Ryan's approach: commute 'em all, and let the courts sort 'em out.

Philosophically, I have no objections to the death penalty. I don't claim it's a deterrent, I don't claim it's an efficient use of scarce resources, and I certainly don't claim that it's meted out in a fair manner in this country, but in the abstract I accept it on the grounds that it's a suitable response to certain crimes and certain criminals. Still, if the death penalty were to be greatly scaled back or eliminated altogether, I would not consider it much of a loss.

I've never quite understood the love affair that some people have with the death penalty. I remember discussing it once with a friend of mine who's an anti-government conservative Republican and whose position on this issue is basically "kill 'em all and let God sort it out". I asked him why, if he's so mistrustful of government power, he's happy to let the government have the power to kill citizens like that. He didn't have an answer that I found satisfactory.

Dwight Meredith recently asked this same question in a different way: "If tort reform is needed because juries make terrible decisions in civil liability cases, why do conservatives think that death penalty juries are infallible?" More to the point, there's a well-defined system of appeals for civil cases which frequently reduces the kind of civil awards that tort reformers point to as being the sort of thing they oppose, yet we've consistently restricted avenues of appeal in capital cases in recent years, to the point where actual innocence is no longer considered sufficient grounds for overturning a verdict. I don't know how any death penalty supporter could not find that a teeny bit disquieting.

It's long been clear to me that the driving force behind the most ardent supporters of the death penalty is a desire for vengeance and a belief in "an eye for an eye". I consider this to be a lousy basis for public policy. It's also, for those who list Jesus as their favorite philosopher, not in line with his teachings:

[38] Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth:
[39] But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.
[40] And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also.
[41] And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain.
[42] Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away.
[43] Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy.
[44] But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;
[45] That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.
[46] For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same?
[47] And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so?
[48] Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.

Maybe that whole government-by-Biblical-principles thing isn't such a good idea after all.

Until the day that we can honestly say that there are no undeserving people on Death Row, I join The Talking Dog in his operational opposition to the death penalty.

UPDATE: Via Kevin Drum, I see that Rod Dreher at NRO has doubts about the death penalty. I'm glad to know it.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on January 18, 2003 to Crime and Punishment | TrackBack

One point: "commute them all and lets the courts sort them out". There is no appeal by the State against commutation: it is permanent.

Posted by: B. K. Oxley (binkley) on January 18, 2003 6:02 PM