The questions you should be asking about the death penalty (updated)

The trial of Steven Hayes (more popularly called the Cheshire or Petit trial), currently nearing the end of the guilt phase, has caused a state-wide sensation. Reporters have packed the courtrooms from the beginning of jury selection, with their numbers swelling well into the teens by the this point. Coverage of the trial is the headline for almost all news and media outlets. The death penalty question has also begun to infiltrate the all-important November gubernatorial election, with the Democrat staunchly opposed and the Republican in favor.

Posts have sprung up and tweets have been written to answer the question: has the Hayes trial changed your views on the death penalty? One reporter tweeted, wondering out loud what the lessons to be learned from this trial were. Lessons from what part of the trial and for whom, is the natural follow up, but that’s perhaps for another post on another day.

We’re never going to get honest answers in the death penalty debate, if we don’t ask the right questions. The first, taken from this tweet in the aftermath of the execution of Teresa Lewis (update: added this link to an editorial on Lewis’ execution and the response to that execution and what the death penalty says about us, which mirrors to some extent the views expressed in this post):

the state kills people, who have killed people, to prove that killing people is wrong

Think about it, mull it over and decide if you agree with that statement or disagree. And if you disagree, ask yourself, what part of the statement do I disagree with? Is it that the State doesn’t “kill” someone? So, what then, does the State do? And is the State not trying to prove that it is unacceptable in society to take someone else’s life? The hypocrisy in that statement – and its pointed message – is inescapable.

And then one must further ask: am I okay with that hypocrisy? One commenter to my previous post about the Cheshire case wrote:

Gideon, when you say that people who want Hayes executed are as bad as he is, you descend into the very muck you excoriate. It shows what a hypocrite you are. Get off your high horse. With all of the injustice in the world, it’s amazing that you spend even one second worrying about how people, seeing a vile guy piss himself, laugh.

The comment, of course, does nothing to counter my original point: that by wanting the State to execute a man, we are no better than the man who committed these crimes. What, really, is the difference? We can get on our high horses and throw around words like justice, but in the end, we must confront the fact that we are – at some level – okay with murdering the right people. And the blind rage of vengeance shields us from asking that question of ourselves: if we support the death penalty, are we okay with murder?

Would those that so vigorously and vocally want Steven Hayes to be executed forthwith gladly step up to the injection chamber? What if it were a firing squad? Would they that are in favor of this punishment willingly step in front of another breathing, living human being and pull the trigger and watch the life leave him and stand over a cold, lifeless body, and be able to live with that knowledge for the rest of their lives?

Because if you are not, then you have no business asking 12 other people to do essentially that. And that question must – I don’t see how it cannot – bring home the hypocrisy in killing a man to prove that killing another man is morally unacceptable. We cannot be the evil that we want to condemn others for; rather, we must be the change that we wish to see in the world – that is, if we want others not to kill, we must not kill either.

To those who say “I’m normally against the death penalty, but in this case…”, I say you lie. I say either you were never against the death penalty, or you are now in favor of the death penalty. Because the moral opposition to the death penalty does not and cannot change depending on the particularly heinous nature of the crime or a value judgment about the quality of the victims.

In fact, I would venture to say that those who are against the death penalty for socio-economic reasons aren’t really against the death penalty in principle; just against its application.

For the only question to determine if you are against the death penalty in principle is: do I think it is morally and socially acceptable to kill another person. If the answer is no, then you must be against the ultimate penalty.

And that is the question we must be asking ourselves, while the bloodlust in us continues to grow.

54 thoughts on “The questions you should be asking about the death penalty (updated)

  1. lcc

    In GA the state doesn’t kill someone- they pay a private company to do it. Rainbow Medical Associates gets $4,000 to do an execution, $6,000 if it gets delayed and $2,000 if it is not carried out at all, there is a stay, etc.

    Reply
  2. Trace Rabern

    Great post Gid. I’ve decided the best barometer for justice, to me, is does this make sense to my kid. If I can explain why we as a society do something in a way she understands to be fair, I know in my heart it is Justice. If not, it is a sickness. At age six about the death penalty, she smartly responded that killing people to show killing is wrong would be just like her teacher hitting a child to teach him hitting was wrong, or bullying a bully to show that bullying is wrong. “It only works if you do it to yourself as an example” she said.

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    1. Gideon Post author

      But that level of brutal honesty is missing from the debate. Of course, that’s the problem with most of the debates on criminal justice – because it would never happen to “us”, just to “them”.

      Reply
  3. Jeff Gamso

    Excellent. And precisely right. You can’t be against the death penalty sometimes, even most times, and claim to be against it. That’s the non-whore haggling over the price as Churchill (or was it Shaw?) taught us.

    Alas, I’m not aware that they ever have trouble finding people to be volunteer murderers. Which is why I favor executions in Yankee Stadium. By some grotesque means. In front of a paying audience. And on pay-per-view. Because if we’re gonna do it, we should admit that’s who we are.

    Sigh.

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    1. Gideon Post author

      The percentage of those willing to commit the act would be dwarfed by those who say they are in support of the penalty, but wouldn’t pull the lever.

      I think if people in favor of the death penalty were required to execute one person in their lifetime, the number opposed would suddenly rise.

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  4. Jeff Gamso

    I don’t actually disagree. I’m depressed by how many would participate (and celebrate, as the tailgater’s did when Ted Bundy was killed in Florida), but I think it would call the question in a forceful way.

    I hope that people would feel revulsion at themselves – a step toward changing their views.

    Reply
    1. Gideon Post author

      Indeed. There is nothing enjoyable or celebratory about the death of another: be it the victim or the defendant. Which is why the coverage of this Hayes case in CT has left a particularly unpleasant taste in my mouth.

      Reply
  5. Jeff Gamso

    But even if it did deter some substantial number of murders – the question (assuming you were comfortable killing to achieve some deterrence) would be whether you could deter as many or more by other means – perhaps by pumping the money saved from abolition for jobs or education or drug treatment or . . . .

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  6. Gerard

    That’s an incredibly flawed argument. If it’s wrong for the state to execute people for murder because the state is doing the same thing, then prison sentences for unlawful restraint/kidnapping are out; fines for any form of theft are out, et. al.

    The arguments against the death penalty are: 1. it’s not a deterrent, 2. it’s more expensive than life in prison, and 3. it precludes the opportunity to rectify errors if sentences are overturned.

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    1. Gideon Post author

      Well, first of all, it’s not incredibly flawed. And I’d argue that killing someone is the ultimate immoral and socially unacceptable act. Kidnapping and restraint are more usually by-products of other acts.

      Applying that logic, why don’t we rape rapists or shoot shooters? The death penalty calls for us to kill killers.

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    2. Jeff Gamso

      It’s not an argument against so much as a demonstration of the absurdity of the system. But then you’ve got it all worked out to 3 and only 3 proper arguments.

      Can you live with a 4th? We’re not competent to figure out who should be killed and who not. How about a 5th? Killing people is wrong. Want some more?

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      1. Gerard

        are we competent to figure out who should be in jail and who shouldn’t?

        is locking people up in a small room for the rest of the lives not wrong?

        I don’t want more: I want to know who you are are trying to convince. If you believe the death penalty wrong, don’t you have a moral obligation to make the most convincing arguments that will affect the most voters? Is the greater good self-righteous rhetoric “moral high ground” arguments or less strident persuasion that affects change in more people?

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        1. Gideon Post author

          I think that’s a flawed argument, because it assumes that the baseline is there should be no punishment. Only then does the “is locking people up in a small room not wrong” example fit.

          It’s a given that people need to be punished in some form for their misdeeds and crimes, especially those that hurt others. The only question here is what is the appropriate punishment.

          Do you not think that I have a gripe with the needlessly long prison sentences handed out? Of course I do. But here, the question is how is it not hypocritical to commit the very act that we are condoning?

          Who am I trying to convince? Nobody and everybody, I guess.

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  7. Mark G

    I’m not sure how this can even be argued! Two sub-human monsters raped and killed a man’s 11 year old daughter, 17 year old daughter, and his wife in cold blood. They were caught red handed in the act, and are guilty as sin. They have no remorse. These two are a waste of space, a waste of our tax dollars, a waste of life. To dispel your point, I personally if given the opportunity, would gladly pull a trigger, administer an injection, turn the gas on, etc to send these degenerates on their way to an eternity in hell. I do believe the death penalty does need to be reformed to occur much much quicker when someone is proven 100% guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. The justice system should be “by the people, for the people” and to be that change, we should demand our legislators actually do work for once and streamline capital punishment.

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    1. Lee Stonum

      There he is. As I was reading these replies all I kept thinking was “wait for it, wait for it…”

      Honestly, I don’t think I can call myself morally opposed under the rubric you propose. I don’t think state sanctioned killing is ever ok for a bunch of reasons, but I would personally murder someone for various reasons. Easiest and most obvious, if someone did great harm to my daughter, I would murder them. I don’t know that this means I can’t be morally opposed to state sanctioned killing because under the same circumstance, I would not support the state killing that person.

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      1. Jeff Gamso

        Both parts.
        1. Killing people is wrong.
        2. There are circumstances in which I’d probably do it.

        I’m not a pacifist (at least not in theory). And I sure as hell recognize the desire for vengeance and to do unto others. There are those I’d like to see dead. And I don’t doubt that there are those who deserve killing.

        All that’s personal. And yes, there’s a conflict between what I might like to do and what I think is proper.

        But the law is different. Among other things, the law, criminal law especially which is the subject after all, isn’t about (or isn’t supposed to be about) satisfying personal anger (sorry Dr. Petit). The criminal law is about societal interests. We punish not for the harm done to the “victim” or the family of the “victim” but for the harm done to the social order. The calculus is supposed to be calm and rational rather than emotional. (It’s the disjunction Michael Dukakis couldn’t get and that maybe cost him the presidency).

        Regardless of us the individuals, we the people should not be in the killing business.

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    2. Gideon Post author

      But ofcourse, these are all moral judgments you are making:

      They have no remorse. These two are a waste of space, a waste of our tax dollars, a waste of life.

      You don’t know that one or both don’t feel remorse.

      And would you then be able to live for the rest of your life knowing that you killed a man? Is that the example you want to set for your family and society?

      Again, I don’t think you’re asking yourself the question (or if you have, please share the answer): why is it okay – and not hypocritical – for us (collectively) to kill a man to teach us (individually) that it is not okay to kill?

      As to your point about 100%? I’m all for it. But that’s because no one could ever prove 100%. The State isn’t required to, because it’s an impossible burden. So, even those who are “guilty” as sin, aren’t proven 100% guilty; they’re just guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. How else would we have false convictions and exonerations?

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      1. Gerard

        It would not be okay for me as an individual to raze your house because I want a bigger backyard, or hack your back account and siphon off 10%. Yet the state does these things through eminent domain and income taxes. The state routinely performs actions that we consider inappropriate (illegal) for individuals. Therefore, ‘why is it okay for us (collectively) to do X when individuals cannot do X’ isn’t a compelling argument.

        If the argument is the killing an individual is an absolute wrong the the state should never perform then the Armed Forces need to be disbanded and police officers disarmed. Therefore by Reductio ad absurdum that is not a compelling argument. (quod erat demonstrandum).

        I believe the death penalty is bad public policy. I believe the stronger and more pragmatic the arguments made towards that end the more likely others can be convinced of that fact.

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        1. Gideon Post author

          If the argument is the killing an individual is an absolute wrong the the state should never perform then the Armed Forces need to be disbanded and police officers disarmed. Therefore by Reductio ad absurdum that is not a compelling argument. (quod erat demonstrandum).

          Really? You sure you want to stick by this line of logic? The differences must be obvious: one is an act of defense and protection, the other is revenge and retribution.

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          1. Gerard

            Well, it’s your logic we’re discussing, not mine. So you allow society to kill as a preventative measure. This opens the door to the argument that killing the murderers prevents future offenses. There are case newspapers clippings providing evidence murders have gotten out of prison.

          2. Gideon Post author

            Well, murderers certainly get out of prison, just not those convicted of capital felonies: life without the possibility of release means just that, at least in Connecticut.

          3. Gideon Post author

            The new response I’m hearing to the irreversability/exonerations from death row argument is that an innocent life taken is “within the margin of error” and the “price of the system”.

            So saddening.

  8. Mark G

    It’s hard to come up with a “one-fits-all” solution. I think we need to begin by asking ourselves, what is justice? Justice, inherently, will have a different meaning to all of us. I think various punishments, depending how they are viewed, can appear to be hypocritical. How about locking someone in a cell for 3-5 years for kidnapping and holding someone against their will? Some can argue it’s hypocritical to now hold them (the criminal) against their will.

    What if Dr. Petit had a firearm and he shot Hayes and Komisjarsky dead on that fateful night. Would that make him the criminal? I believe there’s some crimes that, as hypocritical as it may be, deserve nothing less than the death penalty. I’m a very nice and caring person, but I find myself agreeing with the poster above- God forbid someone did what they did to Petit’s daughters to my daughter, I probably would kill them. It’s a slippery slope, but at the end of the day, family is everything to a lot of us, and these two essentially ruined Dr. Petit’s life.

    What do you feel punishment should be?

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    1. Gideon Post author

      Sure, sure, but as Jeff said, the question isn’t what you or I would do individually – of course it’s hard not to look emotionally at these cases or any other case for that matter – but that we should be sanctioning murder as a government policy. If you take matters into your own hands and act in self-defense, the law provides for that. But it does not provide for you hunting down the person that killed your daughter and killing him in revenge. You’d still be convicted of murder and sentenced to jail.

      Because the State is still trying to teach us that killing is wrong. And you don’t teach someone that something is wrong by doing that very thing.

      What do I feel punishment should be in this case or in general?

      (See, we can have a rational discussion on this subject! It can be argued.)

      Reply
  9. M. Brady

    I wonder what you would have to say about the law of self-defense, specifically when it permits the use of deadly force in certain circumstances. This is a half-formed argument, so I’m not sure I’m willing to stand by it or that I’m even convinced of it myself, but it might be worth thinking about.

    One might be justified in killing someone not only if they are in danger of being killed, but also through third-party self defense. I can shoot someone who is raping someone else, or someone who seems (assuming I’m reasonable) to be inflicting possibly deadly force on another person in front of me. And if forced to, I would. In a hypothetical situation where there is no way to call for help, or the threat is immediate, and I am the only person that can step in to protect the victim, I would try to do whatever possible to save the victim and protect myself and other bystanders. (Personally, I would certainly have a complex moral reaction – I am sure I would feel remorse, but also justification.)

    You ask whether it is morally and socially acceptable to kill another person. I don’t think that you would assert that self-defense is ridiculous; therefore you, too, believe it’s morally and socially acceptable to kill another person in certain extreme circumstances.

    One obvious difference between the death penalty and self-defense is the immediacy of the threat – self-defense is only justified if it is immediately necessary. You may argue that this logical step is missing in death penalty cases. But perhaps part of the link, and at least the hope of the law itself, is that the jury is making a judgment that the crime and criminal are so depraved, so lethal, that they do pose a continuing and immediate threat to society. I understand that the death penalty is too frequently administered, and has been poorly used in the past, but if we imagine ourselves as defenders of victims – as those faced with an immediate choice to kill to protect future victims – I think many people would pull the trigger. Incarceration is a solution, but it is not a perfect one; there are victims in prison, too, the prison system is imperfect, and here is where the economic arguments come into play (I have a harder time with these).

    There are lots of complicated points about recidivism and propensity and rehabilitation here, which are probably all valid at some level. But in certain cases – the Ted Bundy, and perhaps even the Hayes – perhaps the jurors are making a judgment that they will kill in defense of the safety of society.

    Again, I’m sure I’ve missed lots of points and this is hardly a bulletproof argument. I agree with what you’re saying about the deterrent effect – it is an absurdity to say that we should teach people not to kill by killing. But whether it is absurd to kill another person to defend, even if you are not protecting your own life but are protecting third parties, I have a little more trouble with.

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    1. Gideon Post author

      One obvious difference between the death penalty and self-defense is the immediacy of the threat – self-defense is only justified if it is immediately necessary. You may argue that this logical step is missing in death penalty cases. But perhaps part of the link, and at least the hope of the law itself, is that the jury is making a judgment that the crime and criminal are so depraved, so lethal, that they do pose a continuing and immediate threat to society.

      You point out the difference that I was going to. But here’s what’s wrong with that second part: these people will never see the light of day (figuratively) again. So they pose no risk to society at all. And since we know that the death penalty has no deterrent effect whatsoever, then that justification fails.

      But in certain cases – the Ted Bundy, and perhaps even the Hayes – perhaps the jurors are making a judgment that they will kill in defense of the safety of society.

      Killing Bundy or Hayes will do nothing to alter the safety of our society. They’re already locked up. What it will do, however, is satisfy the strong craving for revenge. So we meet primal acts of rage with primal acts of rage. I thought we would have liked to have evolved past that by now.

      And actually, I have no problem with the law of self-defense. I believe it is necessary. But the law calls it a “justification”. We will permit the killing of another person only in very, very limited circumstances and those are when there is the immediate threat of death to another. So you take a life to save a life. The death penalty does not do that. Interestingly, with self-defense, the jury first has to find that you are, indeed, guilty of murder and then decide if that murder was justified by self-defense.

      Reply
  10. john b

    It seems the tolerance of an eye for an eye declines with the time that passes.. name a first responder that didn’t have that thought at the home that morning.. I bet some regret not handling it themselves! Again.. the decision gets more difficult as time passes by. If Hayes spent 3 years deciding on whether to kill or not.. odds are we wouldn’t be reading this now.

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  11. spo

    “And then one must further ask: am I okay with that hypocrisy? One commenter to my previous post about the Cheshire case wrote:

    “Gideon, when you say that people who want Hayes executed are as bad as he is, you descend into the very muck you excoriate. It shows what a hypocrite you are. Get off your high horse. With all of the injustice in the world, it’s amazing that you spend even one second worrying about how people, seeing a vile guy piss himself, laugh.

    “The comment, of course, does nothing to counter my original point: that by wanting the State to execute a man, we are no better than the man who committed these crimes. What, really, is the difference? We can get on our high horses and throw around words like justice, but in the end, we must confront the fact that we are – at some level – okay with murdering the right people. And the blind rage of vengeance shields us from asking that question of ourselves: if we support the death penalty, are we okay with murder?

    “Would those that so vigorously and vocally want Steven Hayes to be executed forthwith gladly step up to the injection chamber? What if it were a firing squad? Would they that are in favor of this punishment willingly step in front of another breathing, living human being and pull the trigger and watch the life leave him and stand over a cold, lifeless body, and be able to live with that knowledge for the rest of their lives?

    Last question first–you goddamned right I would. One never knows, of course, what one would when faced with it, but I would hope that I would unflinchingly execute Hayes. It is simply the right thing to do, and that really is all there is to it. To be blunt, I would hope that I would spend more time worrying about voting to convict someone of a crime than I would worrying about executing someone guilty of murder. It’s, by far, a weightier decision.

    And you’re right, I didn’t address your point. It’s so silly as to barely merit comment. An executioner doing his job isn’t Stephen Hayes, just as a jailer isn’t a kidnapper. When you equate the utter barbarity of Stephen “I didn’t anally rape that girl” Hayes with a democratic decision that a person has so offended society that the only just option is to put him to death, you lose all credibility. Those of us who believe in capital punishment aren’t Stephen Hayes. You rail about people laughing at Hayes’ expense, yet stoop to insult those of us who believe in capital punishment.

    But I don’t really care about what you think of me. Yeah, I want to see Stephen Hayes die. I hope he’s scared out of his mind before he gets the big jab, and I hope the KCl burns.

    Reply
  12. John Beaty

    So, my son was killed in a break-in robbery, 12/30/07. I would have happily killed James S Bush myself, in as brutal a manner as I could have, any time in the first 3 months following Sean’s death.

    That’s not the question.

    I would have taken the responsibility on myself, not foisted it off on others. But after long and sober reflection, I agree with my wife, who said several nights after we found out that our son was dead:
    “There can come no good from this in any way. And killing him (Bush) will only add to the damage that was done that night.”

    If you really think you could kill a man in cold blood, go talk to some law enforcement officers who have had to. It is not something I would wish on anyone.

    I have sat with the parents and children of James S Bush. They are already devastated, as are my wife and our family. It will prevent no more murders to kill Bush, but it will further destroy several families. Should Bush have thought about that? Surely. SInce he did not, are we to visit punishment on his family?

    Anyway, Gideon, I think that there are many other ways to think about the death penalty other than “teaching people that killing is wrong.” And by framing the question as you do, you invite only one answer. This is good rhetoric, but not good persuasion. It invites people like spo above to feel insulted but unable to find out exactly why. I believe that there are valid arguments for the DP, even if I find them completely unpersuasive. I do not wish to insult others in the hope that they will come around to my point.

    As an aside, if you follow the link to my blog, you will find out nothing about Sean’s killing, as the trial only ended Sept 17, and I was under injunction to not write about it until after sentencing. 30-life. I’ll write about it soon. While we were waiting, we lost our older daughter to a car accident.The two events, coming hard on each other, have changed the way I think about many things.

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  13. Miss Conduct

    One argument against the death penalty has been left out of this discussion, and for me it’s the strongest one: it’s irreversible. Other forms of punishment — imprisonment, fines, etc. — can be undone in the case of error. Death can’t.

    I know, I know. You’re all thinking: BUT THEY’RE GUILTY!!! But it’s not just about THIS case. There have been cases before, and there will be cases to come, where someone’s guilt was 1,000% certain — and they were later shown to be innocent. There is no way to eliminate that reality. As human beings, we are flawed. As long as that’s true, the death penalty is unacceptable.

    Reply
    1. Gideon Post author

      I’m pretty sure my views on the death penalty won’t change, because the hypocrisy will still exist.

      I could ask you the same about wrongful executions, but rather I’ll point out that not all murders qualify for the death penalty.

      There’s a reason emotion is removed from the justice system, because the law and due process cannot be held hostage to the whims of the moment.

      Reply
    2. Jeff Gamso

      I’d want to kill the person(s) who did it. And if I did that, I’d want and need a vigorous and powerful defense.

      But the criminal law doesn’t exist so that the government can satisfy my personal passions. The criminal law is about the harm done to the state, to the social fabric. (My personal remedy within the law is to sue the killer or killers.) And the law is supposed to be dispassionate. That’s the difference between a system of law and a system of vigilante justice.

      Reply
  14. john b

    Nobody knows what went on in the killers head before, during and after the crime.

    And true vengeance does motivate.. maybe Hayes and jk wanted payback on the people of cheshire.

    I’m sure they watched all the rich people driving by the cheshie CI in their luxury cars, while they were crammed into a cell that is smaller than newer jails eating slop no one would willingly eat on the outside then being handed parole.

    Obviously Hayes’ reaction to being paroled shows that was premature.. my finger points towards the state.. which causes 3 fingers to point back at me as a voter and tax payer.

    Reply
    1. Gideon Post author

      I’m not sure I understand what you’re saying.

      Here’s the bottom line: we can’t prevent crime. Incarceration does little. We need to attack the “problem” at inception. We need to invest in education and jobs and remember that we need to give people second chances. That’s the best way of reducing the incidences of horrible crimes like these.

      Reply
  15. Muskrat

    Aside from all the other problems, one of the terrible things about the DP is that it encourages people to long for death — someone else’s. It says to survivors, prosecutors, and the public “you cannot be well, you cannot rest until this man dies.” it’s ghoulish and corrosive to public and private emotional well being.

    Reply
    1. Gideon Post author

      I was thinking about that today and it’s a very alluring feeling: to give oneself over completely to the primal desire to kill someone else. It is vengeance and it is all consuming.

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  16. AnonymousAbolitionist

    Alright, look. If someone asks me “why” I oppose the death penalty, my answers all ultimately reduce down to “because it’s just wrong, and that’s all there is to it.” Ultimately, that’s no better reasoned, no more intellectually sound, and no more compelling than the “I’d fry ‘em myself–let me at ‘em” folks who inhabit the comments sections of the Register, the Courant, and (fewer) this post. I acknowledge that–and I can’t, try as I might, articulate the reason that I oppose the death penalty in any coherent manner; just as the vast majority of the vocal proponents can’t articulate any coherent reason for their fervor.

    (I will note, at the outset, that I most emphatically do NOT believe that it is wrong to take a life in all circumstances. Lethal self-defense/defense of others, certain instances of warfare, and even certain other instances certainly, in my mind, justify taking another person’s life. But that’s not a conclusion that any of us should take lightly, or treat as a given.)

    So, stepping back from a viewpoint of belief, what are we left with?

    Giving death penalty proponents the most credit possible, let’s lay out every conceivable argument in favor of the penalty (besides, of course, “fry ‘em! They’re animals! And let’s do it as cruelly as possible!”, since that’s not, in fact, an argument).

    1. Vengeance makes us feel good.
    2. This sends the clearest possible message that we, as a society, do not approve of the conduct of those we execute.
    3. This is an effective deterrent against other potential future murders.
    4. This is the only way we can guarantee that these specific individuals won’t kill again.
    5. It costs less than incarcerating these people for the rest of their lives.
    6. Death is ultimately more humane than the only other available (and often, only other reasonable) punishment; that is to say, life imprisonment.
    7. They have, by virtue of taking another life in one of a certain set of ways, forfeited their own right to continue to live and enjoy day-to-day existence.

    Let’s bracket #1 for a moment, and move to #2.

    #2: It is not clear to me whether or not this is correct. It’s probably true, but I also think it’s possible that it sends no more clear a message than life in prison. It may send a less clear message, if those who believe #7 are to be believed, or if the point of some of Gideon’s discussion is well taken here. In any event, continuing to give proponents as large a benefit of the doubt as possible, let’s say that capital punishment–both in sentencing and execution sends a clearer message of condemnation than a true life sentence. I would simply ask: of what value is that marginal increase in message? What is accomplished by our society saying “we condemn this murder to the degree of death” that isn’t accomplished by saying “we condemn this murder to the degree of life in prison”? Accepting as a given (which it is not), that there is a difference in the strength of those statements, what is the real-world impact of that difference? I would contend that there isn’t one. This does not even begin to address the problems with a “means-to-an-end” approach to criminal justice which would need to be embraced to defend capital punishment on these grounds.

    [Ed. Note: The entirety of this comment has been reproduced as a post here. Read the post and leave comments there. It was too good to relegate to a comment to this post.]

    Reply
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