With the Connecticut Senate having already voted to abolish the death penalty last week, and in light of the looming vote in the House tomorrow and given the extensive debate this topic has been subject to for decades, I figured that we finally had reached a point where we were having honest, intellectual and moral arguments for or against this propriety of maintaining this punishment.
I was wrong. Linked there is a post by “Don Pesci” (whether that is his real name is unknown to me and irrelevant as well), who seems to be a real conservative and proponent of the death penalty. That someone is both of those things doesn’t bother me; rather what bothers me is someone who is both of those things (or anything, really) who then uses false arguments to state his or her support for the penalty. I did leave a brief comment on his blog, but upon further reflection, I decided that it merits a somewhat longer blog post. These are counter-arguments that have been stated plainly before, but are ultimately worth repeating, especially given the importance of tomorrow’s vote. I will attempt – as far as it is possible – to respond to each quip.
Q: The death penalty was abolished by the Senate on April 5. It’s a virtual certainty that the House also will approve the Democrat inspired bill. Do you feel safer?
A: Can’t say. Part of the abolition bluster was that the death penalty did not prevent murders, always a questionable assumption.
Q: “Bluster?” What ever can you mean?
A: It was never a serious proposition, just a useful piece of propaganda.
He then goes on to state that one can’t ever know if a punishment deters a crime. While that is clearly true, one can measure the impact of having a particular penalty on the actions of those it is meant to serve as a deterrent to. One could, for instance, compare the murder rates in death-penalty and non-death penalty states. One could look to a survey of law enforcement agencies which list the death penalty as the most ineffective tool for reducing violent crime. Or one could read the voluminous research and scientific study undermining the argument that the death penalty serves as a deterrent. While it may be true that it is not possible to know if the death penalty had a direct impact on a particular individual and prevented him from committing a crime, it is also honest to acknowledge that we don’t know that it did. And that is the crux: that the argument that the death penalty deters crime (one of the foundational arguments for retaining this punishment) is false.
Q: One of the other points raised against the death penalty by Senate President Don Williams prior to the vote to abolish was that it had been randomly applied: Not everyone who committed murder in Connecticut has been sentenced to death.
A: And a good thing too. In practice, Connecticut’s death penalty punishment was applied ONLY if certain circumstances had been met. Not every murderer qualified. You had to work really hard to merit the death penalty. It is no argument in favor of the abolition of a punishment – say, ticketing for speeding – to say that not everyone who commits the offense is punished. This is an infantile objection: “Mommy, he did it too. How come only I got sent to bed?” Should we abolish ticketing for excessive speed on the highways because – just to fetch for a figure – 98 percent of speeders are not ticketed and of those ticketed 99 percent are not brought to trial? Grow up!
This argument, as I said in my comment to his post, is simplistic and possibly disingenuous. The comparison made in the “disparity” argument is not between non-death eligible murder and death-eligible murder. That is a false comparison. The comparison is between one death-eligible murder in which the penalty was not sought and another in which it was. The argument is made that the death penalty is arbitrary because often the decision to seek the penalty depends not on the crime itself – which may be comparable in every respect – but on other factors, such as the race of the defendant, the victim, the geographical location and sometimes the quality of the lawyer representing the defendant.
It is this disparity that gives us pause. In Connecticut, if two people commit two identical death eligible crimes, but one does it in New Haven and the other in Waterbury, there is a significantly greater chance that the person who committed the crime in Waterbury would have to defend against the death penalty and the one who committed the crime in New Haven would not.
So the next time someone tells you that of course the death penalty should be discriminatory and not applied to all murderers, tell them that you know they’re hiding critical information from you and their argument is based on a lie.
Q: Another argument was that the penalty once applied was irreversible.
A: People who said that the death penalty could be applied in error had to travel outside the confines of Connecticut to find such instances. Or they presented their objection as a theoretical proposition. No one awaiting death on Connecticut’s death row has been mistakenly led there by judicial error.
I would have said that this is my favorite argument, but that title belongs to the next one. We’ll get there. This one is particularly rich because it takes a very foolhardy view. The argument, essentially, is that we haven’t screwed up yet. Yes, that’s true. We haven’t. But we, in CT, have also had at least 4 DNA exonerations in the last half-decade. Before that, we’ve had other innocent men in jail. Is it a matter of time until we have an innocent man on death row? I don’t know the answer to that, but I’d say there’s a greater chance that we will, than that we won’t. That is not a risk I – or you – should be willing to take.
Q: But the appeals!
A: A means of postponing punishment, a judicial means of jury nullification.
[and elsewhere:] The abolition bill does not and cannot prevent pointless appeals.
You can see why this would be my favorite argument and it is one that has come up repeatedly. Variations include “endless appeals” and “endless habeas appeals”. I think it’s important to define what these terms mean and the Constitutional underpinnings of these mechanisms before illustrating just how misinformed, stupid and dangerous the argument is.
First, pointless signifies that the the only arbiter of a legal conviction is a jury at the trial level. It implies that any judicial review is a mechanism for undermining the jury’s just verdict. It also implies that somehow appellate courts are complicit in the liberal desire to avoid implementing the necessary punishment of death.
This flies in the face of what we normally call facts. For one, the Connecticut Supreme court has not only routinely upheld death sentences for those currently on death row (duh), but also has repeatedly and consistently upheld the constitutionality of the death penalty in Connecticut. Further, our supreme court overwhelmingly sides with the State against criminal defendants and if one is to accuse them of complicity in something, a more accurate accusation would involve the disturbing curtailing of individual rights and emasculation of Constitutional protections.
But I digress. Appeals are not pointless. They are checks on the functioning of our criminal justice system. They are the umpires that review the methods and processes we use. They are the enforcers of our rules of law, rules that we all rely upon to keep us and our freedoms safe. That a particular defendant has no viable claims for review does not make the entire appellate process pointless. Rather, it makes it indispensable.
Second, appeals aren’t endless either. There are very limited appeals granted to defendants. That they may take a lot of time to resolve is not the same as the appellate process having no end.
These are the appellate review options available to any defendant:
1. Direct Appeal to the Supreme Court of Connecticut (bypassing, by statute, the intermediate Appellate Court).
2. Petition for Writ of Certiorari to the United States Supreme Court (which is granted almost never).
3. A Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus in State Court.
4. An Appeal to the Connecticut Supreme Court from that decision.
5. A Petition for Writ of Certiorari to the United States Supreme Court (which is granted almost never).
6. A Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus in Federal District Court.
7. A Discretionary Appeal to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals.
8. A Petition for Writ of Certiorari to the United States Supreme Court (which is granted almost never).
Sure, you may say, these are a lot! But 1, 2, 3, 4 are necessarily separate because they challenge different things. It is by statute and law in Connecticut (State v. Leecan), that some claims cannot be raised via direct appeal (#1) and must be raised via a petition for writ of habeas corpus (#3). In some states those two are combined, but that is a poor way to do it because #3 requires information that #1 cannot provide. [See this previous post on the meaning and importance of The Great Writ.]
To do away with any of these avenues would push us all down that slippery slope. The justice system is fraught as it is with allegations of bias, racism and unfairness. To limit avenues of redress would affect us all. You just haven’t been arrested yet.
To claim that these appeals are pointless because thesepeopleareguiltyletsjustkillthemalready is stunningly narrow-sighted.
In the end, I do not dispute that this is an entirely moral issue. If, however, you’re going to rely on other arguments to support your position, at least make sure you’re correct, so you can be taken seriously.
[As a side note, I am glad that news agencies are finally paying attention to those survivors of homicide who are opposed to the death penalty, instead of just those who are in favor of it.]