Third Party & Independents Archives

The Death Penalty Issue

I watched “Dead Man Walking” for the first time tonight and it got me thinking about the death penalty. The death penalty will be an issue in the upcoming presidential election since John Kerry is the first presidential candidate (in the general election) since Mike Dukakis to oppose the death penalty, and it is one of the issue where Bush and Kerry are actually very different. I have to admit that the death penalty has never been an issue I have been passionate about either way, but I have always been curious as to why many people get so worked up against it. As far as I can tell, there are a couple of arguments they put forth:

1. The death penalty's application is racist, classist- While there are actually no strong numbers to show that the death penalty kills more of one race than another anymore (last year 53 white people got the death penalty and 18 blacks did), it is true that those who kill blacks (whether the murders are white or black) are less likely to get the death penalty than those to kill whites. This is obviously a problem (and not a death penalty specific one)- but it seems that the real solution would be to put to death more people who kill blacks and other minorities. Would this make people who are against the death penalty feel better about the death penalty? Somehow, I doubt it. And the same argument would run for the classist arguments against the death penalty. If rich people are able to higher fancy lawyers to get them off or reduce their sentences, the solution seems to be that more rich people should get the death penalty- would that make people who are strongly against the death penalty feel better about it? probably not. Finally, for the most brutal crimes (at least according to my anti-death penalty law school prof), the disparities about the color of the victim go away completely. Perhaps we just need to raise the level of brutality required for death penalty application, in that case?

2. The death penalty is irrevocable, and innocent people might die. The recent surge in DNA evidence has shown that our justice system is very fallible indeed, and it is true that we have probably put at least a couple of innocent people to death (deathpenalty.orgpoints out that “112 men and women have been released from death row in the last 20 years after being exonerated.”). Yet this seems like an indictment of our entire justice system, and nothing death penalty-specific. Why is it more wrong to put an innocent man to death than to put an innocent man in a little jail cell to rot all his life? One could argue that at least the man in the cell can prove his innocence, but honestly, the man on death row has a much better chance to prove his innocent than someone who is thrown in jail for life. People on death row have numerous mandatory appeals and court reviews which, due to limited resources, are unavailable to the general prison population. I think a lot of those 112 people who were exonerated from death row in the last 20 years would still be in prison if they had just gotten life. I am not sure what this says about our justice system, but I do not think it speaks directly to whether the death penalty is a justified punishment. Yet the argument that an innocent person could be put to death is a strong one.

3. The death penalty is more expensive. deathpenalty.org argues that “To try a capital case costs $2.8 million, over twice the cost of life in prison.” This is the most disingenuous argument I can possibly imagine. The reason the cost is so high is because organizations like deathpenalty.org get lawyers to file appeal after appeal, driving up litigation costs for the state in any death penalty case. I am not saying this is a bad thing in any way, but these costs are not the actual execution costs, but rather those that our justice system uses to make sure no innocent people are executed. If anything, this is a strong argument for keeping the death penalty the way it is implemented today.

4. The death penalty is just plain wrong. I have to admit, I do not understand this argument. Sometimes it runs something like “How can the state try to condemn killing by killing itself?”. Well, lets say someone kidnaps a person, puts them in their basement and treats them like a prisoner- what should happen to someone who does that? They should go to prison, of course, and we would see nothing morally wrong about putting them in similar conditions are they kept their victim. The person who takes the lives of innocent people takes life without any assessment of guilt, without numerous appeals to make sure whatever “judgment” they impose is not being imposed on an innocent person- the state, on the other hand, takes the lives of those who have committed the worse crimes imaginable, after allowing a lot of process (2.3 million worth per person, right?), and takes great pains to distinguish between guilt and innocent. As in the case of the kidnapper, the difference between what the state does and what the criminal is rather clear- it is the same way with the death penalty. After that has been shot down, I think it comes down to some sort of religious argument and the separation of church and state would preclude that being a deciding factor. There is no principle of justice or proportionality that would say that a person who takes the lives of multiple people (say, Timothy McVeigh) does not deserve to lose his life as well, or at least I have yet to hear of one.

I will admit that death penalty is not one of my top issue- if it went away tomorrow I would not be all that upset (well other than the exceptional case that I will address bellow). I do think that since the arguments against it are either weak (the “its always wrong to execute someone” or the “its more expensive”) or not death penalty-specific (“the system is racist” or “we might punish the wrong person”), the ultimate determination of whether the death penalty should be allow is something that should be put to a majority vote. Unlike many issues, I would go with whatever the majority thinks on the issue (since I do not see a convincing moral argument either way) as the right decision for a particular country, and it seems like the majority of people in most states still support it.

What perplexes me most, though, is that people get upset about executing people like Timothy Mcveigh or Saddam Hussein- there is no issue of racism, classism, or getting the wrong guy, or excess cost in these situations. Perhaps that will be the ultimate resolution to this problem- only mass murderers, tyrants ect will be the death penalty- I think that would probably be appropriate. The reason for this is not because I do not think that those who kill a couple of people do not also deserve it, but because we need a punishment above and beyond that which is used upon regular criminals when we catch someone like Osama Bin Laden. I wrote above that I do not get passionate about the death penalty one way or another, but I would admit that if Osama get captured and president Kerry is unwilling to seek the death penalty for him, that would upset myself and most Americans greatly. I would like someone to ask candidate Kerry would he thinks should happen to Osama after we catch him- I would be interested to hear his answer. What do you think he would say? What would you say?

Posted by Misha Tseytlin at March 6, 2004 1:22 AM