In the previous post I mentioned that I support the death penalty, without providing any details. Commenter Darryl asks:
Aron, (and other commenters, too!) I wonder if I might probe your notions on the death penalty. Given that in the US alone at least 120 (a fairly conservative estimate depending on which sources one consults) persons on death row have been exonorated by DNA evidence, what are your thoughts on this quote I came across the other day: "So, as long as the death penalty is in place, you are pretty much guaranteed to occasionally execute an innocent person."
I agree with the quote at the end of Darryl's comment. However, I would add that "So long as imprisonment is in place, you are pretty much guaranteed to occasionally imprison an innocent person," and "So long as fines are in place..." etc. Any human system of justice, no matter how careful, risks punishing the innocent. And the more cautious the system is to protect the innocent, the more often the guilty will remain unpunished.
In this respect, the only thing that is different about the death penalty is that once you do it, it cannot be reversed. However, this is a relative rather than an absolute distinction. If you sentence someone to 25 years and then the person is exonerated 20 years later, you can give back the 5 years but you cannot give back the 20 years. (In politically unstable countries, the reversibility of imprisonment may even be an argument for the death penalty, if one is worried e.g. that the genocidal dictator's old faction will retake power and set him free.)
I also do not think that the death penalty is really even an order of magnitude worse than life imprisonment. If I were unjustly accused of a crime, I would prefer A) 50% chance of being released to rejoin my family and my career; 50% chance executed, over B) 100% chance of life imprisonment w/o possibility of parole. Remember all those Revolutionary War slogans about liberty being more important than life!—do we still believe that?
Obviously, whenever an innocent person is executed this is a travesty of justice, a very bad outcome. We live in a modern, first-world nation in which long-term humane imprisonment is possible. Therefore, if there is no particular good to be had from executions rather than imprisonment, then it is our moral duty to abolish the death penalty. But is that really true?
The trouble with most debates about the death penalty is that the begin in the middle (quibbling about statistics) rather than at the beginning, which is to ask why one might have the death penalty at all. Until you first ask what the purpose of the death penalty is, you cannot know whether the trade-off is worth it.
Here are some possible motivations for punishing the guilty:
- compensation of victims
- prevention of future wrongdoing
- rehabilitation of the offender
- retribution (i.e. because they deserve it)
In our system of justice, we make a clear distinction between civil proceedings (which exist to compensate the wronged) and criminal proceedings (which exist to vindicate the state's abstract interest in justice). I think that this is a good distinction, and that therefore #1 is irrelevant to the current question.
With respect to #2 and #3, life imprisonment and executions are probably about equally good. In principle, if execution is worse, people ought to be motivated more strongly to avoid it. But I'm not sure it works out that way in practice, given criminal psychology, and the remoteness of the punishment from the crime. (However, there is an important exception in the case of inmates who murder prison guards or other prisoners—in this case locking them up obviously doesn't prevent the crime, and if they already have a life sentence, the death penalty seems necessary as escalation.)
With respect to #4, the death penalty may well be better than life imprisonment. True, life imprisonment provides more time to repent. But the death penalty provides better circumstances. If the prospect of one's own immanent death—due to one's own crimes, no less—does not cause someone to reconsider their way of life, it is hard to see what would. Here the nonreligious and Christian might part ways. The former is likely to feel that it doesn't matter much if a person repents, if you have to kill them to get it. While for those like myself who believe in an eternal divine judgment following death, it is a matter of the greatest importance.
But I think the core issue at stake is actually #5: does anyone deserve to die? Is it possible for someone (such as the mass murderers described in my last post) to be so polluted by guilt, that it is a travesty of justice for them NOT to be executed? I think so, and it is for this reason that I support the death penalty.
For example, a while back there were two Judges in Pennsylvania who accepted bribes from a privately-run juvenile jail, in order to send the kids that appeared before them to jail, regardless of the nature of the circumstances. These men betrayed their position of power and deliberately perverted justice in a way likely to corrupt and destroy the innocent. Words cannot express how reprehensible their crime was. Actions are better. They ought not to have been allowed to go on breathing. (Instead they received 28 and 17.5 years.)
I said earlier that the death penalty didn't seem that much worse to me practically than life imprisonment, which is permanent exile, slavery, and confinement all wrapped up in one package. But there is one other respect in which "death is different", namely that it is psychologically horrible (and fascinating).
Ironically, I think the controversy over the death penalty itself illustrates this psychological response. Passions are stirred; zealous anti-death advocates hasten to show that the person was convicted unjustly. Those 120 people who were exonerated due to DNA tests were probably lucky to be on death row—if not, their cases would probably have been neglected, and they would still be in jail.
Death is numinous. In that post I wrote concerning the concept of atonement for guilt:
This is a numinous problem, not just an ethical problem. So it needs a numinous solution.
As the Bible says in a chilling passage:
“Whoever sheds man’s blood,
By man his blood shall be shed;
For in the image of God
He made man.” (Genesis 9:6)
Unless there is such a thing as real guilt, there is also no such thing as real forgiveness. Thank God that we have the "sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel" (Heb. 12:24), which is sufficient to atone for all of our sins!
Now, how much evidence should we have before we execute someone? I can see nothing wrong with the standard implicitly required by the U.S. Constitution, namely beyond a reasonable doubt. If it is unreasonable to doubt whether the person did the crime, then it is unreasonable to take into account the possibility of their innocence when sentencing them.
In this country, no one is executed unless either (a) 12 citizens unanimously agree that they are guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, or (b) the accused waives his right to a jury trial. After that there are usually 5 different levels of appeals courts empowered to inspect the case for procedural flaws.
It may well be that juries fail to apply beyond a reasonable doubt to the cases that come before them, and as a result some innocent people are found guilty. But this has nothing per se to do with the death penalty. If you are not found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, the correct judgment is an acquittal—not life imprisonment. Not even a $20 criminal fine can be imposed in this case. If our current justice procedure is unreliable, this is a problem for all cases, not just capital ones.
If there are people on death row whose cases were never proven beyond a reasonable doubt, they should be released! That is not a good reason to commute the sentences of those criminals who were proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.