Sunday, 12 October 2008

Still dead wrong

Trevor asked for further insights on the death penalty; I don’t know that I have insights as that would require some sort of knowledge or experience of the process that I am not privy to. All I can offer are my thoughts on the matter. They are a bit scattered but you will get the idea.

In its simplest form my answer is that, if the death penalty is applied as punishment then it is a waste of time as I do not believe in heaven and hell. Death is a nothing, no heavenly choirs, no fire and brimstone. Nothing. Certainly not punishment. Dying can be painful and unpleasant but the means of execution are supposed to be humane nowadays. So what is the point?

If it is used as a deterrent, then does it work? The US has 36 states with the death penalty; do they have a lower crime rate than the remaining states? I don’t know. Certainly Australia, without a death penalty, has a lower crime rate than the US but we also have sensible gun laws.

In the last 16 years, fifteen people in the US have been taken off death row because DNA testing subsequently found that they could not have done the crime that they were convicted of. How is it that innocent people can be convicted of major crimes that they didn’t commit? Sometimes it is the bizarre case of people admitting to crimes they didn’t do in a strange bid for attention and celebrity. Sometimes it is the enforcement agencies, with the best will in the world, being ‘sure’ that someone committed a crime and adapting the evidence to meet their own certainty. There are also the issues of race, education and poverty that affect convictions or, more correctly, the ability to mount a defence. Juries in the past have shown more willingness to find someone guilty of a capital offence if that person was an outsider, a person of a difference race, religion or colour to the panel.

All these things relate to the justice system not being perfect. It probably can’t be perfect. But if a system is not perfect it should not have irreversible actions.

A related and very subjective issue is one of when the death penalty should be applied.

In its purest form, an eye for an eye, if someone kills someone else, should that warrant a reciprocal death penalty?

If a couple having an affair conspire to kill the woman’s husband; should that warrant the death penalty? For one or both? If one, which one? If both, an eye for an eye, should they be allowed to kill someone else to even the score?

If the husband comes home unexpectedly and finds the couple in bed and kills one or both in a fit of rage, should that warrant the death penalty? If he kills both, should one of his friends be executed as well, to even the score?

If someone is breaking into your house and, fearing for your safety, you shoot them; should that warrant the death penalty?

If you see someone breaking into your neighbour’s empty house and you shoot them (in the back); should that warrant the death penalty?

If you cause a road accident that results in someone’s death, should that warrant the death penalty?

The War Crimes Tribunal sentences leaders and officers who wage war to jail and, in some cases, death. Would you accept the same standards be applied to the people who invaded Iraq resulting in the senseless deaths of tens of thousands of people?

Should a soldier who kills another soldier be sentenced to death? Why not? Following orders? Then can a hired killer use the same defence?

OK, some of these are a little frivolous but they make a point: how and where do you draw the line as to what warrants an execution? It would appear that just killing someone is not enough, even if you are negligent, such as in a car accident.

One common argument often given is that 'why should this person be allowed to live and possibly get out of jail sometime when my mum/dad/son/daughter is dead forever?' It is understandable reaction. But that is one of the hard questions. How do you deal with someone who, through negligent or culpable driving, leaves the other driver a paraplegic for life? There is an imbalance there. There always is an imbalance in crime and punishment.

But is there always no hope of remorse and rehabilitation?

That will do for the moment, this is getting longer than I normally post.


  1. The real reason people like the death penalty is they want their revenge. From what I've heard though, the families of victims often say that the murderer's execution didn't make them feel any better in the end, despite their expectations that it would.

    Stephen Pinker argues that irrationality is an essential feature of the revenge instinct. Revenge brings no benefits and in fact brings extra risks to the person enacting it. So the instinct for revenge has to be uncontrollable so that you can convincingly threaten it as a deterrent. This doesn't justify the death penalty, however.

  2. Absobloominglutely!
    If they've done such a wrong, they should be in a place where the survivors of the crime can come and vent their verbal anger, at least.
    I imagine a cell that has speakers in it, and the 'bad guys' have to listen to whoever steps up to the microphone.

    On the other hand, death in itself is a strange punishment. Let them live. Perhaps long enough to actually regret their misdeeds.
    ...of course, the balance of that, and it's sad, in a way. Someone who is so lazy they kill another person to get put in a place where they don't have to work for a living, get three squares and a bed at night. This is actually a sweet arguement coming from an island where...(if history wasn't so bent, I would believe it)...was a prisoner's island, even though it was a continent.

    That is right, yes?
    I dunno.
    All my life I heard about the ride of Paul Revere and thught it to be the truth, then come to find out it was some guy named Israel Bissel that made the great ride to the collective capital.

  3. Though it is a lot, I understand your point(s). It's difficult to decide where the line is drawn. Thanks.


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