I read a Blog Post the other day, and have been following the comments, on the issue of a State’s right to execute individuals? The timing for the question comes after listening to a John Grisham book The Confession, whose premise is an innocent black man is executed before the hero and antagonist can arrive and overcome the bias of the Texas courts and Governor.
Capital punishment, like other moral debates, stirs strong emotions and entrenched positions both for and against. The purpose of judicial punishment is justice, not revenge, so unlike the Old Testament’s proclamation of “an eye for an eye” the court should not be metering out the sentence based on the emotions of those who’ve been victimized. Those in favor of execution seem to cite two reasons for the continuation of the death penalty as a viable option. The first is to ensure the safety of the population, and the second is to deter others from committing similar crimes. Those opposed, point to the potential for error in the sentencing and the inhumanity of the sentence.
The Supreme Court, as the court of last appeal, has ruled on a significant number of cases. Often the plaintiff (the convicted), petitions the court for relief under the provisions of the 5th, 6th or 8th Amendments. Sometimes convictions and the penalty are upheld, other times they are overturned. Proponents will often cite this as validation the judicial system works and the risk of error is so small as to be acceptable. I find no evidence the SCOTUS rules on the accuracy of the conviction; rather its focus is on the State’s compliance with the Constitutional safeguards.
As I consider the arguments for capital punishment I am not convinced that it actually serves to accomplish either of its two stated goals. Murder is a violent act, and so often it is carried out by those who’ve given little thought to the consequence of their action, either to themselves or those who are affected by the death. Within our separate state systems the timeframe from event to penalty is so long that I don’t know how anyone can think the potential for a death penalty presents a true deterrent? With the decision on seeking a death penalty resting in the hands of the prosecutor there are so many political considerations that come into play with the choice I am hard pressed to believe protection of the population is a central consideration at all. All too often, the Prosecutors seem most interested in how quickly they can move from arrest to conviction with the least amount of effort.
On the other hand, I am unconvinced that life imprisonment is a more humane option to a death sentence. While it would be nice to think of prison as a rehabilitative institution, reshaping the lives of the convicts to return them to useful members of society there is no evidence that our various systems even come close to fulfilling this role. While it seems morally reprehensible to kill an innocent human being, a large percentage of our population advocates for that everyday, so apparently it is not that bad. It is somewhat funny that on the one hand the same person can argue for the rights of a convicted killer while making other choices that run counter to that position.
So what is the right answer? I don’t think there is one. If we are to be a nation of laws we must work with our legislators to insure those laws are clear, unambiguous, and constitutional, and we must then hold our Judges, Prosecutors, and Defense Council’s to an expectation that those laws are fairly, and equally applied to all who come before the court.
Since we are dealing with human institutions there will be mistakes and abuse, the founding fathers recognized this and put into place the checks and balances we have today. The real question is are those checks and balances still working or should we consider some other safeguards? For example, as science has unlocked DNA, should positive DNA connections be required for conviction, or would the compulsion for DNA sampling be against the accused rights?
At the end of the day, I guess I believe the State, and by this I mean the government of the State, has a right to set whatever level of punishment the general population agrees to, and is Constitutionally valid. In some States that may mean the most severe penalty is life imprisonment without possibility of parole, and in others it may mean execution. While this may, on the surface, appear unjust it is within the rights we have assigned ourselves as a nation. I can live with that.