I Changed My Mind On The Death Penalty

electric-chairTaking someone’s life is the ultimate price the state can extract from someone who has violated the rules and morals of our society. There is evil in the world, and the ultimate punishment is death.

I still feel that way, but I increasingly also believe that the uncertainty of human judgement and the fallibility of man means we should exercise this power in increasingly narrow cases.

In his state of the state address today, Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley said this about the death penalty:

The death penalty is expensive and it does not work.  It is not a deterrent.  It cannot be administered without racial bias.  It costs three times as much as locking someone up for life without parole.  And it cannot be reversed if an innocent person is executed.

It is time to repeal the death penalty in Maryland and replace it with life without parole.

I don’t agree with Governor O’Malley that the cost of the death penalty or its efficacy as a deterrent should govern whether we use it or not, but I agree that there are very real problems in how the penalty has been implemented with regards to race and income, as well as the problem of executing the innocent.

What helped to change my mind on this was the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was put to death for murder. But the evidence and data, including the unscientific method of the expert witness used in the court case, appears to exonerate him. (Click here to watch the full episode of Frontline about the case)

We can’t do that. We can’t execute people based on evidence that is shaky at best. That is a failure of justice if we allow ourselves to go down that path.

I still believed that there are some types of cases where death is still warranted. Cases of mass or serial murder, like Timothy McVeigh or Osama Bin Laden, seem to be ironclad enough where death by the state is still a viable option. I still believe that there are some levels of evil where we have to put the wicked to death.

But anything less than that should probably be put to rest. We should have harsh sentences, in tough prisons, but we can’t continue to put people to death the way we have been doing.

  • Recoloniser

    Well, we all have our limits. I’m opposed to the death penalty. I think it’s arrogation on our part to a power we’re not entitled to. No human being, or group of human beings, may say to another human: “You have no right to live”.

    However. When the US Rainbow division broke into Dachau in April 1945 they took one look at the place and at the inmates and then lined up all the guards they had taken prisoner and shot them there and then. Do I have a problem with that? Not really. Conclusion: I’m just as much of a hypocrite as everyone else. It’s just that my type of hypocrisy is slightly different from that of other people.

  • http://sonic.net/~ckelly/Seekay/mtbwelcome.htm RepackRider

    Congratulations O-Dub. You may yet become a liberal.

  • Christopher Foxx

    I still believe that there are some levels of evil where we have to put the wicked to death.

    Why?

    And where do you draw the line? This much evil doesn’t cross the threshold, but this much does. Blowing up a building and killing 168 makes one a mass murderer so they should get the death penalty. But what if they’d killed only 167. Or 166.

    And how do you know when something is ironclad “enough”? And that the passions any highly evil crime have stirred up have been removed from the decision?

    There is no “except when the person is really bad or you’re really pissed off” exception to Thou Shall Not Kill.

  • Christopher Foxx

    Oliver: I don’t agree with Governor O’Malley that the cost of the death penalty or its efficacy as a deterrent should govern whether we use it or not

    It’s really a lot more expensive than just locking a person up for life. But let’s kill them anyway.

    It provides no benefit to society by stopping others from committing crimes. But let’s go ahead and kill the prisoner anyway.

  • hegesias

    “Cases of mass or serial murder, like Timothy McVeigh or Osama Bin Laden, seem to be ironclad enough…”

    Hmm…really? Seems like a good way to make sure people can’t talk. Bin Laden didn’t even have a trial. Nevertheless, if they are absolutely sure about those guys in India who raped that woman and threw her from a bus, I support your sentiment.

    • Christopher Foxx

      I support the sentiment, too. I’d like to see the rapists get abused and brutally themselves. But I don’t think it should actually happen.

  • Buzz Killington

    This is more or less what I’ve come to myself… if the court system was perfect, I’d have no problem, in principle, with the death penalty for some things. However, that is far too much power for an imperfect body to wield.

  • http://twitter.com/LitThom Little Australia

    having personally given you shit on the DP a couple times years ago I consider this a personal victory, Oliver!

    A ways to go, though. You are a stubborn bastard. Why don’t you just give it all up? Is it just a keening for that bloodlust?

    • Christopher Foxx

      Why don’t you just give it all up? Is it just a keening for that bloodlust?

      Excellent questions. And while I applaud Oliver’s reconsidering and changing his position, I’d really like to see an answer to them. And if not to satisfy some form of desire for revenge, than what reason is there for it?

      • Christopher Foxx

        Although I suspect this will be one of those columns that Oliver posts and then never joins in any discussion about.

  • The Tragically Flip

    Kudos on changing your mind. Well done. For me, the “capital punishment only for the worst people with the most surefire evidence” thing was something of a stepping stone on my way to full opposition to the thing. Hopefully it is for you too.

    The failing of your new stance is that every state is supposed to already be only executing people with the most surefire evidence. A large reason it costs so much is because of the automatic appeals and reviews baked into the system. Even Texas does some amount of this. You can turn down the number of death sentences by tightening the legal requirements for the types of crimes that qualify sure, but I don’t see how in principle, never mind practice, you can ever make the system not execute innocent people.

    Even if you’re inclined to write off hard right states like Texas as simply having poor post-conviction review procedures, how would you explain liberal Illinois, where even a corrupt Republican governor realized there were likely multiple innocent people on his death row, and so commuted all their sentences. If Illinois can’t get it right, how can capital punishment work justly in Oklahoma or South Carolina? The system is inherently flawed and every Prosecutor will want to persuade Judges and Juries that this defendant is the next Bin Laden or Dahmer and the case against them is so very strong, so capital punishment is required.

    Capital punishment hasn’t failed because of some implementation flaw; it’s a failed concept to begin with. Reforms can reduce but not eliminate the harm it does.

    • histrogeek

      I had pretty much the same development. Harry Blackmun pretty much clinched my moral queasiness with the death penalty into solid opposition. He had spent almost his whole tenure on SCOTUS defending the constitutionality, in principle, death penalty but trying to make it work practically and constitutionally. In the end he threw up his hands and declared it just wasn’t going to happen. “I shall no longer tinker with the machinery of death.”

    • Christopher Foxx

      Capital punishment hasn’t failed because of some implementation flaw; it’s a failed concept to begin with.

      Exactly.

      And I’ve yet to see any real, rational argument that can be made in favor of it. It’s a deterrent? No, long ago shown not to be true. Some crimes deserve the “ultimate penalty”? Why? Which ones? Where do you draw that line? It makes sure the offender never does something like that again? So does keeping them in maximum security.

      It’s arbitrary. It’s unfair. It kills innocents. It sends the message that killing is ok. It’s expensive. It has no positive consequences. It is there only to satisfy a childish appetite for revenge and to fuel political careers.