December 11, 2005

Taking The Life Out Of The Death Penalty

(The 1000th prisoner since the death penalty was reinstated in 1977 was executed on December 2nd. With that in mind, it’s a good time to reconsider this controversial policy.)

America stands alone among the developed industrialized nations in continuing to employ the death penalty. The reason is relatively straightforward: America is more religious than the rest of the developed world, and the “eye for an eye” morality of the Old Testament holds greater sway. A large majority of Americans believe the death penalty is justified.

Even I, who oppose the death penalty, can recognize that there is something intuitively appealing about it. Why should someone who murders be allowed to live and experience any degree of pleasure, freedom of movement, or even consciousness, after they have denied this to others? Why should the state feed, clothe, and provide for people who have used their freedom to deal irreversible blows to victims and their loved ones? Aren’t there acts so terrible that the individual has forfeited his or her right to life?

If we lived in a world of perfect information with a perfect criminal justice system, perhaps I would answer the last question in the affirmative. I think we can all conceive of acts so barbarous, so cruel, so “inhuman,” that erasing the perpetrator from the face of the earth seems like the only justifiable response. But herein lies the problem: our judicial system is imperfect, and the death penalty ultimately does not serve the interests of society. Here’s why:

1. Determining what types of crimes merit this utmost punishment is inherently arbitrary. What one jury in one state deems worthy of the death penalty may not be the same as another jury in another state. Despite significant reforms of the judicial system, this arbitrariness has resulted in a vastly disproportionate number of ethnic minorities and the poor being sentenced to death. This violates any semblance of equal protection under the Constitution.

2. The granting of clemency for death row inmates has allowed political calculations to creep into decisions over the life or death of inmates, which has corrupted the entire process. This can be witnessed in the recent attempt by celebrities and activists to convince Arnold Schwarzenegger to grant clemency to Stanley Williams. (As a side note, it boggles the mind that Williams, who has never expressed regret for his crimes-- murdering four people in cold blood--and whose defense team isn’t even arguing for a new trial based on new evidence that points to his innocence, has even been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize! Watching celebrities line up to pose with the co-founder of the Crips, a murderous gang responsible for immense amounts of bloodshed, simply because he’s written a few children’s books while on death row, is utterly despicable. I am not, however, advocating that he should be put to death, only that using him as a model of "redemption" is absurd.)

In summary, while there may in fact be moral arguments in support of the death penalty in extreme circumstances (though this is debatable), the nature of our judicial and political system makes the implementation of such a policy unjust and subject to too many subjective forces. In addition there is no substantive evidence that the death penalty deters murders, and the judicial process is so litigious that it actually costs more money to put someone to death than to imprison them for their entire lives. On top of this, there is something disturbing when this element of our judicial system has more in common with China, Iran, North Korea, and Syria than with our allies in the EU and the rest of the developed world.

It is time to put an end to the death penalty once and for all in America.

J.S.

P.S. Here's a prime example of why the death penalty in America is so unjust.

Jason Scorse

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