09 December 2005

Sometimes It's Painful to Oppose the Death Penalty

Being opposed to the death penalty for rational reasons can be painful.
The right question to ask is not whether capital punishment is an appropriate - or a moral - response to murders. It is whether the government should be in the business of executing people convicted of murder knowing to a certainty that some of them are innocent.

That certainty has been established by DNA tests showing that many death row inmates did not commit the crimes for which they were convicted. Case closed.

The painful part of this position is that we who oppose capital punishment on these grounds have to breathe the same air as the celebrities, political panderers and other hankie-twisters who materialize every time a "Tookie" runs out of options and faces a far more humane death than that which he delivered to others.
By Kathleen Parker


KipEsquire said...

"That certainty has been established by DNA tests showing that many death row inmates did not commit the crimes for which they were convicted. Case closed."

But the sword of DNA cuts both ways. What if DNA irrefutably proves guilt? Doesn't that also constitute "case closed"?

Or let's make it even easier -- what if the convict confessed and still openly acknowledges his guilt?

I have no problem with people who oppose capital punishment on humanitarian grounds. But I do have a problem with people who try to sneak in the "wrongful conviction" canard and apply it to the rightfully convicted.

Matt said...

Yesterday I wrote, in relation to the Corey Maye case:

"It may in theory be morally just to execute certain people for purposes of retributive justice, regardless of whether we can otherwise incapacitate them from doing further harm to others. But should we do so if the system that we create for that purpose ends up also executing some significant number of innocents? Who will repay those injustices? If they can wait until the Last Judgment for punishment, why can't the crimes for which we might award capital punishment?"

Nice to see that I'm not alone. (My post had nothing to do with Tookie, and everything to do with Cory Maye and Ruben Cantu.)


I don't dispute that a large proportion, perhaps the vast majority, of people on death row deserve to be there and are guilty of the crimes of which they were convicted. But any system we create, no matter how stringent, will be subject to mistakes and abuses. The organs of the state sometimes lie or otherwise abuse their power, as do third-party actors.

For example, "conclusive" DNA evidence can be planted. (And labs can make mistakes.) As to those who "freely" confess and who who continue to maintain your guity: Suppose I told you that if you don't behave that way, your house would mysteriously burn down with your wife and children inside? It's been done before. (And it wouldn't have to be the organs of the state doing this.) The point isn't that I think these sorts of things happen often. But if they ever happen -- and I am convinced that they do, even if only rarely -- that should give us pause.

As long as we execute people, we will sometimes execute the wrong people. And I'm rapidly losing my ability to rationalize that as a "cost of doing business." It's an awfully high price. Yes, it bothers me to think of folks like Tookie escaping the punishment they deserve. I'm not claiming that I buy the claims that Tookie was wrongfully convicted; I don't. I'm just saying that as long as we kill the Tookies of the world we're occasionally going to kill a Ruben Cantu, and I'm just not sure it's worth it.