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December 13, 2005

One sane man
Posted by Patrick at 01:24 AM * 288 comments

Jon Carroll:

Even if I were positive that we were executing only guilty people, I’d be against the death penalty.

Comments on One sane man:
#1 ::: William Lexner ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 02:13 AM:

No one who purports to be against the death penalty would state the same view if it were their child who had been murdered.

If the death penalty prevents one murder, then it is unconscionable to refrain from using it.

#2 ::: Aquila ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 02:25 AM:

Thats a sweeping statment - parents have forgiven their child's murderer before now.

So countries with the death penalty have lower murder rates than countries without, do they?

#3 ::: Robert Rossney ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 02:36 AM:

> If the death penalty prevents one murder, then
> it is unconscionable to refrain from using it.

A-and we should euthanize everyone in prison today, since it's a certainty that one or more of them will commit a murder at some point in their lives. It's unconscionable not to.

I wonder how it can be that while every civilized nation on earth outside of the US has set capital punishment aside, we Americans persist -- in the face of all evidence to the contrary -- in believing that it is useful. Are we really that barbarous?

#4 ::: Naomi ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 02:58 AM:

Getting away from the right or the wrong of the death penalty (and blow me down, I would never expect California to be one of the states in favour of it), I don't understand how this man could remain on death row for 26 years and now is to be executed, surely that falls under the heading cruel and unusual punishment?

#5 ::: Andy Ihnatko ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 03:02 AM:

I don't oppose the death penalty in principle, but I'm forced to oppose it in practice.

There's a class of crime that's so far beyond the pale that these acts aren't committed against individuals, but against Society in general. In those cases -- which don't even necessarily include acts of simple murder -- I don't think it's inappropriate for Society to apply the punishment of its choice against such a person. It's not about revenge and it's not even about Justice, necessarily; it's about creating an appropriate response to an act.

But I'm just as certain that as a society, we haven't earned the right to put convicted criminals to death. We all agree on the goal of equal justice for all, but most would also agree that it's still an ideal and not the reality. And even when a conviction looks solid...who can predict what new evidence or analytical techniques might become available in ten years' time?

And on top of everything else, it turns out to be cheaper just to lock 'em up for life. The ultimate expression of Society's contempt for this sort of criminal is the statement "We value his life so little that we're not willing to spend one penny extra to take it from him."

In any event, I can't respect any governor who refuses to meet the condemned face-to-face. I can agree or disagree with a governor's refusal to extend clemency, but he has to relate to the convicted as a living, breathing human whose life will soon be at an end. Not as the subject of a thick file-folder and a one-page summary prepared by an aide.

#6 ::: Mikael Johansson ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 03:02 AM:

As I recall it, Pres. Bartlet in West Wing has a wonderful reply to the "what if your kid got hit" argument. He expressly states that as a father, he'd want all hell to rain over whoever lifted a finger against his daughter - which is why the government, and not fathers, take care of justice. I think he resigns temporarily because of this conflict of interest as well.

#7 ::: Epacris ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 03:08 AM:

How many innocents would Mr Lexner be willing to officially murder in order to make sure that one person wasn't unofficially murdered?

It's definitely known that innocent people have been executed, but rather fuzzy if anyone was saved by the deterrence of a death sentence, especially looking at the usual motives of murder. Most statistics seem to show that both in modern times & through history, capital punishment makes very little difference to the murder rate, which I assume is the assumption behind that second sentence in the first comment. Indeed, the modern history of Australia is built on the foundation of convicts many of whose death sentences for relatively slight offences were commuted to transportation. The very large list of capital offences, with public executions (see Oliver Twist, for instance), seemed to make very little difference to the crime rate, which slowed mainly due to social changes, but that's a very big subject.

#8 ::: Lucy Kemnitzer ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 03:39 AM:

Death penalty cases take a long time because there are squads of death penalty-opposing lawyers who take on every case and fight each case in every way imaginable. Pro bono.

It's after midnight, and none of the news sources online seem to have a story about it.

Jon Carroll porobably isn't right every single time he utters a word, but it sure seems like he is.

#9 ::: Mez ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 04:17 AM:

"if it were their child who had been murdered" -- I thought that this was the reason that 'The Rule of Law' is invoked as one of the markers of a civil society, rather than the simple, natural, rule of blood-feud, vendetta & pay-back. And the reason that judges are meant to disqualify themselves if they have some 'interest' in a case which might lead observers to believe that they would be biassed.

This story came through about half an hour ago (Tuesday evening here) California executes former gang leader

#10 ::: Mez ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 04:30 AM:

Oops, sorry, this is the link that was supposed to go into the above comment:
The Rule of Law

If anyone is looking for what's happened to Margo Kingston's Webdiary since, it's gone through some difficulties, but is currently reachable at margokingston.typepad.com, via webdiary.com.au

#11 ::: Todd Larason ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 04:45 AM:

No one who purports to be against the death penalty would state the same view if it were their child who had been murdered.

Julie Welch; Bud Welch

#12 ::: Marna ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 04:57 AM:

Well, I have no children. But if any of my family or partners were murdered in a place which had the death penalty (a fortunately far fetched 'if') -- I'd be morally obligated to do everything possible to save the killer's life.

Not only because I am most firmly opposed to the death penalty, but because the aforesaid partners and family members are as well; they'd haunt me if I were to do otherwise.

As for the death penalty preventing murder:

It IS murder. That would be, um, what I have against it.

#13 ::: Zander ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 05:00 AM:

The penalty for murder could be the death of one's entire family, the burning down of one's home and eternal obloquy on one's family name, and murders would still happen. Some are coldly planned, some happen in a white-hot instant of rage, but the impulse that leads us to murder overrides all considerations of reason which a deterrent might affect. Otherwise we wouldn't do it.

We lock up murderers because they've demonstrated that they are not safe people. They did it once and they could do it again. Of course, none of us are safe people, and possibly half the ones we lock up are people who have killed the only person that ever mattered to them enough to kill, and would never do it again anyway. But we don't know that, and it makes us feel safer to think that people are divided into murderers and non-murderers and we're the second type, so we lock them up.

The purpose of the justice system is not to make the victim's family feel better. If it were, we'd have gladiatorial games and public hangings, drawings and quarterings. Institutionalised lynch mobs. Something like that.

#14 ::: Jonathan Shaw ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 05:05 AM:

I just read a piece today by of all people Harold Bloom saying that both Milton and Dante were condemned to death by states that had the death penalty and if the sentences had been carried out, we wouldn't have had the Paradiso or Paradise Lost. We weren't so lucky in the case of Gabriel Garcia Lorca. Nor, of coure, was he.

#15 ::: Vera Nazarian ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 05:08 AM:

Jon Carrol makes an excellent argument.

Indeed, the death penalty is a tragic archaism. It is out of place in a society that values humanism above all else.

#16 ::: Francis ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 05:09 AM:

No one who purports to be against the death penalty would state the same view if it were their child who had been murdered.

Counter-examples to your statement have already been given. You are plain wrong here. And even if you were right, that is no defence of resorting to animal instincts. (See the Bartlett quote above).

Yes, it would be harder, but people would still be against the death penalty despite having their children killed - and some of them are.

If the death penalty prevents one murder, then it is unconscionable to refrain from using it.

A fascinating view for two reasons.

The first is that the death penalty causes murders through miscarriages of justice. The blood of such inevitable miscarriages is on the hands of everyone responsible for the law - in a democracy this is every single voter. Before you even have a case here, you need to first establish

The second is what it does for civil liberties. Bans on all guns and all knives and ropes and poison and cars... are just the start of it - and they will prevent a few murders, and without the downside of killing innocent people.

#17 ::: Bruce Arthurs ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 05:38 AM:

There was an interesting suggestion made by a caller to the Charles Goyette show on Air America this morning.

The caller suggested that a conviction for what are currently capital offenses called for a life sentence. This would a safeguard against innocent people being found guilty (for various reasons: overzealous police or prosecutors, incompetent defense attorneys, unbalanced juries, etc.) and executed.

But, the caller continued, a SECOND capital conviction WOULD call for the death penalty. He also suggested that the second conviction should be for a non-simultaneous murder. The odds of someone convicted of two separate murders being innocent would be low enough to justify the risk of imposing a death sentence.

The example brought up in the discussion was Banzai Bob Vickers, a young punk who was sentenced to Arizona State Prison for a murder and went on to murder his cellmate. (Since the cellmate was not only locked in the same cell with Vickers at the time, but in a wheelchair, he couldn't fight back very well when Vickers set him on fire.) Vickers was executed for the second crime.

I think the suggestion has considerable merit.

#18 ::: Craig R. ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 05:41 AM:

I stated this in another forum, but it is relevent here as well.

I used to be pro-death penalty, partly beause it was successful on preventing repeat offenses.

Until I figured out that it was just as effective against the convicted who actually had committed no crime.

And unlike releasing someone from a life sentence with "sorry about that," there is no review to the executed, only their family.

#19 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 05:43 AM:

The British experience is that the number of innocents executed in error exceeds by more than an order of magnitude the number of innocents murdered by convicted killers after their release from prison.

Over the past 15 years, the court of appeals has reversed a frighteningly large number of guilty verdicts -- which, in the case of pre-1965 judgements, led to hangings -- on the basis of DNA samples obtained from evidence retained after the trial. The historical false-positive rate for murder convictions in the British judicial system seems to be somewhere between 10 and 15%. I should note that the American judicial system comes from the same roots and bears significant similarities to the British one.

(You may argue, "ah, but our judicial system is better!" Yes, well, you may indeed do so, but you ought to remember that it's run by the government -- the same people who run the post office. Mistakes happen, and they're a lot commoner than most people think.)

Meanwhile, the recidivism rate among criminals convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment, including those who remain in prison and those who are released on license, is very low -- under 1%.

Run the math: take a sample of 100 murder cases and bring the accused to trial and conviction. If you execute them, then you've just executed 10-15 innocents. If you use imprisonment for life with release under supervision for those who are no longer considered a threat, you contribute to the death of 1 or fewer innocents.

Thus, the death penalty for murder kills more innocent lives than it protects.

(This assumes that we are admitting only utilitarian arguments, rather than arguments for deterrence -- disproven pretty conclusively back in the 1860s -- or revenge. I can't argue against revenge other than to say that anyone who desires to extract it in kind for a murder is themselves a bloody-minded murderer-in-waiting, whether they want to do it in person or by using the state as a proxy.)

#20 ::: William Lexner ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 05:56 AM:

Aquila: I never stated that countries with the death penalty had lower rates of murder than those without. Muder rates depend on many factors.

Robert Rossney: When you make absolutely inane and ludicrous strawmen arguments like 'euthanize everyone' you make it impossible for anyone to take your arguments seriously.

Epacris: We must trust in our system and work harder at assuring that we never let the innocent be punished. Mistakes do happen in life, and they are lamentable.

Todd Larason: That is a link to a nutjob website. For the sake of argument, I'll allow that it's truthfull and not skewed.

Bud Welch is a buffoon. Being an idiot is not a crime, unfortunately.

Marna: This is the real world, and you're talking about ghosts. I really hope you don't vote.

Zander: Murders would still happen, yes.....but there is no way to count how many times a person has said to themselve's "It's just not worth it," and put the gun down. To try to use extrapolation or recorded murder rates from medieval times to get a realistic idea of these numbers is obtuse and delusional.

Vera Nazarian:

1. Carroll doesn't make an argument here. If you're referring to elsewhere, please link.

2. What society is based on humanism? Which society purports to value humanism above all else? I like your fiction, Vera, so I'm sorely tempted to cut you some slack, but that statement is absurd.

Francis: You made a decent argument until the end there....what's up with the extension of the argument? How does removing a murderer from the gene pool correlate with banning firearms or motor vehicles? (It's not that I don't understand what you're trying to say....I do. I simply think it's a silly deduction)

#21 ::: Madeline Kelly ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 06:09 AM:

William Lexner said: Mistakes do happen in life, and they are lamentable.

I would suggest that the state-sanctioned execution of a potentially innocent person needs a bigger word than 'mistake'.

#22 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 06:36 AM:

"If the death penalty prevents one murder, then it is unconscionable to refrain from using it. "

No. No no no. A moral argument is not the same as a utilitarian argument. Even if hanging was provably effective in this sense, you could still make a moral argument against it - for example, that it is as wrong for the state to kill, except in immediate necessity, as it is for the individual - which would not be undermined by hanging's proven effectiveness.

It might well save lives if I were to kill my aged grandparents now; I could inherit their money and give it to a vaccination charity, rather than the money being spent on retirement home care for the rest of their lives. But it would not be unconscionable for me not to do so- regardless of the utilitarian benefits, it would still be immoral for me to kill them. (This is, of course, a hypothetical example.)

This reminds me of something that I think came out of Farm Hall - that senior German officers were generally completely incapable of making the distinction between moral and utilitarian decisions. Thus 'it was wrong to invade Poland because it put Germany at war with its natural ally, Britain' rather than 'it was wrong to invade Poland because aggressive war is wrong'. And this has, of course, come up in the torture issue as well.

#23 ::: Francis ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 06:39 AM:

Francis: You made a decent argument until the end there....what's up with the extension of the argument? How does removing a murderer from the gene pool correlate with banning firearms or motor vehicles? (It's not that I don't understand what you're trying to say....I do. I simply think it's a silly deduction)

You stated "If the death penalty prevents one murder, then it is unconscionable to refrain from using it."

I simply gave a list of things that make murder easier - and therefore if they were banned could easily prevent more than one murder. Taking any of them away from a person is less serious than taking the life of a person away.

Therefore, because taking them away is less serious than killing people, if it is unconscionable to refrain from using the death penalty, it is unconscionable to leave such objects in peoples' hands.

#24 ::: bryan ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 06:41 AM:

"The odds of someone convicted of two separate murders being innocent would be low enough to justify the risk of imposing a death sentence."

why that sure is sensible, we must make sure however that after the first murder we don't put them somewhere that has a higher incidence of murder by several degrees than is found in normal society.


#25 ::: bryan ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 06:49 AM:

'I never stated that countries with the death penalty had lower rates of murder than those without. Muder rates depend on many factors.'

okay then, how exactly are you going to prove your case that executing murderers decreases the rate of capital crime. with a big wish?

"If the death penalty prevents one murder, then it is unconscionable to refrain from using it. "
That's a mighty big if then. Is this like an if in a programming language, that the value of variable refrain is set to unconscionable if the function DeathPenaltyPreventsMurder returns True? Otherwise it's highly conscionable?
Because otherwise your statement makes very little sense and deserves to be laughed at, which, now that I think of it, is what I'm sitting here doing.

#26 ::: chris ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 07:19 AM:

No one who purports to be against the death penalty would state the same view if it were their child who had been murdered.

One Christian view of the matter.

#27 ::: KristianB ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 07:39 AM:

I am reminded of The History of Bestiality, the lecture on the history of the death penalty. In short, a long, long chain of insanity and horror, with little to no positive effect on anything.

#28 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 08:44 AM:

Ted Bundy moved from Washington, a state with no death penalty, to Florida, a state that does have a death penalty.

#29 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 08:56 AM:

I should like to note that what decided me on this issue -- flatly against, when in youth I felt that there was perhaps greater humanity in hanging someone than in keeping them locked up alone for decades -- is the case of Guy Paul Morin, where it became obvious that much of the problem is not that the police make mistakes, but rather that they frame people as a matter of casual practice. (This is clearly accepted practice, because those responsible didn't even lose their pensions over it, never mind face criminal charges for, among other things, coercing witnesses.)

The world cannot reliably be divided into guilty and innocent.

#30 ::: Carrie S. ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 09:06 AM:

As fuzzy-headed liberals go, I am pretty fuzzy. I am, in general, highly in favor of the "let them rot for the rest of their natural lives" theory of punishment. I would not like to see a one-time fit-of-passion murderer be executed; the odds are that that was the only person in mortal danger from that source.

But there are some organisms who ought not be allowed to live. Charles Manson, for example. The man's insane, a total looney; he cannot be made sane. If he were given the opportunity, he'd start killing people again. He should be killed, for much the same reason that a rabid animal should be killed.

Yes, I am aware that this leads to questions of who gets to decide what crimes are heinous enough and whether a criminal can be helped. I don't care. The kinds of crimes I'm talking about are so extreme that the odds of having the wrong perpetrator are vanishingly small.

You may all feel free to look down on me now.

#31 ::: zornhau ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 09:06 AM:

A convict can languish on death row, it seems, almost indefinitely while the legal system grinds through appeals and pleas for clemency.

This, plus the final, dramatic ritual slaying: lends undeserved glamour to murderers; costs the state (i.e. "us") a fortune; randomly postpones closure for the victim's family; and ultimately gives a murderer a clean, quick death (when rotting in a living hell would be so much more fitting).

For these reasons alone, I would oppose the death penalty in the UK.

#32 ::: Nomie ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 09:12 AM:

Graydon brings up what was perhaps the key point for me when I decided I was against the death penalty.

Killing people is wrong no matter who does it. But, in addition, if the person is guilty it lets them off the hook. Nobody can decide whether there is an afterlife or whether the condemned is going to heaven, hell, limbo or elsewhere. But a lifetime in a small cell? That, to my mind, is a far greater punishment, where a murderer can reflect on his or her crime(s).

The justice system is faulty. And I suspect that William Lexner is a troll.

#33 ::: James Kiley ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 09:25 AM:

A friend of mine is part of a company that specializes in DNA analysis for defense attorneys. He has told stories of staggering police-lab incompetence that nearly made me weep (like the guy who was sentenced to life in prison because his DNA sample was the one done right before a murder-scene DNA test, and the lab didn't use clean, sterile equipment on the next run).

Unfortunately, juries have seen too many episodes of CSI, and they believe that every police lab is run by Gil Grissom and his plucky band of excruciatingly-careful top-notch adventure-scientist-cops. When the truth, of course, is that most police labs are run by schleps who just see it as their job.

This, this is why I'm against the death penalty in practice. I agree that some dudes just need killin'. But I don't trust any of the people involved in deciding that.

#34 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 09:29 AM:

The long wait on Death Row (where the leading cause of death is natural causes) is not an essential part of the system; in the UK, before we abolished hanging, people were normally executed a few weeks after conviction. The last two people to be hanged in the UK were convicted in June 1964 and hanged in August.
The Let Them Rot theory was recently used by the Filipino justice minister, who pointed out this year that Filipino prisons were so grim that a prison term was actually worse than death; there was therefore no good argument for restoring the death penalty.

#35 ::: Giacomo ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 09:37 AM:

William: "We must trust in our system and work harder at assuring that we never let the innocent be punished. Mistakes do happen in life, and they are lamentable."

So the solution would be: let's ban the capital punishment now, and reinstate it when the system is perfect. Hell, I'd love that. Let's create a third-party review authority that routinely reviews all the murder cases; when the percentage of error goes below an almost-perfection rate (say, 0.1%), we'll talk again. It would also incentive the police to clean up their current (mal)practices.

I come from a country that, after inventing the judicial system itself, now suffers from a massive failure in the area, with thousands of uncelebrated trials, litigations that routinely last decades, corrupt courts, etc... Hence, not much different from yours I dare say :) My experience is that "perfect" Justice doesn't exist, hence a perfect Judgement bringing unrevocable acts will never be possible. We endure the best possible compromise to maintain an efficient society. Your system doesn't acknowledge that, acting under the impression of being a mouthpiece for some divine will -- the only one entitled to dispense life and death.

But you don't really want a rational discussion, because you don't want a judicial system, William. You want a preemptive strike: let's cut the thief's hand now, so he won't steal again. Then, as I didn't pay my taxes correctly last year, you should lock me up right now because I could do the same next year... and the fact that I'm paying back would count for nothing. Given this train of thought, I can stop to pay my dues to society right now, as I'll always be a criminal anyway. In the long run, isn't it better for the State to have a working citizen producing a constant flux of money to help pay for medicare, instead of a false sense of righteousness?

#36 ::: zornhau ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 09:41 AM:

Just a thought: is there an ISO Standard for justice systems?

#37 ::: Josh Jasper ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 09:52 AM:

I'm against it no matter what. I see no good purpose in teaching anyone that people ought to be dehumanized, and plenty of evil ones.

Once you go down that road, it becomes easier to decide that lesser offenses can be given the death penalty, depending on how much personal outrage they generate.

#38 ::: Keith Kisser ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 09:54 AM:

(You may argue, "ah, but our judicial system is better!" Yes, well, you may indeed do so, but you ought to remember that it's run by the government -- the same people who run the post office. Mistakes happen, and they're a lot commoner than most people think.)

Post Office? Hell, these are the same folks who run FEMA. In fact, all evidence would suggest that the Federal Corrections handbook was swapped with the FEMA handbook shortly before they arrived in New Orleans.

#39 ::: Janni ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 10:05 AM:

I wish I could remember the source for the study I saw that showed, in the U.S., that states with a death penalty in place actually had higher murder rates than those without.

(One could of course argue that it's the higher murder rate that caused the death penalty to be enacted, rather than the death penalty that caused the higher murder rate ... but either way, it doesn't seem to be doing a particularly good job as a deterrent.)

#40 ::: Francis ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 10:14 AM:

While I'm at it, a quote I ran into recently (but can't, alas, source) is relevant here.

The purpose of civilisation is to be less unforgiving than nature.

#41 ::: Keith Kisser ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 10:22 AM:

But there are some organisms who ought not be allowed to live. Charles Manson, for example. The man's insane, a total looney; he cannot be made sane. If he were given the opportunity, he'd start killing people again. He should be killed, for much the same reason that a rabid animal should be killed.

I would think more could be learned b studying him, and not just what irks Mr. Manson. If he is, as you say, loony, than quite a bit about what makes loony folks tick could be learned from analysis and prolonged study (which, as far as I know, he has not received. I may be wrong on this point. For all I know, there could be hoards of psychoanalysts chatting with him daily).

The worth of knowledge that could be gained from Charles Manson’s brain about the human mind is worth far more than the emotional satisfaction of putting down a deranged animal.

#42 ::: Alan Braggins ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 10:27 AM:

I don't oppose the death penalty in principle, but I'm forced to oppose it in practice.
There's a class of crime that's so far beyond the pale that these acts aren't committed against individuals, but against Society in general.

I used to believe that mass indiscriminate killing deserved the death penalty. Then cases like the Birminham Six made me realize those are the sort of cases where the desire to find someone to punish is greatest, with punishing someone innocent fitting the system better than punishing no-one.

#43 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 10:27 AM:

"If the death penalty prevents one murder, then it is unconscionable to refrain from using it."

I am reminded of the answer of the Spartans when informed that if the Persians took the city, they would burn it to the ground, kill every man and sell every woman and child into slavery.

"If".

#44 ::: Faren Miller ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 10:29 AM:

You really need to read the full Jon Carroll column. See http://sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/chronicle/archive/2005/12/12/DDGQIF5KV91.DTL

I was really impressed when I read it on SFGate yesterday.

#45 ::: Anticorium ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 10:31 AM:

Bud Welch is a buffoon. Being an idiot is not a crime, unfortunately.

When it comes to earning the right to opine on the matter of whether murderers should face the death penalty, "having your daughter get murdered" utterly pales next to "being some guy on the Internet".

#46 ::: Electric Landlady ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 10:48 AM:

"Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends."

#47 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 10:55 AM:

juries have seen too many episodes of CSI

Add to that: far too many people seem to think that people are arrested (and tried) because they are guilty. (And those who think that Williams deserved death because he showed no remorse might want to consider that maybe he didn't commit the crimes he was executed for: the evidence was circumstantial. And he was willing to admit to other crimes, so it wasn't that he didn't knnow what he'd done.)

#48 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 10:56 AM:

Speaking of criminal justice and unjust convictions, have y'all read the article in New Scientist about firearm forensics being unreliable? The upshot of it is that gunshot residue (GSR) particles can get onto your hands and clothing lots of other ways than firing a gun. Like, say, riding in a police car or visiting a police station.

#49 ::: Sandy ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 11:01 AM:

Can we have a new, exciting death penalty discussion instead of grinding along the same old rut?

My beliefs on the death penalty are one of the only things I've been able to get down to bumper-sticker length: "Killing people shouldn't make you feel good."

Even if the death penalty wasn't, ever, going to be applied Sacco-and-Vanzetti style [1]. . .

Even if it was going to be applied only to the worst of the worst, the kind of serial killers you see in bad cop movies [2]. . .

Some people had BBQ parties when Ted Bundy was given the chair. Some people have told me that they'd have no problem throwing the switch on a murderer.

Some people shouldn't be encouraged.

[1] The judge said something to the effect of "I fixed those anarchist bastards."
[2] Actual serial killers are far more Buffalo Bill than Hannibal Lecter. Hollywood is lazy.

#50 ::: Lis Carey ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 11:08 AM:

But there are some organisms who ought not be allowed to live. Charles Manson, for example. The man's insane, a total looney; he cannot be made sane. If he were given the opportunity, he'd start killing people again. He should be killed, for much the same reason that a rabid animal should be killed.

Oddly, Manson's my favorite example of why we don't need the death penalty. Even though California didn't even have a "life without parole" sentence when he was convicted, so that he comes up for parole every few years, and his crimes, so sensational and horrifying to those of us old enough to remember in fact largely faded from the public mind, Manson has never even come close to getting out.

We don't need to tread into the dangerous moral ground of arrogating to ourselves the right to decide who "deserves" death; we can simultaneously protect society from murderers and protect ourselves against the crime of executing the wrong person, merely by having an effective system of locking up the murderers.

As for the idea that insanity makes Manson especially worthy of death--no, sorry, that's morally backwards as far as I can see. If he's insane, he doesn't have moral responsibility for his horrible deeds; he's not capable of it. That's what insanity means. We'd be justified in killing him if we had no other effective way to protect ourselves from him, but we manifestly do, and have been doing it for decades.

(Ted Bundy is my niggling area of doubt. I think Bundy, unlike Manson would likely have talked his way out of prison eventually if he hadn't been executed. Unfortunately, I know of no way to ensure that we limit the death penalty to the Ted Bundys of the world--truly guilty AND no other way to protect society from them--and I don't share Mr. Lexner's confidence that God will look kindly on our executions of the innocent and the not-dangerous-again, merely to ensure that we get a few of the Ted Bundys, too.)

#51 ::: J Thomas ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 11:32 AM:

Somehow arguments about murderers and the death penalty always remind me of Robert Sheckley.

About punishing murders committed in prison, what about letting convicted murderers duel each other? If they want to. Let them practice a few times alone in a locked shooting range, they don't come out until the ammo is gone. Then they have their duel and the survivor, if any, goes back to his cell. The winners would get as much chance to bully people as the big guys and sociable ones do now, but each time they actually duelled somebody there would be a reasonable chance they'd lose. A start toward an equalizer. The supposed murderer in a wheelchair might have as much chance to win as the big muscular murderer, though the one with Parkinsons wouldn't.

Refuse a duel and other prisoners might blame you for wimping out. Prisoners who wanted to die would have an easy way. Get some publicity and it might tend to establish dueling as something that criminals do, kind of romantic but very fey. On the other hand a lot of americans are so spiritually vacant that we might start pressing to let people on the outside do it. And of course if you duel someone to the death and kill them, your punishment would be to go to a prison where you could keep doing it....

It's worth more thought but I wouldn't be surprised if it turned out to be a bad idea after all.

#52 ::: sennoma ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 11:40 AM:

A few facts and figures from NCADP, ACLU, HRW, DPIC and AIUSA: There are currently more than 3500 people on death row in the US. Since the reinstatement of capital punishment by the US Supreme Court in 1976, the US has executed 944 individuals. Only 12 States and the District of Columbia do not have death penalty statutes. The UN has resolved that execution of those 18 or younger at the time of the crime is "contrary to customary international law", but at least 20 US states still have laws allowing for the execution of offenders as young as 16. In the past five years, the US has executed 13 juvenile offenders, while the rest of the world has recorded five such killings. Only the US and Somalia have yet to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and in addition to the US only China, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Iran and Pakistan have openly executed juveniles since 2000. Although execution of persons with "substantial intellectual impairment" is now illegal in the US, some 40 retarded people were executed between 1977 and 2002. Despite international law prohibiting execution of the mentally ill, virtually universal adoption of corresponding national laws and strong agreement between these bodies of law and the US Constitution, the US continues to execute the insane, most recently Larry Robison (schizophrenia, 2000), Thomas Provenzano (delusional, 2000) and John Satterwhite (retarded and mentally ill, 2000). Although non-whites make up around a quarter of the US population, they constitute 55% of death row and represent 43% of those executed since 1976. Although whites account for 50% of murder victims, in 80% of capital cases the victim was white. More than 60% of juvenile offender death sentences since 1976 have been passed on Blacks or Latinos. Of all death row inmates, 95% cannot afford an attorney and must rely on underfunded state programs, most of which do not have meaningful competency standards. There is enormous geographic disparity and apparent arbitrariness in the death penalty: state and federal jurisdictions vary in the crimes for which the death penalty can be sought and the likelihood that prosecutors will in fact seek it, so that location is a primary determinant of an offender's chances of facing death and the same crime is likely to receive different punishment in different courts; only about 1% of convicted murderers are executed. The death penalty is expensive, costing between $1 and $7 million per case as opposed to around $500-600,000 per case for life without parole. The death penalty does not appear to be an effective deterrent. Canada's murder rate has dropped 40% since abolition of the death penalty in 1975, whereas the US rate was 6.2/100,000 in 1967, 10.2/100,000 in 1980 and 5.6/100,000 in 2003. The five non-death penalty countries with the highest murder rates average 21.6 murders per 100,000 people, whereas the five death penalty countries with the highest rates average 41.6/100,000. From 1980 to 2000, the homicide rate in states with the death penalty was 48-101% higher than in states without the death penalty, and 10 of the 12 states without capital punishment have homicide rates below the national average.

Finally, and to me most compellingly, the death penalty takes innocent lives. Since 1973, 117 death row inmates have been exonerated, a rate of around one exoneration for every eight executions. A description of each case can be read here; unless I made an error, these inmates spent an average of 8.9 years in prison before being exonerated. This error rate alone should be enough to take death penalty statutes off the books.

#53 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 11:45 AM:

Having been a fan of the original "CSI" show (the one based in Nevada) since it started showing years ago, and having been on a jury for a murder trial more recently, I can testify that TV and reality are so far apart that "CSI" is technically equivalent to the original "Star Trek" where technology solves all sociological problems in the universe. It was actually quite depressing to see how unlike the TV show that reality actually is.

#54 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 11:57 AM:

Avram mentions the New Scientist story about firearms residues, and the whole article is worth reading. Part of the issue is quality control on the forensic work.

The actual test involves the detection of minute particles produced by the detonation of the primer and burning of the powder in a cartridge. This is rather different from the sort of firearms residue you'd find Perry Mason arguing about. It's the detection of quantities that are close to the base noise level. And anyone going into a room where a gun has been fired is going to be contaminated.

Shoot the boss and the secretary might be more contaminated than the murderer. But it's forensic evidence and so can be trusted.

#55 ::: Claude Muncey ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 12:05 PM:

J Thomas, consider handicapping for your case of the dueling prisoner with Parkinson's. The more moble inmate gets a .22 pistol, while the Parkinson's patient gets a grenade launcher.

Makes about as much sense as the current system. And yes I'm feeling a bit cynical after reading Schwartzennegger's letter.

#56 ::: Lizzy L ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 12:09 PM:

Terrific discussion. My own thoughts:

1) If someone I loved - hell, if my dog - was murdered, I would want so badly to maim/hurt/kill the murderer that my hands would tremble with the effort to keep from wrapping around an axe, and my teeth would ache with the effort not to scream with rage;
2) My desire for revenge should not be the foundation for my country's system of justice, though a desire for revenge is surely a motivating factor in the creation of same;
3) I do not trust the state to kill in my name;
4) I believe, in principle and fact, in redemption.

#57 ::: mythago ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 12:10 PM:

If anyone is interested in a serious and thoughtful discussion that doesn't fall into the usual ruts, I'd recommend Scott Turow's book Ultimate Punishment. And no, I don't have any financial interest in this book or its author.

but you ought to remember that it's run by the government

And fueled by us, The People. Juries are not hired by the Civil Service. DAs are not elected by the U.S. Senate.

#58 ::: Carrie S. ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 12:16 PM:

Keith: The worth of knowledge that could be gained from Charles Manson’s brain about the human mind is worth far more than the emotional satisfaction of putting down a deranged animal.

I agree, but we aren't studying him. Given the choice, which appears to be "have him alive, potentially useful, but unstudied" and "have him dead", I take "dead".

Lis: As for the idea that insanity makes Manson especially worthy of death--no, sorry, that's morally backwards as far as I can see. If he's insane, he doesn't have moral responsibility for his horrible deeds; he's not capable of it.

I don't care whether he's morally responsible. A rabid animal isn't morally responsible either, even if you believe (which I do) that animals can ever be morally responsible. The animal's brain is broken in an unfixable way; that makes it the responsibility of healthy animals to make sure it can't do damage.

I am the first to admit that this is a pragmatic rather than a philosophical view. To put it another way: I'm willing to take the karma of killing a sentient (or having it killed on my behalf) in order to be sure it can't damage people. I don't think killing is good; I think it is sometimes necessary. There's a difference.

We'd be justified in killing him if we had no other effective way to protect ourselves from him, but we manifestly do, and have been doing it for decades.

"Manson [had a parole hearing in 2002 and] was denied early release...due to a "litany" of offenses ranging from drug trafficking to arson to assaulting guards." Earlier in his life, he was in prison and raped another prisoner at knifepoint. (This from the Wikipedia article on the subject, which is obviously not authoritative but appears to be corroborated by other sources.)

So yeah, we're protecting ourselves, unless the selves in question happen to work or be incarcerated in the prison he's in.

J Thomas: About punishing murders committed in prison, what about letting convicted murderers duel each other? If they want to.

I've always kinda liked the idea of letting death row inmates volunteer for life-threatening scientific study, myself. If they survive, their sentence is commuted to life in prison.

But the duelling sounds kinda neat, too.

#59 ::: Xopher (Christopher Hatton) ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 12:19 PM:

Francis: Arthur D. Hlavaty, according to the Commonplaces on the front page of this very blog. But it was "The whole point of having society..." He's the same guy who first used the term 'disemvowel' AFAICT.

The Innocence Project has been doing modern DNA tests on convicted murderers whose convictions relied on the tests available at the time (under certain circumstances which I don't know). Many people have been released from prison, including several from death row.

Nobody's doing these tests for people who've been executed already. You know why? Because the state won't release the evidence. Understandable; think of the wrongful death suits. Think of the public OUTCRY that would happen if we started finding out how many innocent people are being put to death in this country?

Why, people might start voting against the death penalty. And we can't have THAT.

I believe that it is ALWAYS, without exception, wrong to kill a human being. Always. It may on occasion be LESS wrong than the alternative (for example, letting the person in question kill you). Mr. Lexner is living in a fantasy world where there's always a right course of action; there is not. Sometimes you have to play the hand you're dealt and lose as little as possible; unfortunately we're not playing duplicate but rubber, and there's no way to compare after the fact.

What we can do is note our errors, and try to avoid them in the future. We now know that many people have been falsely convicted of capital crimes. We suspect, but the state prevents us from knowing for sure, that many of those people have been executed. What's unconscionable is to continue executing people when we know that's happening.

But a murderer locked in a prison cell is not a case of "it's less wrong to kill him." If he really wants to die, let him kill himself (providing it's a rational decision, which in my opinion it never is). Inmates who want to die have no right to draft us, the people, to execute them.

No civilized nation practices the death penalty. By definition.

#60 ::: Xopher (Christopher Hatton) ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 12:27 PM:

I think the idea that murderers are somehow monsters, or animals, or something is a dodge.

They are human beings.

Yes, even Manson. Yes, even the guys who torture-murdered Matthew Shepard.

They are human, and those things show what humans are capable of. Beware your fellow humans. Beware yourself. Beware, most of all, the forces in society that cause people to become such "monsters," such "animals."

Using the death penalty is arrogating to ourselves the power of life and death. It's also abrogating a responsibility that does fall to us: to shape our society in such a way that such things do not happen. We're putting out fire after fire, but really making no attempt to arrest the arsonist who lives in the basement of the firehouse.

This is not just a crime. It is a blunder.

#61 ::: Carrie S. ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 12:31 PM:

Aha, I have found the news article that the Wikipedia article was quoting. It's here.

#62 ::: Xopher (Christopher Hatton) ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 12:32 PM:

Oh, and: as I said when we were discussing torture a few years ago, if Osama bin Laden fell into my hands, I would take great pleasure in torturing him to death.

That is WHY society must prevent me from being in charge of what happens to him. This is the "what if it was your daughter" argument again; society exists in part to restrain that very understandable impulse.

I wonder if I can draw up legal documents arranging for an amicus curiae brief to be filed on my behalf should I die by murder? The brief would state my opposition to the death penalty for my own case, and "forbidding" the state to compound the murderer's crime by doing further harm to society by executing him. I'll look into it.

#63 ::: Carrie S. ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 12:39 PM:

Xopher:I think the idea that murderers are somehow monsters, or animals, or something is a dodge. They are human beings.

Then they're broken human beings. And I would like to state for the record that I don't believe murderers in general are monsters--but some of them are. The fact that they're humans too doesn't make it better.

And yeah, change society such that no more people become monsters; that's a wonderful plan and I am fully behind it.

What are we to do in the meantime? What are we to do if the mere fact of human nature renders such a wonderful thing impossible?

#64 ::: Xopher (Christopher Hatton) ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 12:44 PM:

My point is that they are no less human for doing terrible things. They don't become monsters; they become human beings who have done terrible things. If you think of them as monsters it's easy to think of them as fundamentally different from yourself. They are not. They are as human as you.

Their lives have led them to make terrible choices. Yours has not. What I'm saying is that we need to devote more effort (and money) to prevention. One of the advantages of getting rid of the death penalty is that it would apply pressure in that direction.

#65 ::: almostinfamous ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 12:48 PM:

amen, christopher.

#66 ::: Ayse Sercan ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 12:51 PM:

My main moral problem with the death penalty is not that it kills somebody -- I can see many cases in which killing somebody is justified and even right. My problem is that it is insufficient punishment.

Maybe if I believed more strongly in Hell or something like that, I would feel differently. But I was not brought up in a religion with a defined sense of eternal punishment after death, so getting to die instead of spending your life in, say, solitary confinement in a cold room, with water dripping on your head, seems like a pretty cushy way out. If I had my druthers, we'd keep the worst murderers and criminals of other sorts alive as long as possible, under the most hideous non-lethal conditions possible. When they seemed to be about to die, we would keep them alive as long as possible by any means needed, in a hellish half-life of machine-assisted breathing and eating, while their bodies rotted around them.

I don't want to rely on somebody else's idea of what might happen when the person is dead: I want hell on earth, as much of it as possible.

But I'm kind of vindictive in that way.

#67 ::: Darice Moore ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 12:58 PM:

Some people had BBQ parties when Ted Bundy was given the chair.

I was in Tallahassee (as a college student) when Bundy was executed. It was quite frightening to see the level of celebration -- restaurants offering fried "Bundy fingers" (chicken strips), etc. It was one of my great social awakenings -- how is someone who celebrates and revels in an execution any better than the murderer?

#68 ::: Carrie S. ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 01:04 PM:

If you think of them as monsters it's easy to think of them as fundamentally different from yourself...Their lives have led them to make terrible choices. Yours has not.

They are different from me. The fact that I am fortunate enough to have never been subject to stress that would break me does not change the fact that they're broken. I don't know what kind of stress it would take to do that; I can only be grateful it's never happened to me, and sorry for them as I would be sorry for a mad dog.

What I do know is that there are people who have been in such situations and have not done awful things. There are also people who did whatever they did under circumstances no worse than, say, my high school career, and yet I am not a murderer and they are. To me, this argues strongly that it's not as simple as you seem to suggest.

What I'm saying is that we need to devote more effort (and money) to prevention. One of the advantages of getting rid of the death penalty is that it would apply pressure in that direction.

Again: what are we to do in the interval before mass murderers cease to exist? You may be willing to take the karma of innocents destroyed, but I'm frankly not. I'll grant that incarceration at least keeps the bad guys away from people who aren't paid to deal with them; I'm simply not sure it's enough.

#69 ::: Anna Feruglio Dal Dan ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 01:08 PM:

The problem is that the only crimes I would viscerally deem worthy of the death penalty are crimes that go unpunished in our society. Driving people to poverty, causing their unnecessary death, ordering the torture and killing of whole generations. None of the people guilty of that have been punished, with the possible exception of Saddam Hussein, and mostly because he displeased the wrong people. I would much rather see Pinochet executed than Manson, since Pinochet doesn't have the excuse that he was mad and he killed far more people and caused far more misery.

But, however reluctantly, because I am a civilized being, I would campaing for his reprieve too.

#70 ::: bryan ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 01:10 PM:

"It was one of my great social awakenings -- how is someone who celebrates and revels in an execution any better than the murderer?"

I'm sorry but: they're better by not having engaged in multiple rapes and murders of women.

I find the celebratory aspects of executions abhorent, except in the case of Bundy.

That said, as I am against the death penalty on different grounds then I suppose most people are I can say that I don't think Bundy should have been executed while at the same time thinking how much I would have loved to stomp that bastard to death.

#71 ::: Scott H ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 01:23 PM:

Anyone have any thoughts as to why it's such a useful political tactic in the U.S. to one-up a political opponent by supporting ever-harsher penalties for crime? In addition to the death penalty I'm also thinking of California's three strikes law* and the federally mandated minimum sentences for controlled substance violations.

I don't agree with the death penalty, but I can at least sort of see the arguments in favor of it. However, IMHO, some of the other penalties cited above border on the surreal.

All of the most extreme punishments seem to have resulted from political jockeying for a tougher-than-thou stance on crime issues. In the U.S. that wins elections. Does that sort of tactic not play well in, for instance, the U.K.? If not, anyone care to speculate on root causes for the difference?

* For those of you not familiar, this is a California state law that mandates life imprisonment for any third felony conviction, no matter how trivial. Defendants have been sentenced to life imprisonment for offenses as trivial as shoplifting. (There is still a U.S. Supreme court challeng pending, but given the recent shift in the court's makeup I'd be surprised if it went anywhere.)

#72 ::: Laurie Mann ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 01:28 PM:

I have very mixed feelings on the death penalty. In principle, I'm opposed, but I know if I could go back in time and kill Hitler or Osama bin Laden, I'd do it.

Tookie Williams was pretty clearly a murderer himself, and while he may have redeemed himself, he killed at least four people and may have incited other murders. Part of me wanted to see him get clemency and part of me didn't.

But there are some number, probably greater than one, of people who are executed who were innocent, And that's unconscionable.

#73 ::: Emma ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 01:39 PM:

Does anyone want to speak to the question of redeemability? It seems as it we have given up on the old Christian concept of redemption. Everyone, according to Christian teaching, is capable of this. In fact, the only person ever to be one-hundred-percent, no-questions-asked redeemed was a convicted thief hanging on a cross: and I say to you, tonight you shall be with Me in paradise.
I'm not a very good Christian; sometimes I'm not one at all, depending on how pissed I am at the current crazy fundie making headlines. But I believe that only God is entitled to declaring a human being unredeemed. Me, I'm too fallible, too emotional, too unkowing.

#74 ::: Ayse Sercan ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 01:48 PM:

mandates life imprisonment for any third felony conviction, no matter how trivial

By definition, isn't any felony non-trivial? If not, then maybe it's time to change what is and what is not a felony.

#75 ::: Scott H ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 01:54 PM:

entitled to declaring a human being unredeemed. Me, I'm too fallible, too emotional, too unkowing.

I for one take some comfort in the knowledge that our culture has, rightly I think, delegated the power of life and death exclusively to those persons with such native intelligence, life experience and foresight that they can be relied upon to exercise it with wisdom and restraint--people like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jesse Ventura, and Carl Weathers.

#76 ::: Xopher (Christopher Hatton) ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 02:01 PM:

I wonder what Gray Davis would have done in the case of Williams.

#77 ::: Laura Roberts ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 02:03 PM:

It seems as if we have given up on the old Christian concept of redemption.

I'm not a Christian, but I do believe that in theory anyone can be redeemed.

In practice, however, IMO the problem is that there are too many cases of people saying, "I'm sorry, I'll never do it again," and then doing it again.

How do you know when somebody really is redeemed?

#78 ::: Aboulic ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 02:20 PM:

Scott H:All of the most extreme punishments seem to have resulted from political jockeying for a tougher-than-thou stance on crime issues. In the U.S. that wins elections. Does that sort of tactic not play well in, for instance, the U.K.? If not, anyone care to speculate on root causes for the difference?

In the UK 'Tougher-than-thou' stances are frequently used by politicians, although the compartmentalised structure of british politics means that grandstanding on this topic is mostly from the Home Secretary and his/her Shadow and sometimes the PM and Leader of the Opposition rather than something every candidate jumps into the debate on.

"tough on crime" is something that plays well with the british electorate, or at least certain sections of it. It certainly plays well with the majority of newspaper editors. It's very much a part of 'dog-whistle politics'.

But studies show that crime (and punishment) is never as high up the the list of issues on which british voters decide how to vote as health or education. It's kind of a regular bronze medalist.

Specifically on the death penalty, polls have often shown that large numbers (sometimes amounting to a majority) of the british public are in favour of it. (I'm not convinvced that these polls are accurate, it's an easy issue on which to squew the results with the phrasing of the question or preceding questions or statements which then aren't published.)

But a broad, strong consensus amoung british politicians is very against the death penalty. Once every few years an ambitous MP desperate for media attention might suggest that, maybe, it could be looked at that, the death penalty might be brought back for child molesters who kill their victims (for example). Politicians who make such comments are then dismissed as cynical attention-seekers.

Having worked in politics, i believe this consenus is due to those in political office, knowing how stressful (and sometimes corrupting) it is to make decisions that effect people's lives, understanding that it is wrong to have the power to decide that someone should die.

#79 ::: candle ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 02:35 PM:

All of the most extreme punishments seem to have resulted from political jockeying for a tougher-than-thou stance on crime issues. In the U.S. that wins elections. Does that sort of tactic not play well in, for instance, the U.K.? If not, anyone care to speculate on root causes for the difference?

I'm not really able to answer this, but it seems to me that there *is* an established rhetoric in the UK of being "tough on crime", but it falls far short of the toughness you would get in the US. And even then, there seems to be little tolerance for too much of a departure from the centre. David Blunkett, when he was Home Secretary, was vilified for claiming to have celebrated when a serial killer (Harold Shipman) died in jail.

I don't know why. Possibly it's because the UK population genuinely is more centrist than in the US. Or perhaps the media is less inclined to cater to the extremes. Of course, if those things are true then there is presumably some underlying cause which *makes* them true.

I wonder if it is because any call for the death penalty to be restored immediately gets rephrased as "bring back hanging". This is a usefully vivid image of what the death penalty actually involves - it's not quite the level of euphemism we're mostly using even here - and it's a reminder that we abolished it once before and to bring it back would be a regression.

The last man to be hanged in Britain (James Hanratty) was hanged in my home town. Needless to say, there have since been plenty of doubts about his conviction. The circumstances of the case seem to leave no possibility that he was guilty; but a recent DNA test apparently confirmed it. I don't like the fact that this pretty much requires me to believe that the DNA test was flawed.

#80 ::: John ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 02:37 PM:

I try to live a Christian life, and firmly believe that people are only redeemable before God, and we mere humans have too many fallibilities floating around in our systems. We can forgive only if we want to forgive. When it comes down to being victims of someone else's crimes against others, it's easy to talk like this. At the very least, we should try to fogive, but grant redeemability on someone? I'm not sure about this one; most likely this is out of our mortal hands.

#81 ::: candle ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 02:37 PM:

Oops, didn't refresh in time to see Aboulic's comment.

Having worked in politics, i believe this consenus is due to those in political office, knowing how stressful (and sometimes corrupting) it is to make decisions that effect people's lives, understanding that it is wrong to have the power to decide that someone should die.

I'm not sure why this should be confined to the UK, though, if it exists even there.

#82 ::: William Lexner ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 02:38 PM:

Xopher said: "I believe that it is ALWAYS, without exception, wrong to kill a human being."

This is the most ludicrous comment imaginable. I could list a few thousand examples of instances where one would have the moral obligation to take anothers life, but anyone who would spew such inane rubbish is certainly not going to thoughtfully consider reality.

A society does not exist to have a higher idealism than the individual. A society exists only to protect it's citizenry. (This is the reason we banded together in the first place.... for protection) As such, our first obligation is always to protect our citizenry from all threats, foreign and domestic.

As for the woman who called me a troll.... sometimes I think everyone must be out of their minds or posing as some bullshit humanist, because sane human beings could not possibly believe what is being spouted.... but I try to accept that these are genuine feelings.

I'd appreciate it if you'd do the same.

#83 ::: Hamadryad ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 02:42 PM:

A society exists only to protect it's citizenry.

I believe the point has been made that a society does not have to have institutionalised murder in order to protect its citizenry.

sometimes I think everyone must be out of their minds... because sane human beings could not possibly believe what is being spouted

I often think that very thing, but I suspect that I don't apply it to the same people that you do.

#84 ::: Madeleine Robins ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 02:44 PM:

Listening to interviews in the days leading up to Williams's execution I was particularly troubled by people who said that he had to be executed so that the families of his victims would have closure. Say what?

I am of the you-touch-someone-I-love-and-I-want-you-dead-now-at-my-hands-lingeringly school, which is why I want a government which protects me from my entirely understandable impulses in that matter. But that's the rage talking; I don't think I'd feel any satisfaction at his death because that death has nothing to do with what I'm missing. Someone rapes and murders my beautiful nine-year-old-daughter, and killing him is somehow going to wipe the slate clean? Fill the hole left by her absence, or erase my fear and anger when I wonder what her last moments were like? I can't imagine anything that would do that--certainly not killing another human being.

Saying that executing a criminal will give the victim's families closure strikes me as being close to telling someone who has miscarried that she can always have another child: it simply misses the point.

#85 ::: Xopher (Christopher Hatton) ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 02:54 PM:

You're not paying attention, William. And you're living in a fantasy world where there's a right choice in every case.

But someone who "spews the kind of inane rubbish" you began with is "not going to thoughtfully consider reality."

In case you are (because like all humans I am fallible), I refer you back to my comment, where I said that killing another human being might be LESS wrong than the alternative. That is to say, people have a moral obligation (as you put it) to make the best choices they can, even when all the possible choices involve doing SOMETHING wrong.

And if you don't want to be thought of as a troll, you might want to take a more civil tone.

If you decide to do that, I'd be interested in either a) your admission that you misread me (being fallible yourself) or b) your example where it's RIGHT to take the life of another person...as opposed to simply the LEAST WRONG of the alternatives. I believe that the latter describes all cases where it isn't the wrong CHOICE, but if you give me a counterexample I may change my opinion.

#86 ::: Keith Kisser ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 02:55 PM:

Then they're broken human beings. And I would like to state for the record that I don't believe murderers in general are monsters--but some of them are. The fact that they're humans too doesn't make it better.

I'm rather disturbed by the fact that you think you can tell the difference between a human and a monster, simply by eyeballing a shopping list of their most heinous mistakes. Or that you think you can even make a distinction between the two at all.

That you are not a lone in this is of course the problem we're facing in regards to torture and civil rights in this country. I’m glad you and George W. have the same unflappable moral compass, though I suspect if the tables were turned and someone labeled you a monster and came to place the noose around your neck (or export you to Cuba so someone else could do it), you'd feel differently.

#87 ::: NelC ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 02:59 PM:
All of the most extreme punishments seem to have resulted from political jockeying for a tougher-than-thou stance on crime issues. In the U.S. that wins elections. Does that sort of tactic not play well in, for instance, the U.K.? If not, anyone care to speculate on root causes for the difference?

I'd like to think that it's because there's enough institutional memory here in the UK to recall the 18th century when you could be hanged for stealing a loaf of bread. However, given that we have a Prime Minister who is "Tough on crime; tough on the causes of crime" which seems to equate to "fill the prisons up and slap an asbo on anyone who ticks off their neighbour" perhaps it's only a matter of time.

#88 ::: Xopher (Christopher Hatton) ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 03:00 PM:

I think Keith is being a little vehement, but it's an interesting point. Broken things should be repaired, not discarded. At least if they're as valuable as human beings.

If Williams had been executed within months of conviction, a LOT more kids would have died in gang violence. It's impossible to know what would have happened had Ahnuld granted him clemency, but I know what I think.

#89 ::: Renee ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 03:02 PM:

I'm against the death penalty for a number of reasons, some of them moral, some of them practical, some of them fuzzy-headed liberal, and others purely vindictive.

Broken down, those reasons are:

1. Cost. It costs less to warehouse criminals than to kill them. Ergo, I'd like to see the savings put into social programs against poverty, drugs, domestic violence, etc., which attack the sources of what might make a person want to kill.

2. Aggrandizement of the Death Row inmate. The sensationalism that swirls around murderers, particularly mass or multiple murderers, gives them more attention than I think they're worth. Also, fame attracts copycats; it doesn't discourage them. To relate this to what other people are talking about: Canadian child killer Clifford Olson has said that part of his motivation for killing as often as he did was that he admired Ted Bundy and wanted to surpass his body count.

Leaving aside the fact that Canada doesn't have a death penalty... ow. Some discouragement, all you death penalty advocates out there.

3. Dead people are less useful than live people. People doing life in prison have the chance to reform. Failing that, they are more useful being part of the economy (prison workshops make license plates, furniture, etc.) than they are pushing up daisies. Tookie Williams wrote anti-gang children's books; whether he was 'reformed' or not, at the least, he was making an effort to prevent other people from following his path.

Additionally, warehoused criminals form a pool of knowledge that our police elements can tap for either current information or for more abstract studies such as behavioral profiles. The latter have provided tools to police forces in the identification and entrapment of other killers; I have no trouble imagining that further study of these types of people may lead to ways and means of catching them earlier and earlier in their careers, and possibly, even to methods of intervening with them before they kill. This may have already happened; there is a case of a woman who was stalked by a man. She went to the police, who identified him as the type who would eventually kill her, and they intervened. (Exact details--names, dates, locations--escape me at the moment, and my references are at home.)

If true, this means that all of those living murderers have helped to save an innocent life. Ergo, it was worthwhile keeping them alive. Doing otherwise would be unconscionable, to use the word of the moment.

4. Redemption. Yes, I believe redemption is possible. I don't know how likely it is, but I do think it exists. Novelist Anne Perry is a convicted murderer; one could argue she's been redeemed (tho' one's personal opinion might be biased by what one thinks of her prose.)

5. Innocence. There is the matter of innocent people being convicted and executed. If it is wrong to kill an innocent, it is just as wrong to kill an innocent even if you think he/she is guilty. Recall, it's cheaper to warehouse criminals; nothing is lost by keeping people alive to have their evidence retested by better technology. Nothing, that is, but one's opportunity to enjoy righteous vengeance.

Don't get me started on what I think of decisions made under the shadow of 'righteous vengeance'. Any such explaination would get me disemvoweled, and I'd deserve it.

****

Incidently, Charles Manson never murdered anybody. His followers did all the dirty work. He was convicted of making them murder for him.

He's also been studied, several times. Apparently, he's a difficult interview; he spends most of his time trying very hard to convince the interviewers that he's BIG BAD NASTY!!! Very manipulative, very narcissistic, very much someone you don't want out on the street ever again. I don't think anyone is unclear on THAT, at least.

#90 ::: Lizzy L ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 03:06 PM:

Laura asked: How do you know when somebody really is redeemed?

You don't. However, if redemption for crimes one has committed in this life is possible in this life, then we should think twice, even a thousand times, about allowing the state to kill to keep us safe IF IT ISN'T NECESSARY. Lock them up for the rest of their lives, so they can't get out and hurt other people, including people in prison with them.

I agree, generally, with what Xopher said about naming people as monsters, i.e. not human. Once you allow one set of people to be defined as "not human" then you legitimate a process in which others (people with mental illnesses, people with physical diabilities, Jews, gypsies, you all know where I'm going with this) may be so defined. [I say, I agree generally because, having a good imagination, I believe that sometimes, someone is born who is indeed a monster. How would I know? Don't know. Would I want a monster to die for his/her crimes? Not sure.]

Lock them up.

All the arguments about the fallibilities of the criminal justice system (mistaken identification, witnesses with something to gain or an axe to grind, institutional racism, prosecutors who want a conviction no matter what, etc) have already been made, so I won't repeat them.

#91 ::: Jonathan Shaw ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 03:38 PM:

Carrie S. said: They are different from me.

This may be drawing a long bow, but that sentence leapt out at me as a paradigmatic justification for treating just about anyone badly. Different skin colour, different gender, different religion, different degree of physical capability, different age: all at one time or another have been widely accepted justification for killing or at least severely damaging people. I wonder, Carrie, if your assertion of such radical difference in this case is based on direct experience.

#92 ::: Keith Kisser ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 03:38 PM:

I didn't intend to come off as vehement.

But pretending to have (or even insinuating that such a thing exists as) a complete and infallible map of the human mind is the sort of hubris that raises the hairs on the back of my neck and makes me want to spit.

Once again, it all comes down to the golden rule.

#93 ::: Lenny Bailes ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 03:42 PM:

My two cents worth on the recent California execution are here.

I'm suspicious that, for the people who make the law, the issues around the death penalty are primarily economic and political, not moral. The economics and politics hide behind a "safety" smokescreen that exploits highly-charged emotions. I have my own highly-charged emotions: I don't believe that capital punishment makes me any safer, and I don't want to deal with a killer by becoming a killer, myself.

#94 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 03:45 PM:

William, people are probably accusing you of being a troll because you're acting like one. Your first post here was a raw appeal to emotion. In your later posts, you've been dismissive of other people's arguments, as well as outright insulting, while you have yet to make a reason-based defense of your own argument.

#95 ::: Sandy ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 03:48 PM:

WL: "This is the most ludicrous comment imaginable. "

What a limited imagination you must have. Comes from not trying to consider the other side of arguments, I suspect.

Renee: I don't like to argue cost as a factor in capital punishment. If it became cheaper for the government to kill people than keep them alive, would that change your mind?

#96 ::: Heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 04:00 PM:

As for the woman who called me a troll.... sometimes I think everyone must be out of their minds or posing as some bullshit humanist, because sane human beings could not possibly believe what is being spouted.... but I try to accept that these are genuine feelings.

I'd appreciate it if you'd do the same.

Goodness. William Lexner is not merely a troll...he's a really good troll.

#97 ::: Jeffrey Smith ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 04:04 PM:

Keith,

Xopher wasn't saying that he "can tell the difference between a human and a monster, simply by eyeballing a shopping list of their most heinous mistakes." He was saying that we're all human, including those of us who are murderers, even those who are so extreme that they could be called monsters. Your interpretation of what he was saying goes off in the wrong direction from there.

#98 ::: Renee ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 04:06 PM:

Sandy wrote: I don't like to argue cost as a factor in capital punishment. If it became cheaper for the government to kill people than keep them alive, would that change your mind?

No. For me, the most important use for live criminals is their contributions as data points to behavioral studies. For me, advancement of science outweighs any consideration of monetary cost.

Making it cheaper to keep 'em alive is gravy, though.

#99 ::: Ayse Sercan ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 04:26 PM:

Jonathan Shaw: This may be drawing a long bow, but that sentence leapt out at me as a paradigmatic justification for treating just about anyone badly. Different skin colour, different gender, different religion, different degree of physical capability, different age: all at one time or another have been widely accepted justification for killing or at least severely damaging people.

There's a wide river to leap on the way from believing that people who act a particular, anti-social way are monsters to get to believing that all people who are born a particular way, no matter how harmless to others are monsters. The latter is not a decision made by those people, a moral choice or series of moral choices in which they chose the anti-social every time. You could argue that religion is an act, but it is not generally considered to be anti-social or harmful to others.

There is a huge difference between me and somebody who chooses to kill others. When we got to be adults, one of us, with full adult knowledge and responsibility, chose to kill people (or one of us is insane; same diff). I don't see any reason why society should, even in the most ideal of worlds, treat us the same.

#100 ::: Scott H ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 04:29 PM:

Xopher wrote:

Broken things should be repaired, not discarded. At least if they're as valuable as human beings.

I applaud the sentiment, I really do. But I think we're working off a different set of underlying assumptions.

First, I don't doubt that there are people for whom living a violent life is a sane and rational response to a world that's a lot different from mine. You can't repair someone like that; they don't see any need to change.

I'd cite Manson as an example of this type--he spent his childhood in a string of institutions getting beaten and sodomized by everone he came in contact with, including the guards. I, by contrast, did not. I'm glad he's in a cage, but I'm going to decline to pass judgment on his worldview.

On the other hand, I'd argue that even if the criminal sincerely regrets what he did and wants to change, the root causes of the violence remain an integral part of his or her personality.

One interesting (to me, at least) factoid is that Ted Bundy reported that he himself was horrified by his crimes just a few hours after the fact. I believe him, too. Such behavior is consistent with the regret experienced by other violent actors. (e.g. the sterotypical wife-beating husband who is truly sincerely sorry and promises to never, ever do it again (until he does) or Michael Ward, who made an effort to comfort the guy whom he had just beaten to death.)

Even if you had a magic hat that could distinguish those who have sincerely renounced violence from those who are just going through the motions to get parole, the violent behavior is as much a pathology as O.C.D. or bulemia. Simply recognizing that it's a crappy way to live one's life isn't enough to fix it.

If you want to make a decent citizen who plays well with others, you really need to start with his grandparents.

Richard Rhodes has written a couple of good books on this general topic, including Masters of Death (about the Einsatzkommando) and Why They Kill (an academic-ish survey of criminology).


#101 ::: Patrick Weekes ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 04:42 PM:

I'd have no problem (beyond the practical, of course) killing someone who attacked me or my family on the street if I thought that my wife's life or son's life were in danger. Heck, several of the martial arts techniques I practice every week are specifically designed to kill somebody. I'm under no illusions that I'd be fine with it afterward -- that's the kind of thing that keeps you awake nights for the rest of your life -- but it's easily the lesser of two evils in a him-or-me situation.

In the same vein, I have no problem with police officers killing someone to protect innocent bystanders or stop a killer from escaping. I most certainly want there to be an investigation every time that happens, but I'm not opposed to it in principle.

What I'm seeing here with some of William's stuff, however, is a lack of distinction between directly stopping someone from killing and killing somebody you have in custody, in a secure facility from which he isn't ever going to escape.

There's no protection here. He's not going to do anything to anyone, ever again, from inside that cell. Movies in which serial killers escape from their high-security prisons or convince groupies living outside to kill for them make it seem like an everyday thing, but it's such a rare, rare thing these days that I don't consider it a valid argument.

As for deterring other folks, that's been proven rather conclusively to not work, at least in the eyes of most psychologists. As I, a non-psych guy who has psych friends who've explained it to me, understand it, the delay between sentencing and execution and the delay between arrest and sentencing are both so large that while it might work intellectually, it doesn't get the same "touch hot stove == BURN" deterring factor that proponents suggest.

Heck, anybody who's tried to potty train a dog knows that whacking them on the nose with a rolled up newspaper only really works if you do it RIGHT AFTER they've pooped on the carpet. If you do it ten minutes after they've pooped, you might feel better for having taken out your frustrations on something, but the dog doesn't get it. Neither do murderers -- unless you can shoot them RIGHT AFTER they kill somebody, the idea of deterrance doesn't really hold water. And shooting somebody right as you catch them is tricky because, well, you know, trials.

The only idea that ever held water for me was the emotional needs of the family -- and I think that's been answered here by others already. If someone murdered a member of my family, I'd hope that I had the moral fiber to ask the judge to let them live. I doubt I'd have the moral fiber to ask for anything better than life without parole, but I'm only human.

#102 ::: fidelio ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 04:42 PM:

"This is the most ludicrous comment imaginable. "

Limbic banana flagellate frangible incandescent hopvine. Martello hubristic sassafras kinkajou.

No, it's not. I could go on, in the above ludicrous vein for a considerable amount of time. I won't, though.

WL, please try and use language a litttle better* and apply some basic observational skills as well. Many of the people who hang out here are humanists. There's no reason for any of them to pretend otherwise, and, in my experience, they don't feel compelled to do so. Also, although some of us bullshit from time to time, we aren't as a general rule, bullshit humanists; we take it pretty seriously. Before you take the time to tell us how utterly despicable and worthless humanists of any description are, in your opinion, please bear in mind that the technology you are using to express your opinion, as well as the US Constitution that permits you freedom to do so without fear of punishment by the US government, are both products of the Western Humanist tradition. You may think you could get along in a world devoid of the results of the scientific method and the concept of human rights and the rule of law, but I don't you'd like it as much as you imagine you would.


* For example, "ludicrous" does not mean either "You have just expressed an opinion based on a school of thought that is foreign to me" or "something I disagree with a great deal". Really. You could look it up, as Casey Stengel once noted.

#103 ::: Renee ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 05:14 PM:

Fidelio, your ludicrous sentences have no verbs!

What *is* the limbic banana flagellate doing to the frangible incandescent hopvine? Inquiring mind wants to know.

#104 ::: fidelio ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 05:34 PM:

I thought flagellate was a verb. Perhaps the wrong form {I think that calls for a 3rd person singular, if we're being correct--which might defeat the point of ludicrosity.) Even if it's not, a truly ludicrous sentence should be above the narrow considerations of normal English grammar. After all, what's a little syntax abuse when you're making light of the wishnik clan's electronic kindred?

As for what's happening in those sentences, well, Renee, you decide. I just make the stuff up. Except for the part about humanism. Even if we can blame the Reformation, and thus Baptists, and therefore Falwell, Robertson, et al. on Humanism, I remain faithful in my commitment to the Humanist Agenda.

#105 ::: Jules ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 05:34 PM:

candle wrote: I don't like the fact that this pretty much requires me to believe that the DNA test was flawed.

I honestly don't see how the test could be anything but flawed. The samples are 40 years old and haven't been handled in accordance with modern evidence standards. The results are meaningless.

From the article:

Forensic scientists [...] found no other profile. If James Hanratty was not the killer, then where was the killer's DNA?

No other profile? Not even the victims'? That raises an interesting question, if true. Besides, absence of evidence for another killer is NOT evidence that Hanratty was the killer.

But this article is a perfect example of why DNA testing is not a safe technology. I often worry about DNA tests, because of statements like this:

The chances that the DNA came from someone else are millions to one, they say.

Millions to one? Strong enough evidence to convict, wouldn't you say?

The statement is true enough, if you consider any particular "someone else". There are quite a few other "someone elses" that need to be considered too, though. Probably millions of them. The chance of the killer being someone other than your suspect soon adds up. But how well is this concept explained to juries? It can be very difficult to understand. The journalist who wrote this article clearly didn't.

And this is why I consider convictions solely on DNA evidence as unsound.

#106 ::: Fiendish Writer ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 05:36 PM:

What *is* the limbic banana flagellate doing to the frangible incandescent hopvine?

And this writer and reader would delight to read such a story!

#107 ::: j h woodyatt ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 05:37 PM:

It would seem that a clear majority of Americans insist the State must be empowered to rape, torture and murder innocent people for no purpose other than to terrorize whole ethnic, religious and political groups.

We all get the government that the majority deserves.

#108 ::: William Lexner ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 05:47 PM:

Fidelio:

-Perhaps you should look up the word 'comment.' I did not say 'the most unintelligible hodge-podge of a sentence ever thunk up.'

-I believe that humanism is a lie. I do not believe it can exist on any large scale (outside of a family unit, group of friends, or cult setting) because it is at odds with the very nature of us. (Yes, I do indeed find this sad.)

-I don't claim anyone here is worthless or despicable. I do however find it despicable when a person, devoid of any lucid argument, invents statements to attack. I'm giving you plenty to argue against here, Fidelio, so please don't come across with some fabrication of me hating dogs and goldfish next.

-'Western Humanist Tradition' I suppose this is a nice banner under which you can group any positive outcome of the past 400 years, however it's absurd.

The Constitution was written by a slave owner. You claim him as a humanist?

Personal computers were developed to make money... call it humanist if you like, but I see it as capitalism.

Now you believe scientific method is a humanist ideal? Are you kidding? Where is the correllation?

Rights and Laws existed long before any so-called 'Western Humanist Tradition.'

Your post is a half-decent flame, but as far as an argument it's frail and somewhat silly.

#109 ::: Renee ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 05:49 PM:

Well, yes, flagellate is a verb, but I much prefer whippy-tailed protozoans over means of torture (self-inflicted or otherwise), so I'm biased.

And do we *have* to blame Falwell, Robertson, et al, on Humanism? I'd rather blame them on Neo-Aristocracism.

Fiendish: Promise?

#110 ::: William Lexner ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 05:51 PM:

J H Woodyatt:

There's a self-righteous and indignant logical fallacy. You should ashamed of yourself.

#111 ::: candle ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 05:51 PM:

Jeffrey Smith: I think Keith was taking issue with Carrie S., not with Xopher. But Carrie has a point, and I'm pretty sure it doesn't come down to some-people-are-monsters-and-deserve-to-die.

This looks to be the issue:

I'll grant that incarceration at least keeps the bad guys away from people who aren't paid to deal with them; I'm simply not sure it's enough.

So prison does a pretty good job of keeping even monsters away from most of 'normal' society, although at the cost of radically inhumane treatment which is unlikely to do much in the way of encouraging them not to be monsters. And the difficulty is preventing them from doing nasty things to their cellmates and their warders.

Is this right, Carrie? Because I don't see the step from there to capital punishment being the solution. Why not solitary confinement? Why not improve the prison system so that prisoners can have individual cells? Why not invest in the prison system (using all that money now spent on executions) so that warders are never put in any serious danger, or at least only on extremely rare occasions? Sure, this isn't in place now, but it strikes me as a much more valuable answer than persisting with capital punishment. I don't think people should die because we can't organise our prisons properly.

You were (I thought) arguing that capital punishment can be morally right in cases like that of Charles Manson. But your argument is a pragmatic one and seems to admit of better (and cheaper) solutions. So where's the moral issue?

If he were given the opportunity, he'd start killing people again.

So don't give him the opportunity. Killing a rabid dog is convenient rather than strictly necessary; and presumably you would agree that society has more of a responsibility towards human beings - even broken ones - than towards rabid dogs.

Maybe I have misunderstood. I'm certainly not meaning to look down on anyone. I'm not so secure in my own views that I can afford to claim any moral high ground.

Limbic banana flagellate frangible incandescent hopvine.

In a world in which Xopher's eminently sensible comment could be called 'ludicrous', that sentence would no doubt make perfect sense. Hey, do you suppose that's what our comments actually look like to people like WL?

#112 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 05:57 PM:

WL: 'Humanist' and 'slaveowner' were not then mutually exclusive terms. There was very little of what we know as science before the humanists became more than a small minority in Europe. (When your society is run by people whose views amount to 'it's always been this way and thus it will always be this way, you don't get much change or intellectual curiosity.)
Personal computers were invented solely to make money? How about useful tool as a major purpose? Is that capitalism or humanism? (Compare and contrast the two, please.)

If you don't believe in humanism, why are you using English instead of church Latin? (Your arguments are really, really, silly, besides showing that you haven't been reading much history lately.)

#113 ::: candle ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 05:59 PM:

To be fair, WL is now showing signs of reading the argument, so I apologise. Could you reply to Xopher's post, please? I thought he made a useful point that it is possible for something to be wrong and still in some cases the preferable solution. I'd like to know what you think. Otherwise the whole topic will get derailed by the exchange of insults.

#114 ::: Giacomo ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 06:06 PM:

let's wrap it up:

rehabilitation vs. punishment: wrong debate. Just lock'em up forever (unless they are actually found not guilty later). You don't really need to rehabilitate anybody.

could do it again: just keep'em locked up, for Houdini's sake. Is it so difficult? (Why is that? Do you happen to, like, believe in redemption? that's another debate altogether, as I said above)

could do it again while locked up: well, lock'em up with people of their kind, like, say, that Enron fellow. Dura lex, sed lex.

let's incute fear in the criminal: the "Batman" position. Numbers say, it doesn't work. The only fear we produce goes into the political debate, ready to be used by some Grand Old Personality ("Actually yes, I can't deny I'm a thief... Look, a murderer! Let's kill him!")

I shall take their blood as they took mine: the "eye for an eye" position. Fostering peace & prosperity since 4000 B.C. (By the way, as a descendant of the Roman Empire, I believe I'm still entitled to quite a few acres of land across Europe)

And what happened to disenvowelment? I believe someone rightly deserves it (maybe even me). Come on, let's dish out some punishment at last!

#115 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 06:07 PM:

Y'know, this may be hair-splitting, but I'd like to make a plea for a distinction between killing in self defense, and judicial execution.

Indeed, I'd suggest it's just as serious as the distinction between homicide in general (killing of a human being) and murder in the first degree (homicide with malice afore-thought).

I suspect most of the participants in this thread are opposed to judicial executions, but would countenance use of lethal force in self defense.

#116 ::: KristianB ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 06:07 PM:

William: your post about humanism strikes me as, well, complete nonsense. It would help, I think, if you gave your own definition of what you think humanism is.

#117 ::: Giacomo ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 06:12 PM:

P.S. Renee: I can't see how keeping people locked up would cost less than killing them... unless I'm seriously out of touch with the funeral-services market.

#118 ::: candle ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 06:14 PM:

Jules: you're right, of course, that the test must be flawed. I was worrying that my bias was too strong to give me a clear view of it. Given the other evidence (a rock-solid alibi; a failed identification; a confession by someone else who fits the evidence far better), I still can't believe that Lord Woolf was unwilling to declare the conviction unsafe. But the problem is that those of us who cared about clearing Hanratty were pushing for a DNA test as a way to overturn the conviction - and it has backfired.

The judge - no jury in review cases - decided that this surely flawed version of a DNA test, probably presented in misleading fashion, is a more reliable guide than the obvious abuses and inaccuracies in the original arrest and trial: so the use of scientific evidence has only confused the process even more. All that has happened is that most people are now *more* convinced that Hanratty was guilty.

Unless DNA evidence is used properly, it is only going to lead to more and greater miscarriages of justice. And it depresses me that judges, who are the ones who ought to be the experts at assessing the value of legal evidence, are the ones who are currently being misled by bad uses of DNA tests.

My suspicion is that the use of expert witnesses of any sort prevent an antagonistic justice system from working properly - because it simply becomes a matter of dazzling the judge and jury with apparent expertise. Hopefully I am wrong about that.

#119 ::: Giacomo ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 06:18 PM:

KristianB: please don't feed the troll.

Charlie Stross: the position you describe is quite reasonable and probably even compliant to some "Gandhi doctrine". It's not relevant to this debate though, as the disproportion between the force of the State and the one of the executed person is too big for the former to ever consider it an act of "self-defense".

#120 ::: Renee ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 06:27 PM:

Giacomo: Most of the cost of a Death Row inmate is in the appeals process, IIRC. Look at Tookie Williams: he was on Death Row appealing his conviction for 26 years. Whether you put the guy on Death Row or just lock him up for 99 years, you still have to feed/guard/clean up after him. Lawyers, judges, and court fees for appeals are all extra.

#121 ::: fidelio ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 06:28 PM:

Wishnik, my lad, you obviously don't know much about either humanism or its roots. To quote from the beginning of the article at that link:
"Humanism is a broad category of active ethical philosophies that affirm the dignity and worth of all people, based on our ability to determine what is right using the qualities innate to humanity, particularly rationality. Humanism is a component of a variety of more specific philosophical systems.

Humanism entails a commitment to the search for truth and morality through human means in support of human interests."

Now, I find it hard to see how you can possibly develop the modern scientific method without the hard-core use of rationality. Without that, I fail to see how we could have developed the technology that gives us computers, personal or otherwise.

Yes, Madison was a slave owner, and so was Jefferson. This doesn't mean they weren't humanists. The fact that they failed to live up to the principles they espoused, which were shaped and informed by humanist thought, is regrettable; it doesn't mean that humanism is worthless or irrelevant. It just means that they were hypocrites.

Human Rights, my wishnik, which are not the same as the right to summon your vassals for 40 days of military service, or to pasture a cow on the village green. The Rule of Law, which is not the same thing as laws. Learn some things, because while your ignorance is entertaining, the fact that you don't appear to be capable of suspecting you might be ignorant about something is pretty scary.

I fail to see what goldfish and puppies have to do with the fact that your ability to type outstrips your level of knowledge. If you would prefer for us to consider your position on these animals rather than the fact that you're an ignorant little wishnik, it's understandable. Being an ignorant little wishnik must be embarrassing, and I can see how you'd rather we looked elsewhere.

As for taking up your arguments, other have done so. You have failed to respond adequately to them, reaching instead for ad hominem attacks and ill-informed rants. Until you demonstrate an ability for informed and reasoned argument (that's a humanist weakness, we're into that sort of thing), I doubt that anyone here is going to try and carry out a discussion with you, because Peewee Herman has it all over you when it comes to a debate.

My inner Dadaist and my inner humanist have had their fill; my inner gourmand now demands satisfaction. I go to evaluate a recipe for mushroom pie, with three kinds of cheese. Will the fiber in the mushrooms make up for the fat in the cheese?

#122 ::: Lexica ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 06:29 PM:

Giacomo - according to deathpenaltyinfo.org, it costs less to convict and keep a person in prison for life than it does to convict and execute a person.

Some of the figures they cite on their Costs of the Death Penalty page (these numbers from Kansas):
# The investigation costs for death-sentence cases were about 3 times greater than for non-death cases.
# The trial costs for death cases were about 16 times greater than for non-death cases ($508,000 for death case; $32,000 for non-death case).
# The appeal costs for death cases were 21 times greater.
# The costs of carrying out (i.e. incarceration and/or execution) a death sentence were about half the costs of carrying out a non-death sentence in a comparable case.
# Trials involving a death sentence averaged 34 days, including jury selection; non-death trials averaged about 9 days.

#123 ::: jhlipton ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 06:32 PM:

Bruce Arturs:
The caller suggested that a conviction for what are currently capital offenses called for a life sentence. This would a safeguard against innocent people being found guilty (for various reasons: overzealous police or prosecutors, incompetent defense attorneys, unbalanced juries, etc.) and executed.

But, the caller continued, a SECOND capital conviction WOULD call for the death penalty. He also suggested that the second conviction should be for a non-simultaneous murder. The odds of someone convicted of two separate murders being innocent would be low enough to justify the risk of imposing a death sentence.

This seems reasonable to me. In the few cases of escapes from maximum security prisons (one web-site in favor of the death penalty found 6 incidents for a total of 25 escapees in the past 28 years), I'd be in favor of prompt execution upon capture, especially if another homicide occured during the search.


Carrie S.:
Charles Manson, for example. The man's insane, a total looney; he cannot be made sane. If he were given the opportunity, he'd start killing people again. He should be killed, for much the same reason that a rabid animal should be killed.

How many people has Manson killed (or caused to be killed) since 1975 (over 30 years ago)? He'll never "get an opportunity" to murder anyone -- that's a very bad example.

Had Dahlmer survived for any length of time, he was never going to see another Laotian.

James Kiley:
A friend of mine is part of a company that specializes in DNA analysis for defense attorneys.

I really dislike this emphasis on "clearing by DNA" for one reason: I haven't heard anyone make the obvious connection. If so many cases where we have good DNA samples result in a case being overturned, how many more cases are not overturned simply because we don't have good (or any) DNA (surely the majority).

#124 ::: fidelio ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 06:42 PM:

Renee, what Falwell &Co. are is something we've always had; the Protestant theologies that provide them with a framework, a platform, and an audience would not be possible without the Renaissance humanists--I'm not a theological historian, but the strain they claim to derive from has much of its roots from Reformation thinkers like Calvin and others--and while the desire for reformation of the church was present throughout the Middle Ages, it's my understanding that the Reformation we got was shaped by the thought and writings of the Renaissance humanists. Well-informed students of religious history are urged to set me straight on this.

Of course, if you want to take the position that Falwell and his confreres are draping themselves in theological trappings, like wolves in sheep's clothing, I won't argue*. I'm just talking about where the clothing comes from.

*In fact, I'll probably agree, loudly and with feeling.

#125 ::: William Lexner ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 07:02 PM:

Fidelio:

Much better flame.

Humanism is, IMO, all about the search for human compassion for one another. Often times other forms of thought are grouped under the banner of humanism by those who want to justify humanism. Ideas must be allowed to exist in vacuum to be honestly judged, as opposed to pork barrelled onto some mythical ideal beast.

Modern Humanism is defined by a proponent as "a naturalistic philosophy that rejects all supernaturalism and relies primarily upon reason and science, democracy and human compassion."

I say bullshit. It merely is a cry for human compassion.

Science, Democracy, and Atheism can exist on their own as ideas, and so can compassion. To artificially group them together (and I state artificially because it is neither a natural nor logical grouping) is intellectual delusion.

------------------------

Xopher said:

"I refer you back to my comment, where I said that killing another human being might be LESS wrong than the alternative. That is to say, people have a moral obligation (as you put it) to make the best choices they can, even when all the possible choices involve doing SOMETHING wrong."

I refuse to accept your premise that it is always wrong to kill. I refuse to accept that it is the 'lesser' of two evils. The rancid moral idealism that believes that defending your own life and that of your family by killing another human being is in some way wrong is incomprehensible.

#126 ::: Xopher (Christopher Hatton) ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 07:19 PM:

William, are you actually capable of making a single comment with no insults? (I mean "rancid," of course. What does that word add to the argument except heat?)

If you call something "incomprehensible," that should mean more than that you don't agree, or even that you don't understand. Obviously it is not incomprehensible; most if not all of the other people here understood perfectly what I meant.

I don't believe even that you fail to understand it. It's just very alien to your way of thinking. I note that somewhat higher in the same comment, you speak contemptuously of human compassion, and make the absurd statement that "[i]deas must be allowed to exist in vacuum to be honestly judged." The former makes me think that I'm probably very glad I don't know you IRL, and hope that state of things will continue indefinitely; as for the latter, it would mean that no idea could be honestly judged under any circumstances, because ideas NEVER exist in a vacuum: social context is ALWAYS relevant.

Johnson got the Civil Rights Act of 1964 through Congress. Kennedy had tried but couldn't get any traction on similar legislation; the ideas were the same, but Johnson was a Southern conservative, so he managed things that Kennedy, the Northeastern liberal, could not.

And I would just like to say that merely that you "refuse to accept" something doesn't make it untrue, let alone ludicrous or incomprehensible. It could mean you're in denial.

Stop talking nonsense and give your arguments, if you have any. Do you anything to say against the idea that it is always wrong to kill other than that you refuse to accept it? (I take it you are not a Christian or a Jew, since they have a Commandment about this issue; that's fine, neither am I.)

#127 ::: Xopher (Christopher Hatton) ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 07:25 PM:

William, are you actually capable of making a single comment with no insults? (I mean "rancid," of course. What does that word add to the argument except heat?)

If you call something "incomprehensible," that should mean more than that you don't agree, or even that you don't understand. Obviously it is not incomprehensible; most if not all of the other people here understood perfectly what I meant.

I don't believe even that you fail to understand it. It's just very alien to your way of thinking. I note that somewhat higher in the same comment, you speak contemptuously of human compassion, and make the absurd statement that "[i]deas must be allowed to exist in vacuum to be honestly judged." The former makes me think that I'm probably very glad I don't know you IRL, and hope that state of things will continue indefinitely; as for the latter, it would mean that no idea could be honestly judged under any circumstances, because ideas NEVER exist in a vacuum: social context is ALWAYS relevant.

Johnson got the Civil Rights Act of 1964 through Congress. Kennedy had tried but couldn't get any traction on similar legislation; the ideas were the same, but Johnson was a Southern conservative, so he managed things that Kennedy, the Northeastern liberal, could not.

And merely that you "refuse to accept" something doesn't make it untrue, let alone ludicrous or incomprehensible. It could just mean you're in denial.

Stop talking nonsense and give your arguments, if you have any. Do you anything to say against the idea that it is always wrong to kill other than that you refuse to accept it? (I take it you are not a Christian or a Jew, since they have a Commandment about this issue; that's fine, neither am I.)

#128 ::: candle ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 07:35 PM:

The rancid moral idealism that believes that defending your own life and that of your family by killing another human being is in some way wrong is incomprehensible.

Well, in that case it isn't necessarily wrong for someone to be trying to kill you and your family. You must be saying that killing is a neutral act and that what matters is either the motive or the effect. So if self-defence is a legitimate reason to kill, what else is legitimate? And how far does self-defence extend?

I'd like to see you continue to make a positive argument like you did at the start of the thread. You said then that it was unconscionable not to kill (by means of the death penalty) if to do so would be to save another's life. So how do you decide who lives and who dies? What if I can demonstrate that your death will in some way save the life of someone I care more about, such as myself? What if, say, I can show that you are using up resources that someone else might benefit from? Is it right to kill you in order to feed and clothe the homeless?

In other words, are we in JeremyBenthamWorld or AynRandWorld? May I kill you out of my own self-interest, or only for the sake of the greater good? Or perhaps there is something intrinsically wrong about killing, as Xopher suggested.

Or perhaps you mean we should abandon moral idealism. Sorry, can't do that. Because morality and idealism are the same thing. Realism is how we live; morality is how we think we should live.

#129 ::: Glen Fisher ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 07:37 PM:

Francis wrote:
While I'm at it, a quote I ran into recently (but can't, alas, source) is relevant here.

The purpose of civilisation is to be less unforgiving than nature.

I suspect you saw it right here. It's the fourth quote in the "Commonplaces" sidebar, credited to Arthur D. Hlavaty.

#130 ::: Kevin Andrew Murphy ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 08:02 PM:

William,

This statement here:

We must trust in our system and work harder at assuring that we never let the innocent be punished. Mistakes do happen in life, and they are lamentable.

As mentioned before, "mistakes" is certainly an understatement when you're talking about killing someone, but I'm also wondering if "lamentable" isn't an overstatement of your sentiments on the matter.

After all, if you hold by your statement that we work harder to not let the innocent be punished, and also that the state-sanctioned murder of innocent people is indeed "lamentable," then we as the public should do something to publicly lament the murders committed in our name. Perhaps a bronze effigy of each of the innocent victims of public execution, done life size and placed alongside the steps of the state capitol, so the governor, state legislature and supreme court judges would have to look at each of them?

If you're not willing to support something of that nature, then you're just using "lamentable" as spin to substitute for "embarrassing."

#131 ::: j h woodyatt ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 08:07 PM:

William Lexner addresses me: There's a self-righteous and indignant logical fallacy. You should ashamed of yourself.

p1. It was certainly indignant, but not particularly self-righteous. I made no claim to moral superiority. In fact— would you mind holding still while I compute a good trajectory?

p2. "You should [be] ashamed of yourself," you said. Yeah, people with a victim complex are always saying that to me.

#132 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 08:28 PM:

William: Modern Humanism is defined by a proponent as "a naturalistic philosophy that rejects all supernaturalism and relies primarily upon reason and science, democracy and human compassion."

I say bullshit. It merely is a cry for human compassion.

Oh? Who died and made you the One True Definer of humanism?

And if that were the definition of humanism, it wouldn't apply to much of what has been said in this thread; you've been given plenty of practical observations that the death penalty does not work and does take innocent lives. So attempting to slam the discussion as humanist nonsense doesn't work on either your terms or ours.

#133 ::: Christopher Davis ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 08:35 PM:

Here in Massachusetts, Governor Romney tried to bring back the death penalty but with "a standard of proof that is incontrovertible".

Had it passed, I'm sure he would have been willing to be killed if it were ever shown that a mistake had been made; after all, if it's perfect enough to risk others' lives on, it must be perfect enough to risk his own.

#134 ::: Nomie ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 08:45 PM:

William wrote, As for the woman who called me a troll.... sometimes I think everyone must be out of their minds or posing as some bullshit humanist, because sane human beings could not possibly believe what is being spouted.... but I try to accept that these are genuine feelings.

I'd appreciate it if you'd do the same.

I said that I merely suspected you were. Not because of your opinions, but because you have exhibited characteristically trollish behaviors:

- making very strong black-and-white statements
- responding to individual commenters to dismiss their arguments in an awfully facetious tone

One can still believe in their opinions and be a troll. The two are not mutually exclusive.

Everybody else is bringing up some really good points on both sides; though my opinion of the death penalty remains unchanged, it is enlightening. And now I'm going to stop checking the thread because I have a metric ton of work with deadlines looming ever closer.

#135 ::: JC ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 08:59 PM:

Williams writes:
I refuse to accept your premise that it is always wrong to kill. I refuse to accept that it is the 'lesser' of two evils. The rancid moral idealism that believes that defending your own life and that of your family by killing another human being is in some way wrong is incomprehensible.

Much better! Except for the word "rancid", this is actually a relatively articulate statement of a position that is in opposition to Xopher's which shows comprehension of Xopher's argument.
(I could quibble that his last sentence is incomplete. It ends with the subordinate clause which started with the word "that" without ever reaching the main clause. But that does not materially affect the statement of his position. I could also quibble that "refuse to accept" says nothing about whether he thinks Xopher's position is justifiable or not, merely that he is unable to process it.)

Now the next step to having a rational, coherent argument would be to support and justify your position. Why is Xopher's position one which you "refuse to accept?" Is your argument a matter of scope (since this thread was initially about the death penalty and you have shifted talking about the moral rightness of killing in self-defense) or is there something more fundamental underlying your position? And more importantly, can you articulate a defense of your position in a way which does not involve mere insult?

I think the Xopher/William positions here have an analogy which popped up during Hurricane Katrina. Say you were a mother trapped in New Orleans in the aftermath of the hurricane. Your baby is crying, she needs diapers and the likelihood that she'll be fed any time soon is remote. You have no cash (otherwise, you probably would have been able to leave New Orleans). Now there's a supermarket that you could wade to and just take the diapers for your child.

The analogue to Xopher's position is that this is stealing and stealing is wrong, but it would be a greater wrong to allow your child to needlessly suffer. The analogue to William's position is that in this circumstance, it is only right and proper to break into the supermarket and take what you need.

Does that adequately summarize your positions?

(I note that they agree in that they'd both go to the supermarket and take the diapers if I have understood their positions correctly.)

NPR actually had a lawyer comment on this situation. His legal opinion was that it was technically stealing and the police could charge you and the DA try you, but not a jury in the world would ever convict you. Now, if you had broken into a department store and stolen some DVD players, that would be a different story.

#136 ::: candle ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 09:37 PM:

I could quibble that his last sentence is incomplete. It ends with the subordinate clause which started with the word "that" without ever reaching the main clause.

Just to be pedantic, I don't read it as incomplete. The main clause is [Th[is] rancid moral idealism ... is incomprehensible]; the subordinate clause defines the rancid moral idealism in question as being [the particular kind of rancid moral idealism which believes that defending your own life and that of your family is in some way wrong].

It would have been better, I think, to use "which" as the restrictive relative pronoun rather than "that". This is a perfectly reasonable use of "which" (since, unless you have the comma in there, it doesn't have to be nonrestrictive); but thanks to E.B. White we have all gone overboard in using "that" even when it makes the sentence difficult to read or ambiguous.
And even E.B. White acknowledges that this is a rule which doesn't apply in, say, the King James Bible.

It is not that you say but which.

#137 ::: Magenta Griffith ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 10:12 PM:

Another death penalty case that is not attracting as much notice is that of Cory Maye. This is taken from DailyKos:

"Cops mistakenly break down the door of a sleeping man, late at night, as part of drug raid. Turns out, the man wasn't named in the warrant, and wasn't a suspect. The man, frightened for himself and his 18-month old daughter, fires at an intruder who jumps into his bedroom after the door's been kicked in. Turns out that the man, who is black, has killed the white son of the town's police chief. He's later convicted and sentenced to death by a white jury. The man has no criminal record, and police rather tellingly changed their story about drugs (rather, traces of drugs) in his possession at the time of the raid. Cory Maye is now on death row in Mississippi."

This is where self-defense becomes dangerous. If someone broke down my door in the middle of the night, and I lived in a "bad part of town" and had a gun handy, I might shoot the intruder. And end up on death row. Well, maybe not, since I'm a white female who could afford a lawyer.

I am firmly against the death penalty. There are enough cases where, there but for the grace of the Goddess, go I.

#138 ::: Renee ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 10:13 PM:

Yes, lupines in ovine overcoats. Bibles as excuses rather than guides. I've read the book, and ... uh ... I have reservations about how literally it should be taken. Besides, I agree with JC about Pharisees, and all them rah-rah televangelicals? Yeah.

I hear that a more correct reading of the original 'Thou shalt not kill' is 'Thou shalt not commit murder'. I happen to define murder as 'the unnecessary death of a human that is caused by the deliberate act of another human.' Execution by the State falls under that definition. Advocating death via State is aiding and abetting murder.

What does this have to do with Falwell and friends? Well, Pat Robertson thinks it's fine to call for the assassination of a foreign head of state. If that ain't at least attempting aiding and abetting, I don't know nothin'.

#139 ::: Robin Z ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 10:18 PM:

A quick note: someone way up there posted a long list of facts about the death penalty, including that juveniles (i.e. those who were under the age of 18 years at the time they committed their crimes) are still executed in the United States. This is no longer the case; in the Supreme Court case Roper v. Simmons (Cornell's page with the Roper v. Simmons decision, the Google search for 'roper v simmons'), execution of juveniles was ruled unconstitutional.

That said, I don't support the death penalty, and I'm still not sure why. (Which is a very bad thing, given that I am to write a paper on that exact subject by Thursday afternoon.) However, my chief arguments are, first, the claim that it is simply wrong because it is the killing of a human being, something I am generally not willing to defend under circumstances when reasonable alternatives exist; second, because of the 'social good' angle ('Tookie' Williams is a good example for this, the one I was thinking of when I first presented this argument to anyone was Dr. W. C. Minor, although I did not then remember his name); third, because of the issue of innocents being executed. I put the unreliability of justice last only because it is a purely pragmatic issue, rather than ethical.

#140 ::: Varia ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 10:48 PM:

Robin,

If you don't mind a bit of critique for your paper, I don't think placing the unreliability of the justice system last makes a great deal of sense. Yes, it's a pragmatic issue, but the pragmatic issue is a moral issue. If an entirely moral ideal can never be applied in a correct fashion leading to ethical ends, then I don't think it can be considered really moral.

In another thread on another topic entirely, Graydon said something to the effect of morality not being a worthwhile yardstick for societal setup (he put it better, "The best that can be said of being moral as an approach is that it doesn't scale."). I agree. It doesn't matter if in the abstract it is right or wrong to kill someone. It can't be done well, it can't be shown to lead to positive effect (as our resident troll seems unwilling to revisit), and therefore for any useful sense the discussion, it's wrong.

#141 ::: Jonathan Shaw ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 10:49 PM:

I thought I posted this earlier, but I must have closed the browser while it was still in Preview mode. Some way up thread I mentioned someone called Gabriel Garcia Lorca. A kind person put me right by e-mail instead of holding me up to public ridicule. Of course I meant Federico Garcia Lorca.

Ayse: I agree that it's a wide river to leap from calling people monsters because of skin colour to doing it because they've done monstrous things. But I wasn't actually saying that. I was saying there's a long standing mechanism by which first one says someone is "different from me" in some way that is seen as defining of humanity, and then, a few logical steps down the line, to kill them is not the same as killing a human being. Skin colour or religious difference used to be enough. Being on the other side in a war is still enough for a lot of people. Perpetrating heinous acts is still enough for the lawmakers in the US, and countries like Singapore that might well be shamed into no longer killing small-time drug smugglers if the US wasn't holding the line.

Ever since my Latin teacher in high school quoted that great humanist line from, um, Epicurus, "Homo sum" etc, I've been pretty much committed to the rancid views that Xopher has expressed so elegantly here.

Oh, and I do hope Marna votes. She knows how to use figurative language in a serious argument.

#142 ::: Marilee ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 10:59 PM:

I think the reason the death penalty is wrong is because it makes martyrs of criminals. Even someone like Manson should be let to live in prison. And then there's the fact that innocent people have been convicted and killed. I don't think we, the State, should kill people.

#143 ::: JC ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 11:22 PM:

Just to be pedantic, I don't read it as incomplete

Oops, you're right. I missed the last "is" when I read it before.

I suppose it's possible he feels that there are different flavors of "rancid moral idealism", but I agree that "which" is less confusing there than "that."

#144 ::: Margaret Organ-Kean ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 11:22 PM:

A small clarification from a not-terribly-authoritative Christian point of view.

The argument which changed my mind about the death penalty is not that you deny a sinner his chance at redemption - that's not at question. Redemption is freely available to any who accept it.

What you might deny the sinner is his or her chance at repentance. You have no way of knowing the future and therefore no way of knowing whether anyone will or won't repent their sins or when they might do this.

If, for any reason, you kill them before their possible repentance, you have not merely killed them, but it's possible you have robbed them of their chance at heaven.

#145 ::: Paula Helm Murray ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 11:30 PM:

this is a hard one. In my heart, I think that a death penalty is wrong if even one innocent person is put to death.

And then: Well, Charlie Manson is just f-king nuts, and should not be put to death. But Ted Bundy, Bob Berdella, John Robinson and the BTK killer cases indicate that there are some killers that should just be eliminated They're freaking PROUD they killed the people they did, they believe they're justified in their killing. If anyone deserves to die because of their crimes, this kind of person does.

Just my 2¢, Berdella, Robinson and BTK came way too close to my own personal space and people I know for me to be happy about it.

#146 ::: Robin Z ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2005, 11:56 PM:

Varia: Well, given that I haven't written my paper, I could use any critique I can get. ;)

That said, yes, it can be convincingly argued that a society can do things that an individual cannot. I was listing the arguments in the order in which I find them most convincing more than by how effective they actually are. And from a pragmatic point, I agree with you, as do others: in an interview I did for the same class with the paper I haven't written, one respondent said that she supports the death penalty, and believes that it should be outlawed, for reasons of innocence. From a Rawls's Game (or whatever it's called, I'm going off of a tangential mention once in one philosophy class, six-eight months ago) perspective, utilitarian arguments like the one from the unreliability of justice are among the few that can be proposed.

Incidentally, on the deterrence angle, almost as many studies (i.e. a couple out of hundreds) show a brutalizing effect from capital punishment – that is to say, more murders due to the death penalty – as show deterrence.

If an entirely moral ideal can never be applied in a correct fashion leading to ethical ends, then I don't think it can be considered really moral.

Interesting. I'm not sure I can agree with this from a purely philosophical standpoint; I probably would agree with the outcome of the principle, though.

And going back to William Lexner's claims: absent much better contradicting evidence than currently exists, we can with confidence state both that some people will still oppose the death penalty given the murder of a close family member and that the death penalty probably does not prevent that one murder.

#147 ::: Alex Merz ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2005, 12:12 AM:

William Lexner: your, um, argument, is that public policy is best set by people who are overwhelmed by grief and outrage.

#148 ::: Leah Miller ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2005, 01:10 AM:

This thread has made me think a lot. I used to be pro death penalty in theory, anti in practice (though I was also pro death penalty for rape and sexual assault in theory as well, but that's a rant in and of itself.)

Now that I'm ready to let go of the death penalty I'm just thinking... there's gotta be a way to make a profit off of all these criminals.

I'm serious. That much free labor at our disposal, there's got to be some job we could make them do. Hell, make them work 9 hour days 6 days a week... I don't think that's quite cruel and unusual, just harsh. Give prison-wide incentives or punishments for productivity. If productivity is up get better desserts in the cafeteria. If Quotas are met quaterly show a first-run movie, but if there's a major act of sabotage no television for the entire prison for an appropriate duration.

This would be for all prisoners... violent ones and the white-collar enron types. The threat of prison for white collar crime might be a bit more of a deterrent if it included five years of 54 hour work weeks, rather than just five years in a well lit room with books and computer and conjugal visits.

Have another grade of punishment for extreme cases. Labor and "Hard Labor." Hard labor would be a 60-70 hour work week. On either track, if you commit any violence against fellow prisoners obviously you have too much free time, and five hours are added to your work week for the next four weeks.

And here's the other side: If someone is exonerated you have to PAY them. For all of it. I think that would be a big incentive to reduce false convictions; it would cut seriously into your profit margins.

I don't want these people to rot, I want them to sweat. One of the reasons I've always entertained the notion of the death penalty is that it would lessen the strain on our resources (I wasn't aware of the cost differential). It's also always bothered me that a convicted murderer may have hours of free time and eat better than a mother of four who works three jobs.

Is there some reason this is impractical? I have to say that personally the idea of being locked up in a cell is a lot less unpleasant than the idea of being forced to work long hours at a job I hate until I die.

#149 ::: Lizzy L ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2005, 01:32 AM:

Margaret said: Redemption is freely available to any who accept it. Sorry if I was not clear. I was trying to suggest that the experience of redemption in any specific individual life is usually not a one time road-to-Damascus transformation but a long arduous slog, with lots of backsliding and fucking up and repenting and returning to the path -- at least, that's my experience. The act of redemption -- non-expert Christian theology alert here, everybody duck -- is not ours. It was made for us, all of us, by someone else.

However, with regard to her point, I don't believe anything human beings do can rob others of their chance at heaven. I recently read a story, can't remember if it was in America, Commonweal, or National Catholic Reporter, about a particular discussion at Vatican II regarding birth control. During this discussion, in which a serious reconsideration of doctrine was proposed, a high-ranking churchman said, aghast, "But what about all those people we've sent to hell?" [for doing something which, under the proposed change, would no longer be a sin.] The response, of course, rather dryly made by someone, was: "What makes you think God takes your orders?"

#150 ::: pericat ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2005, 01:33 AM:

Is there some reason this is impractical? I have to say that personally the idea of being locked up in a cell is a lot less unpleasant than the idea of being forced to work long hours at a job I hate until I die.

Dunno about practicality, but... you're talking slave labour. Slaves and potato chips, hard to limit yourself to just a few. Before long, you get to chucking folks in jail so's to beef up your quarterly reports.

I'm not against convicts being strongly encouraged to work (it's certainly more humane than forcing them to be idle), it's the idea that their work should turn a profit for their jailers. If nothing else, the spectacle would set such a bad example for politicians.

#151 ::: Epacris ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2005, 01:39 AM:

Leah, I believe a similar system of forced labour is used in Chinese prisons. It is another thing that helps keep the price of workers in the 'free market' of labour down.

Checking the Roper v Simmons transcript, the ruling came down on 1st March, 2005 (10-11 months ago), so the change is fairly recent. Because of the lag for assembling them, sennoma's figures are from back a little way, as you can see by the "944 executions". There was some publicity around the thousandth in the last week or so.

#152 ::: Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2005, 01:50 AM:

William, you speak of the uselessness of compassion. Well, then! Let us suppose you are to be wrongly accused and convicted (and this happens). Would you not then wish for compassion? I think a big part of your position is based in the belief that you and yours will never be subject to prosecution in error, and I can see no good reason to believe that.

For the rest of it, I remind everyone that we really don't know how accurate the criminal courts are, that there is in fact very little study of this, that many death-penalty convictions are of people who can't afford an adequate legal defense, and the most persuasive form of evidence--the confident eyewitness--is not reliable. The memory of many eyewitnesses is as fragile and unreliable as any other piece of crime scene evidence and can be altered by careless evidence gathering. Given that, the likelyhood is that we end up executing more innocents than allowing murders to go free and murder again.

Can anyone make a case for the death penalty when there is no good reason to believe that we can reliably determine guilt or innocence?

I commend the book True Witness, by James M. Doyle to anyone who wants to read about the reliability of eyewitness evidence.

#153 ::: Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2005, 01:53 AM:

As to the original quote, here, it seems to me that a world in which we could be "positive that we were executing only guilty people" would be so different from current actuality that no-one could possibly know what they would think, were they to live in that world; that is the realm of, quite literally, speculative fiction.

#154 ::: Leah Miller ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2005, 02:01 AM:

Pericat and Epacris:

I knew there had to be some practical reason.

Still, I don't think that any of these systems have the "back pay for the exonerated" rule. I would hope that that would lead away from chucking people in just to get more work... it would actually cost you More that way. And lawyers would probably be quite willing to work defense for even normal convictions (theft, etc) because if their client was exonerated they would have cash to pay their lawyers back. Of course this may have the negative effect of having people only really care about people who have already been in prison for some time, rather than defending them properly in the first place.

Then again, I also don't believe in prison for a lot of things that get you put in prison either.

I do wish there was a way that they prisons would at least not run at a loss, if not make an actual profit.

Point is still taken about China though. Maybe it would work if we engineered the system so that no one made any actual profit off of it, but the prisoners do pay for their own incarceration. It just boils me that we'll pay thousands a year to keep a killer alive and medically cared for when we won't do the same for the innocent. I know this is more of a complaint against the other edge of government, but I feel like there should be some way to reconcile the two.

But I am young, and keep forgetting that if anyone is making a profit people are going to do bad things to make that profit bigger.

#155 ::: Leah Miller ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2005, 02:16 AM:

Sorry to Double post, but I just realized (and was slightly saddened by) the difference between my opinions now and those of my youth.

When I was younger I was absolutely delighted by Oz's prison system:

"We consider a prisoner unfortunate. He is unfortunate in two ways--because he has done something wrong and because he is deprived of his liberty. Therefore we should treat him kindly, because of his misfortune, for otherwise he would become hard and bitter and would not be sorry he had done wrong. Ozma thinks that one who has committed a fault did so because he was not strong and brave; therefore she puts him in prison to make him strong and brave. When that is accomplished he is no longer a prisoner, but a good and loyal citizen and everyone is glad that he is now strong enough to resist doing wrong. You see, it is kindness that makes one strong and brave and so we are kind to our prisoners."

-L. Frank Baum, The Patchwork Girl of Oz.

I realize that Baum was very eutopian in his writings, but I do dearly wish things were this way.

#156 ::: Leah Miller ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2005, 02:20 AM:

Utopian. Apparently I can't spell OR shut up.

#157 ::: Varia ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2005, 02:55 AM:

Robin,

It's just another way around the question of means and ends. It's a false dichotomy, and a useless question as far as guiding anyone's behavior. Or even more than useless; it's less of a spherical-frictionless-cow abstraction and more of a screwed mindset that leads to all kinds of evil in the name of idealism. YMMV of course.

#158 ::: bryan ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2005, 03:49 AM:

'As to the original quote, here, it seems to me that a world in which we could be "positive that we were executing only guilty people" would be so different from current actuality that no-one could possibly know what they would think, were they to live in that world; that is the realm of, quite literally, speculative fiction.'

well I suppose the pro death penalty people would still be pro death penalty, either because they feel that they already live in such a world, or that guilt or innocence really doesn't matter much it's the neatness implicit in a resolution.

#159 ::: bryan ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2005, 04:00 AM:

Robin -

another angle would be that the immorality of the death penalty is that there are no consequences for a wrong imposition.

Indeed, given the American political system I suppose that the execution of someone shown to be innocent after the fact could result in a good deal of political gain for those who were involved in the execution, in that it would give them the opportunity to go on camera and act contrite and humanized by the horrible mistake showing that not all systems were perfect and now they would take the awful task to themselves of fixing this tiny little flaw. Hallelujah.

#160 ::: dagny ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2005, 04:41 AM:

Re: "rancid moral idealism"
I'm a little tired of folks saying "idealism is unrealistic/irresponsible/impractical/wrong" as an excuse to never try to improve things. Just because a perfect system can't exist doesn't mean we should stop trying to make one.
Sincerely,
a young idealist
PS. Sorry for pulling things off-topic.

#161 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2005, 05:10 AM:

Leah Miller: be careful what you wish for.

Prison labour which can be deployed for a profit on behalf of the prison service, when that very prison service is operated by corporations such as Wackenhut, is so close to chattel slavery that trying to define the difference makes my eyes water. (It's effectively chattel slavery with a limited term, and the slaves officially owned by the state but farmed out to corporations.)

Is this what you're advocating when you talk about making some kind of profit off prisoners? Slavery?

#162 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2005, 05:14 AM:

Leah: "Utopia" is from Greek words that mean "no place". (Thomas More was being sarcastic.) "Eutopia" is a possible coinage that would mean "good place". So your misspelling is not so bad as you might think.

#163 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2005, 05:18 AM:

Of course it's wrong to kill someone who's threatening to kill your loved ones -- as Xopher said, it's just more wrong to let them do it.

And the proof of that is in this thought experiment: What if you had two methods of stopping that person, one lethal, one not? Both legally and morally you would be obliged to use the one that wouldn't kill. And the extent to which the not-killing is better than the killing is exactly the measure of the wrongness of that person's death.

#164 ::: bellatrys ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2005, 06:52 AM:

We already have for-profit prisons and de-facto prisoner slave labour in this country.

It was discussed at some length on NPR
this past year,
with commentary from local affiliate NHPR this past summer.

It's destroying small business owners and larger, who can't keep up with the "insourcing" any more than they could in the time of the Empire. (Be careful what you wish for...)

So there's the practical problem with it, if moral arguments aren't enough.

#165 ::: Giacomo ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2005, 07:40 AM:

Leah: a huge low-cost disposable workforce is what makes economic systems wasteful, stifling technological innovation by not rewarding efficiency in productivity levels. The Confederates learnt about it the hard way, like the Romans before them and the Soviets after them.

What you want is an energetic, productive and motivated population, thriving for technological innovation and efficiency. You don't want to reward (slave)prison-owners.

thanks for the numbers on the cost of death penalty, didn't know that; very interesting and another nice point for the right side of the argument.

Can we vote for William's disenvowelment now?

#166 ::: Sandy ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2005, 08:18 AM:

There are approximately three people with the vote on Making Light. (I don't keep close track of the mechanics here.) In an advisory capacity, I would say I like William's learning curve.

If a troll becomes sufficiently socialized they may actually provide useful counterpoint.

On the other hand, it does spend the time of an awful lot of people, educating one.

#167 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2005, 08:41 AM:

I agree with what's been said regarding for-profit prison labor. If I were put in charge of a prison, however, I would find a way to have the prisoners do as much as feasible of the necessary work to support themselves (growing their own food; janitorial work to keep the prison clean; etc.). There are built-in incentives to do the work and to do it well: grow more tomatoes, get more tomatoes to eat. Clean the cells well, get a cleaner cell to live in. There's no incentive to jail more people--the fewer prisoners, the less work to maintain them. (This is also why I think tobacco lawsuit payoffs should only be used to treat smoking-related illnesses; it removes the states' interest in keeping the smoking population up. But I digress.)

I also support voluntary work programs such as the dog-training programs in some prisons (e.g.http://transcripts.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/0009/10/sm.10.html ). Both kinds of work can have a humanizing effect--many people have never had the opportunity to do meaningful work of which they get to see the results. Moreover, exercise is both beneficial to health and helpful in maintaining order (tired people cause less trouble). Finally, any useful work experience in prison is likely to make it easier for a released prisoner to find employment.

#168 ::: Giacomo ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2005, 08:44 AM:

Sandy, you are impeding my "a vowel for a vowel" strategy. He'll do it again, y'know. We have to incute fear. You wouldn't talk like that if it was YOUR blog being trolled. I pity your puny humanism.

#169 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2005, 08:48 AM:

One book on the British system: "The Hangman'
s Tale" by Syd Dernley.

I read it five or six years ago, and it's quite chilling. It's pretty clear that the whole process, fifty years ago, was much faster than that in the USA of today. Maybe that made a difference to any deterrent effect there might have been. From trial to execution was a few weeks.

And the actual execution process could be startlingly fast.

Nobody can tell us whether it was a painless process. There's a set of descriptions on Wikipedia which almost seems uncritically gloating about the whole thing, whatever process is used. Whether it's a long-drop hanging or a lethal injection, the process seems designed as much to stop any disquieting movement by the victim as to ensure quick and painless death.

The claim for hanging was that the concussion, rattling the victim's brain around in his skull, caused immediate unconsciousness. The broken neck certainly stopped any unseemly struggling, and the noose ought to cut off the blood supply to the brain, but there doesn't seem to be anything that causes instant death.

Syd Dernley was the assistant at the fastest execution on record. Even he was surprised at the victim's rush to the noose. And I suspect he would have been a little shocked at the TV coverage from California, and the interviews with the witnesses. The lethal injection in California came across as slow. Maybe it wasn't painful, but I had that sense of gloating voyeurism. Not a few paces through a door, ending in the sudden deadly thump of the opening trap, but a slow, quasi-medical, process. And reported in a way that seemed as close as possible to having a TV camera there, live.

#170 ::: bellatrys ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2005, 09:08 AM:

Leah: a huge low-cost disposable workforce is what makes economic systems wasteful, stifling technological innovation by not rewarding efficiency in productivity levels. The Confederates learnt about it the hard way, like the Romans before them and the Soviets after them.

You have a skewed notion of history, Giacomo. Slavery, or more properly, Helotry, was what made many technological innovations profitable, and vice versa. Slavery was declining, until the cotton gin. (And it was not just the South that benefited: what do you think the profit of New England's mill owners would have been, if they had not been able to get cotton from Louisiana by the ton at slavery-subsidized prices? The false "Reconstruction" gave them the same thing, without the name: people with no options working for dirt-cheap wages. All the grand buildings in the Northeast were built with slave labor.)

The energy to run the vast machinery of Rome, the mills and wheels that fed and watered the largest population concentration that would ever be again for almost two thousand years - that was slave muscle.

The problems with the Soviet Union are much more complicated than the gulags, which were not for-profit institutions, nor invented by the Soviets, either. Raskolnikov is sent to you, you may recall.

Yes, helotry is ultimately and in many ways destructive to a civilization. But try telling a society that, when they're getting their $10 Wal*Mart turtlenecks made in Bangladesh or Mexico by helots or only paying $50 for a hotel room because the cleaning of it is done by people getting minimum wage and no benefits.

Don't even bother telling it to the latifundia owners, though. They'll just laugh. It's always been beneficial to the plutocrats, at least as much to the freedmen, right up (to and if, which doesn't happen to most of them) the point that they end up on the wrong side of a torch-bearing mob.

(You could make a much better case that the most destructive thing to innovation is government subsidies of inefficient technology, like factory farming and automobiles.)

#171 ::: fidelio ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2005, 09:13 AM:

Leah, convict labor here at the south has a very sordid history; if time permits, you might try googling the Tennessee Coal and Iron Company, just for starters. There's also a book called One Dies Get Another, which pretty well sums up the attitude of the employers using convict labor.

In addition to the simple brutality of the system, it was used to lower wages for free labor; the Coal Creek War broke out over this issue, and I'm sure there were plenty of other clashes. We really don't need to go back there.

This doesn't mean the US doesn't have plenty of prison industries, as most states have some sort of system. However, prisoners are supposed to be volunteers; they get paid, and working is supposed to be a privilege; if a prisoner doesn't have a good record he's not allowed to work. Even so, the system is still at risk for plenty of abuses, including unfair competition with industries that have to pay the minimum wage, or better. The prison industries here in Tennessee include a sizable printing shop; most, if not all, of the forms and stationery used by various branches of the state government are produced there. I don't know if they are allowed to bid on outside work as well. I can see why commercial printers would be unhappy if the prison printing shop could do so.
It's been a while since I spoke to anyone who was involved in the prison industries here, so I can't speak to abuse of the workforce involved. I do know that it a very different system from the one that existed in the days of the convict lease system, which is one we never want to return to, ever at all.

#172 ::: Carrie S. ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2005, 09:13 AM:

I'm rather disturbed by the fact that you think you can tell the difference between a human and a monster, simply by eyeballing a shopping list of their most heinous mistakes. Or that you think you can even make a distinction between the two at all.

One: I said I could tell the difference between a human who is a monster, and one who is not.
Two: You're really, sincerely, honestly arguing that someone who rapes and tortures to death multiple people and then eats their flesh is not a monster? One wonders what your definition would be.

I’m glad you and George W. have the same unflappable moral compass...

I beg your pardon? Sir, I would very much appreciate it if you would retract this statement.

...though I suspect if the tables were turned and someone labeled you a monster and came to place the noose around your neck (or export you to Cuba so someone else could do it), you'd feel differently

Should I become insane and begin murdering and raping people, I damn well hope someone'd stop me and put me out of my misery. Note the subtle differences between multiple rape/murder and protesting an unjust war. /sarcasm

This may be drawing a long bow, but that sentence leapt out at me as a paradigmatic justification for treating just about anyone badly. Different skin colour, different gender, different religion, different degree of physical capability, different age: all at one time or another have been widely accepted justification for killing or at least severely damaging people.

There's a significant difference--at least in my mind--between judging people by what they are and judging them by what they do. Being green and polka-dotted is not a choice; killing someone is. Hence, one may not judge people by the former, but may by the latter.

But pretending to have (or even insinuating that such a thing exists as) a complete and infallible map of the human mind is the sort of hubris that raises the hairs on the back of my neck and makes me want to spit.

I would dearly love it if you would point out precisely where I said anything about a complete and infallible map of anything. I said that some people have demonstrated that they are broken, by performing (multiple!) acts that no healthy person would perform, and that further we regrettably do not have the ability to fix them; in my mind it is preferable to execute such people. You are free to disagree, of course.

So prison does a pretty good job of keeping even monsters away from most of 'normal' society, although at the cost of radically inhumane treatment which is unlikely to do much in the way of encouraging them not to be monsters. And the difficulty is preventing them from doing nasty things to their cellmates and their warders.
Is this right, Carrie?

Yep. If there were a way to make them completely harmless and/or cure them, I'd be all for it, but there regrettably doesn't seem to be.

Why not solitary confinement? Why not improve the prison system so that prisoners can have individual cells? Why not invest in the prison system (using all that money now spent on executions) so that warders are never put in any serious danger, or at least only on extremely rare occasions? Sure, this isn't in place now,

And that's precisely the problem--what do we do with the unfortunate insane until a better system comes along?

You were (I thought) arguing that capital punishment can be morally right in cases like that of Charles Manson.

Well, no; I just think it's the best of a bad lot of options. Like Xopher said: it's always wrong to kill a person, it's just that sometimes it's less wrong than not killing them.

But your argument is a pragmatic one and seems to admit of better (and cheaper) solutions. So where's the moral issue?

Honestly, I didn't think there was one. :) If someone could provide a solution as certain as execution to insuring that madman would not injure anyone else, I'd support it. So far, no one has. Saying they can't escape prison is fine, but what about the people in the prison with them?

Killing a rabid dog is convenient rather than strictly necessary

I beg to differ. Accidents can happen, not to mention saving the dog itself from suffering the effects of its disease.

and presumably you would agree that society has more of a responsibility towards human beings - even broken ones - than towards rabid dogs.

Indeed; which is why a rabid dog should be killed as soon as its illness is detected, even if it hasn't threatened anyone, while a human must actually kill a number of people in particularly awful ways before we even consider it. I'm not saying that the abused wife who snaps and kills her husband should be executed, nor even, say, the typical Columbo murderer with his elaborate plan to kill one person. I'm saying that the people who have demonstrated that they are irrevocably, dangerously (and that's an important bit) insane should be put to death to ensure they can't harm more people. That's all.

#173 ::: Frank ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2005, 09:42 AM:

I usually lurk here. But I've been thinking about the death penalty for the past couple of days, and while I'm not usually a wingnut, on this subject I am.

I respect the compassion of those who are against the death penalty. A phrase that has stuck in my mind is "I don't want to live in a society that...", something to the effect of: kills people with premeditation.

And really I agree with that. I wish America were a better place. I'm even willing to work towards that, but I think stopping the death penalty would be a counterproductive measure at this time.

One possible advantage of the death penalty is the additional scrutiny it brings to the criminal justice system. Earlier in the thread there is a list of comparative costs between cases involving the death penalty and those that don't. I don't know how to block quote, so I won't put it in this post, but most of those costs involve more seriously looking at the case against the suspect/convict. In addition outside the justice system people look much more closely at death penalty cases. I don't think we would have heard about Cory Maye if he had 'merely' been sentenced to life in prison.

#174 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2005, 10:01 AM:

Carrie: what makes you think they're monsters? As opposed to, say, mentally ill folks who don't have health insurance or relatives and friends who're willing to get them help?

I don't have detailed figures for the USA, but I can talk about the UK situation -- which is about the closest you'll get to the USA in another developed country (the UK has the highest per-capita prison population in the EU, even though it's an order of magnitude below the US).

It's estimated that, since the UK did the same care-in-the-community shuffle as the USA back in the early 1980s, most of the inmates ... well, as Nick Davies put it in his monumental investigative piece for The Guardian in 2004:

There are now 75,000 men and women behind bars in this country. The findings of the ONS suggest that nearly 50,200 of them have personality disorders; 6,175 are psychotic; and more than 35,000 of them have neurotic disorders. Several tens of thousands of them suffer a combination of disorders. More than 75% of them are intellectually impaired, with IQs below the national average. And these are not figures that the government denies.

Indeed, they came from the government's own Office of National Statistics. If all the inmates who were imprisoned in the UK due to drug and alcohol abuse or mental illness were diverted to medical institutions, the prison population would fall by 90%.

(I really recommend that you read the rest of the article; it's absolutely damning, a picture of a system that is so broken it's beyond fixing -- and everything I hear from the USA suggests that the US system is even worse.)

Here's the rub: these people should be in hospital, not in prison. They end up in prison because there are no hospital beds for them and no treatment. The criminal justice system is built on the idea that if you punish people you can frighten them into obeying the law -- this works for those of us who are sane, but applying it to paranoid schizophrenics only makes the underlying problem worse.

#175 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2005, 10:08 AM:

Dave Bell: There are two guaranteed painless forms of execution available. One is the method used by the NKVD during Stalin's terror and today in China; a bullet into the brain. Preferably a large calibre one -- messy, but I don't believe you'd feel anything: a bullet moves a lot faster than an action potential propagates along an axon.

The other method has never, to my knowledge, been used, but ought in principle to be equally painless -- lethal injection, but using a very strong opiate such as diamorphine or etorphine, instead of potassium chloride (are they trying to give the prisoner an agonizing exit?).

The fact that both these methods have been available for more than a century, but that they are rarely used, should tell us something about the cultural attitudes surrounding the death penalty -- something very unpleasant indeed.

#176 ::: Chris Clarke ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2005, 10:09 AM:

How nice it must be to have this topic be an abstract issue in your life.

#177 ::: Francis ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2005, 10:43 AM:

William, I think we have a simple clash of worldviews here. As you may have noticed, Making Light is extremely liberal.

Calling it rancid moral idealism to consider taking a life the least bad option is to misunderstand where liberals believe the choices start.

Firstly, in an imperfect world, the least bad choice is often effectively synonymous with the best choice. In such a case (as you bring up), although the terminology may be different, the viewpoint in the individual case is almost the same.

Where the difference lies is that the liberal belief is that any situation in which you need to take a life is a bad one (both for you and the other person) and preventing it before it ever reaches that position is the best option. To use an analogy, in a game of chess if my queen is trapped and I find a brilliant combination that sacrifices my knight to save my queen, it was a brilliant combination and the right move to play. It was also a bad option because I have just lost a knight - which doesn't stop it being comfortably the least bad option and a very good move in the situation.

Both viewpoints are true depending on your perspective.

Oh, and the grouping in modern humanism starts from the viewpoint that "We and our abilities are what we have, so it's up to us to do the best we can with them". The atheism comes from being unable to see God. The science comes from the best use of our abilities. The democracy comes from the combined attempt to do the best for everyone and make the best use of everyone. Call it misguided - but the logic is there.

#178 ::: Lin Daniel ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2005, 10:48 AM:

Chris Clarke: How nice it must be to have this topic be an abstract issue in your life.

We discuss it before it becomes less than abstract.

Because for some of us it isn't.

#179 ::: Carrie S. ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2005, 10:59 AM:

Carrie: what makes you think they're monsters? As opposed to, say, mentally ill folks who don't have health insurance or relatives and friends who're willing to get them help?

They are monsters because they've proven themselves to be. Sentient beings who torture, rape and kill for pleasure are monsters--unless you can think of some other word, or perhaps are arguing that such people are not sentient?

That's not to say it's their fault that they're monsters, or that there was no one who would or could help them; nor is it their fault that they can't be healed. That doesn't make it OK to let them wander around.

As I believe I've said a number of times already, if there's a better alternative I am more than happy to support it; I just don't know of one and am therefore willing to accept the karma of having the state kill such unfortunates on my behalf.

I do wonder what a person would be like if sie were insane and murdered a lot of people, and then were healed. Would such a person be able to live with hirself after that, even knowing that sie was not really responsible for hir actions?

#180 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2005, 11:05 AM:

Here's the rub: these people should be in hospital, not in prison. They end up in prison because there are no hospital beds for them and no treatment.

Possibly relevant, and certainly parallel: the Los Angeles county jail has been described as one of the world's largest mental-illness wards. Most of the prisoners - and I suspect that 90% figure does apply here - are mentally ill, rather than simply criminal.

#181 ::: Chris Clarke ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2005, 11:38 AM:

Because for some of us it isn't.

My point exactly.

#182 ::: Lexica ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2005, 12:05 PM:

That doesn't make it OK to let them wander around.

I don't think anyone in this discussion has suggested "letting them wander around". What's been suggested is life imprisonment, preferably with appropriate medical and psychiatric care. Not at all the same thing.

Our current system could almost be seen as literal social Darwinism: we (the state) won't provide treatment for the disabling mental problems you (the hypothetical "you") have, and we won't do much or anything to make it possible for you to get such treatment affordably; then when you do something horrible as the result of your untreated mental illness, we'll kill you. Out of the gene pool with you!

#183 ::: protected static ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2005, 12:22 PM:

I don't have the exact numbers, but the explosion in the US prison population started more or less concurrently with the emptying out of the mental hospitals... In the name of humane treatment and human rights, we betrayed a vulnerable segment of society by exposing them to an even more malevolent environment: prison.

This is not to excuse the abuses of the state hospitals that were uncovered in the '60s and '70s, of course... The impulse to address those wrongs was correct - the gutting of mental health and other social service budgets in the '80s just compounded the unintended consequences of the emptying of the wards, making the situation more tragic (an imprecise word to be sure, but I can't come up with a better one).

#184 ::: Laura Roberts ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2005, 12:40 PM:

Chris Clarke: I just read your blog post. To echo all the other commenters: Wow.

So, um, what is your opinion on the death penalty?

#185 ::: Lucy Kemnitzer ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2005, 12:43 PM:

At least in California, the emptying of the mental hospitals was a cynical action on the part of the Reagan governorship to shift the cost of caring for the mentally ill from the state to the local governments. The promised funding for "community based mental health care" never materialized, so group homes, half-way houses, outpatient clinics, support groups, information and resource centers, never grew to meet the demand. We did have the community effort -- but it was starved and spurned by the state, and as a result we have a large population of mentally ill homeless (though we have an even larger population of economic homeless).

However, the biggest factor in the growth of the prison population in California is the growth of the prison industry. More prisons, more and higher paid and less supervised wardens, harsher sentencing rules, and you get an exploding prison population (and resulting loss of voting rights, as a nice side effect adding on to the loss of years that could be spent in building persons and communities).

#186 ::: Carrie S. ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2005, 12:46 PM:

I don't think anyone in this discussion has suggested "letting them wander around".

I'm sorry for not making my hyperbole sufficiently clear. :)

What's been suggested is life imprisonment, preferably with appropriate medical and psychiatric care. Not at all the same thing.

And if what they got was imprisonment with care, I'd be backing that plan. But they don't. They just get imprisoned, in an environment that, at best, will not make their problems so much worse that they have to be physically restrained at all times. Explain again how that's more merciful then putting them out of their misery? Lest I be accused of weasel words, by the way, let me make it clear that I do indeed mean that I see executing an uncurably sick person as more merciful than putting them in prison.

#187 ::: Lenny Bailes ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2005, 12:49 PM:

As you may have noticed, Making Light is extremely liberal.

Patrick self-identifies as a liberal more often than not. I'm not sure whether Teresa does.

The notion that the cross-sampling of opinions commonly found in the ML comments section is "extremely liberal" is one more datapoint for us actual extreme liberals to think about.

#188 ::: Giacomo ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2005, 01:06 PM:

Francis, I don't agree with your analogy. In this situation, you don't need to lose a piece to save another; you can save the Queen without losing the pawn, and that's the maddening part: we sacrify pawns for something that is not logical and not part of the game.
(Btw, I find this application of moral relativism quite funny, as it's usually the "liberals" that are accused of this "crime")

bellatrys, you have a point; however, as you say as well, in the long run "helotry" is not sustainable and will ultimately cripple your system, because there is no incentive for your enslaved population to get better at doing what they do, hence they can only get worse and/or revolt.

Carrie, a better alternative exists: just lock'em up and throw away the keys. What's so difficult in doing that? I see nobody is answering, people keep saying that there's always the risk and we can't leave them out there etc etc, but come on, is it so difficult to keep people locked up? It's working perfectly with Charles Manson and thousands of people like him.

#189 ::: alsafi ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2005, 01:17 PM:

As I believe I've said a number of times already, if there's a better alternative I am more than happy to support it; I just don't know of one and am therefore willing to accept the karma of having the state kill such unfortunates on my behalf.

I am reminded of the woman Lynne Truss writes about in Eats, Shoots and Leaves, lamenting her inability to properly punctuate while standing in front of a display rack of books on the subject.

Do you not regard working to fix the (incredibly broken) healthcare and mental-heathcare structures, so that the "rabid" may be treated before we give up all hope and kill them, as a better alternative? And how does any of this fit in with the fact that--as criminal psych people will tell you in a heartbeat--those with the least understanding or those most "gone" into mental illness will often admit to (or finger someone else suggested to them for) almost any heinous crime that is put before them? Can we accept that as strong enough evidence to hang an execution on? (pun blackly intended)

#190 ::: Chris Clarke ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2005, 01:31 PM:

So, um, what is your opinion on the death penalty?

I was rather opaque, wasn't I? My apologies. Neither snark nor glibness intended.

Can I chalk it up to starting Wellbutrin this week?

My original, imprecise comment was aimed at William Lexner's at the top of the thread. It burns my ass to be told - by someone I perhaps mistakenly presume to have no personal connection to the issue - that the only reason I am opposed to the death penalty is because murderers have not touched my life in any way.

My position on the death penalty: capital punishment is murder.

#191 ::: Leah Miller ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2005, 01:33 PM:

I can't believe you people.

Cutting down my emotionally driven, pat solutions with hard facts and documented cases of why it doesn't work. You think you're so big, what with your facts.

Don't you understand that the IDEA is what's important? why do you insist on tearing down perfectly viable, and more importantly emotionally satisfying, solutions just because they haven't worked before and traditionally lead to widespread corruption. That's no way to solve a problem. The only way to solve a problem is to believe you know how to solve it and just keep trying the idea you came up with until it works. It's the fact that people like you disagree with whatever crazy plan I came up with that leads to it not working properly.


...
(I dearly hope that all read as self-effacing sarcasm)

#192 ::: Mark D. ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2005, 01:33 PM:

I have linked to Get Religion before, one-stop reading for religion coverage in the mainstream media. Here's the money quote from that post:

The idea that the state, traditionally the arm of justice and law, should take over the church’s work, traditionally that of forgiveness of sins, is a radical idea. And yet almost every source quoted — from Leno here to Schwarzenneger — engaged the idea.

Hm.

#193 ::: j h woodyatt ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2005, 01:35 PM:

Charlie Stross writes: The fact that both these methods have been available for more than a century, but that they are rarely used, should tell us something about the cultural attitudes surrounding the death penalty -- something very unpleasant indeed.

I would point out that— unless I've been misinformed, the bullet in the brain method is taught, used and preferred by professional killers everywhere. It's the executioners who seem to prefer the more painful methods.

On the list of unpleasant things this should tell us about the cultural attitudes surrounding the death penalty, I think, is that people seem not to want executioners to be professional killers.

#194 ::: Lis Carey ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2005, 01:35 PM:

As I believe I've said a number of times already, if there's a better alternative I am more than happy to support it; I just don't know of one and am therefore willing to accept the karma of having the state kill such unfortunates on my behalf.

Carrie, at least one question left hanging by that is, are you willing to also accept the karma of having the state kill innocents in your name, in order to be sure the Mansons are killed? Because we do not have a system that executes only the guilty, we know we do not have a system that executes only the guilty, and we cannot escape moral responsibility for the consequences of that.

And, sorry, but I'm left gasping at the breath-taking moral arrogance that assumes that, even if we were killing only the guilty, or sincerely believed that we were, killing a mentally ill person whom we had previously not provided proper care because, without proper care, their illness played itself out in a truly horrific way, is adequately and appropriately described as "putting them out of their misery" and morally as acceptable as doing the same to a severely injured or incurably ill dog or cat.

#195 ::: Dave Trowbridge ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2005, 01:40 PM:

The best "secular" argument against the death penalty:

"Many that live deserve death. Some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them, Frodo? Do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. Even the very wise cannot see all ends."

But as a Christian Quaker (attender), the most important reasons for me are the belief in "that of God in every man" and Christ's commands to love and not kill.

#196 ::: Dave Trowbridge ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2005, 01:42 PM:

Also, be aware that death by lethal injection is too often death by torture.

#197 ::: protected static ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2005, 01:58 PM:

Wrote Dave Towbridge:
"Also, be aware that death by lethal injection is too often death by torture."

And the electric chair ain't so great either...

#198 ::: Francis ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2005, 01:58 PM:

Lenny, I'm looking in from outside - I'm British rather than American - but do read what's happening in America (and find all your scales skewed). I was trying to read from a Republican perspective and from there it is extremely liberal - it all depends on where you stand.

Or, to quote Flanders and Swann: They have two parties just like us. The Republicans who are the equivalent of our Conservative party and the Democrats who are the equivalent of our conservative party. I apologise if my recallibration was off centre (if, indeed, such a thing exists).

Giacomo, I was talking about self-defence in my comment rather than execution.

#199 ::: bryan ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2005, 02:36 PM:

"As you may have noticed, Making Light is extremely liberal."
I tend to think of myself as a Burkean Conservative, although in the little matter of always putting off rebellion I can't help but think there must come a time when the duty to obey unjust laws is lessened.

As for that, I don't know much about disobedience, but I know what I like.

#200 ::: candle ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2005, 02:37 PM:

And that's precisely the problem--what do we do with the unfortunate insane until a better system comes along?

Well, as I said, that doesn't seem to be a moral argument. (Although I guess it could be extended into one, along the lines that Varia suggested, if you don't believe a better system will ever be possible.) If a better solution is possible then morally you must approve of it (or it isn't 'better'); the question here is surely not what practical measures you are willing to accept in the meantime.

Accidents can happen, not to mention saving the dog itself from suffering the effects of its disease.

As people keep pointing out, this is (as I said) an argument from convenience - unless you believe that accidents *must* happen; in terms of prisons, that someone will *inevitably* escape; or that prisoners can *never* be kept apart. And even if you do believe that - and I don't have a problem with it if you do - then you would still have to believe that the number of 'monsters' who would escape or kill under this system would justify killing all of them in advance (however many, or few, 'monsters' that turns out to mean).

I'm only trying to be clear about what you think, because I still can't see that you are really distinguishing between the (practical) argument from convenience (it's the best option available at the moment in certain extreme circumstances) and the (moral) argument from necessity (there will never be a better option).

As for ending the dog's suffering - well, that's where the analogy breaks down, I think, so I was ignoring it. But again, it is one thing to take that decision about a dog, and another to take it for a human, however broken they may be. But really the death penalty is not a matter of euthanasia.

Meanwhile, away from all that stuff, I thought this was very well said:

And the extent to which the not-killing is better than the killing is exactly the measure of the wrongness of that person's death.

I wish I'd said that in response to William rather than what I actually did say. Thanks, David G.

Oh, and as far as I know Thomas More's Utopia was intentionally ambiguous between the notional Greek words eutopia (good place) and outopia (no place).

Too many parentheses in this comment. Sorry.

#201 ::: Xopher (Christopher Hatton) ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2005, 02:45 PM:

Jonathan Shaw: Ever since my Latin teacher in high school quoted that great humanist line from, um, Epicurus, "Homo sum" etc, I've been pretty much committed to the rancid views that Xopher has expressed so elegantly here.

Tarentius, AKA Terence. "Homo sum: humani nil a me alienum puto." Yeah, that's pretty much my motto. I tell my gay friends that I like it because it starts with 'homo' and ends with 'puto', but the fact is that reading it was one of those "that's me" moments. And also, thanks.

JC - that's more or less my position...except that in NO the diapers would have been destroyed by the rising flood anyway, which lessens the wrong, maybe to zero. But the value of a package of diapers decreases when it's likely to be destroyed; the value of a human life, IMO, does not.

Leah: I know people have already beaten this horse to death, but what we need in this country is an END to the for-profit prison industry. I like Oz's system too, except that I was raised a Behaviorist, and immediately noted that people would commit crimes in order to get kindly treatment. But then, no one in Oz (except people in the middle of an Exciting! Adventure!) is unhappy, so maybe not.

And I think you actually meant Euterpean. Baum sure did write lyrically, didn't he? (Yes, I'm joking.)

dagny: not off-topic, and I say bravo! to that comment!

David Goldfarb: And the proof of that is in this thought experiment: What if you had two methods of stopping that person, one lethal, one not? Both legally and morally you would be obliged to use the one that wouldn't kill. And the extent to which the not-killing is better than the killing is exactly the measure of the wrongness of that person's death.

Thank you, THANK YOU, THANK YOU for this!!!! Boy, am I ever going to use this. That has a million applications. You can't imagine what you've done for me by bringing this up.

Giacomo: You wouldn't talk like that if it was YOUR blog being trolled.

Sir, you an excellent person, and I'd be proud to shake your hand!

#202 ::: Laura Roberts ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2005, 02:48 PM:

The idea that the state, traditionally the arm of justice and law, should take over the church’s work, traditionally that of forgiveness of sins, is a radical idea. And yet almost every source quoted — from Leno here to Schwarzenneger — engaged the idea.

I don't get it. Schwarzenneger said, "We should kill him, because he has not repented." Leaving aside the question of whether that statement is true or moral, what else should the state be saying?

"We should not kill him, because he has repented." That's the state engaging in forgiveness of sin, right?

"He has repented, but we're going to kill him anyway [or alternatively, keep him locked up until he dies], because it's the role of the state to punish crime. Let God sort out the issue of forgiveness."

Am I missing the point?

#203 ::: Xopher (Christopher Hatton) ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2005, 02:52 PM:

Laura, yes, I think so. I think the point was that everyone considered his repentance, or lack of same, relevant to the issue of clemency.

I don't think it is. But that's me.

#204 ::: Xopher (Christopher Hatton) ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2005, 03:03 PM:

Arg. I meant "Sir, you are an excellent person..."

#205 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2005, 03:16 PM:

I wasn't really happy with Ahnold's (apparent) belief that the moral state of a writer can be determined by reading his (or her) book dedications, and if the reader doesn't approve of the dedicatee, then the writer hasn't repented. It seems to depend entirely too much on the state of mind of the reader rather than the writer.

I'm not at all sure that Williams actually committed the crimes he was condemned for: he certainly admitted to other crimes and had nothing more to lose by admitting to these. (The argument that 'he didn't show any remorse for the crime, therefore he should be executed' misses the real possibility that he didn't do it and so has no need to show remorse. But some people can't see that either.)

#206 ::: Laura Roberts ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2005, 03:22 PM:

Xopher: thanks. I'm inclined to agree with you that repentance is not relevant to the issue of clemency. (But what is relevant?)

OTOH, when people come up for parole, is their possible repentance considered? That's another kind of clemency.

#207 ::: Xopher (Christopher Hatton) ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2005, 03:39 PM:

Laura - remember, I'm taking the position that no one should be executed, ever. What I think is relevant is his value to society. I think whether he repented or not, he was more valuable to society alive than dead. But Ahnuld was more interested in appearing tough than in actually benefitting society.

And clemency, in this case, would mean commutation to life without parole. Parole, by contrast, actually lets the convict out of prison. Therefore their repentence IS relevant, because if they repent (i.e. turn from the path that led to their imprisonment), they're actually less likely to do it again. In fact if their repentence is genuine (in the strictest sense of 'repentence') they absolutely won't do it again.

#208 ::: Lizzy L ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2005, 03:47 PM:

I do indeed mean that I see executing an uncurably sick person as more merciful than putting them in prison.

Do you think the sick person would think so? I spend a great deal of my time caring for an incurably sick person who is often in a great deal of pain. She doesn't want to die. I've asked her.

Chris -- I read your blog. You make pretty explicit in it what I am not sure has yet been said here, which is: human lives, hearts, motives, human beings are astonishingly complex and unknowable, at least to us. We can ignore that complexity, and choose to apply law rigidly, or we can acknowledge it and fumble around, trying to understand the motives, drives, etc. behind a specific human act. There will be mistakes made either way.

I didn't look at the Get Religion site. But as someone who brought up redemption, let me say: I don't think the state is in the business of forgiveness of sins, and I agree with Xopher, a murderer's repentance, or lack of it, ain't relevant. (If the Gov of CA really did say he was denying Williams clemency because he had not repented, I'm appalled -- how can he know? But the whole clemency process strikes me as slighly insane.) The question which must be answered, it seems to me, when contemplating killing as a punishment, is: What good is served by killing this human being that could not be equally served by not killing? The state -- as William pointed out -- should protect its citizens. The current position of my church is that in a case where the state can protect its citizens without taking a human life, it should choose that option. It seems to me that in capital murder cases, the state has that option and should take it.

#209 ::: Laura Roberts ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2005, 04:05 PM:

Xopher: well, "value to society" is a bit of a slippery slope. Take someone who's mentally ill or retarded - what's their value to society?

#210 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2005, 04:12 PM:

On the subject of the repentance thing --

One of the most chilling issues to come to light in the British penal system of late, is that prisoners who protest their innocence (a) tend not to get early release or parole, and indeed tend to get treated more harshly than those who "repent" ... and (b) prisoners who really are innocent are much more likely to angrily deny that they committed the crime than those who're guilty. (This surfaced when the court of appeals was handling the backlog of cases referred to it as possible miscarriages of justice, often with new DNA-based supporting evidence.)

In other words, wrongfully imprisoned innocents usually end up receiving harsher treatment than actual criminals.

(For this reason, I think it is quite possible that Tookie Williams was executed precisely because he was innocent of the crime in question.)

#211 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2005, 04:14 PM:

Far too often, I find that those who clamor most loudly for "justice" in the form of an exection or in the form of war or in any form involving the taking of another human life, comes from the mouths of people comfortable in the knowledge that they'll never be the one to push the syringe or pull the trigger. The democratic process can act as an insulating buffer, in an almost obscene, Rube-Goldberg sort of way, between one person's vote and the violent deed it eventually causes. Many would decline to pull the trigger with their own flesh and blood but would gladly push the domino that would fall in sequence to trip the mouse trap to strike the match to light the candle to burn through the rope to cause the weight to fall to pull the trigger.

But that's just me.

#212 ::: bryan ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2005, 04:23 PM:

'is that prisoners who protest their innocence (a) tend not to get early release or parole, and indeed tend to get treated more harshly than those who "repent"'

this is common in U.S systems, at least where parole boards rule, if you don't admit your guilt this shows that you are in denial.

I always just figured it was a power play.

As a general thing the penalties for dragging things to jury trial are often enhanced, given that you have now went ahead and caused the system to lose money.

#213 ::: aboulic ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2005, 04:26 PM:

Hmm, so much to say. I'm probably still going to go on a bit, but I'll try and set my self-editor to maximum.

Firstly, and possibly most importantly, I state for the record that I for one would rather have 'rancid moral idealism' than no moral idealism at all. Any day. As surely as if I was starving, I would choose rancid food over starvation. Just my personal choice.

Not that i think that the notion that killing someone is a thing best avoided was in any way rancid.

On the difference between attitudes to capital punishment in the UK and US:

NelC Wrote: I'd like to think that it's because there's enough institutional memory here in the UK to recall the 18th century when you could be hanged for stealing a loaf of bread.

A thought occurs to me. The 'Hanged for stealing a loaf of bread' era of British 'Justice' rather coincides with the period when Britain was the top-dog global superpower, economical and miltarily untouchable, head and shoulders above any other nation. As a result of this, the British citizens (at least those not of the underclass) of the time delevoped a superiority complex, an attitude of deep 'moral certainty' and moral absolutism which lead to that widespread use of capital punishment. I'm not going to insult anyone's intelligence by pointing out the comparison. But to be on the safe side I'll point out that neither being on the top of the ladder, nor the illusions that come with being on top, last for ever (or even very long in the 'great scheme of history').

Candle wrote: The last man to be hanged in Britain (James Hanratty) was hanged in my home town.
I'm currently sitting about a mile from the police station where the Guildford Four were beaten up (allegedly, supposedly, or insert prefered disclaimer of 'i have no personally observed evidence of this' here). These things do underscore the fallibility of justice systems, don't they.

On other elements of the discussion:

Here's where I stick my neck out and hope that I don't come across as trollish or insulting. I was really hoping that someone more articulate than I would make this point.

Some of what I've read here in support of capital punishment seems to involve trying to calmly and rationally decide who lives and dies. When a person can make a measured decision that the world is better if another person dies (i'm not talking about a split second decision in self defense, or anything like that) isn't the ability to make that decision sociopathic behavior?

And as a system is made up of people, isn't a system that deals out death as the end result of a logical debate a sociopathic system, and normalising sociopathic behavoir?
I'm especially concerned about this when proponents of the death penalty use phrases like "merely is a cry for human compassion."

Parhaps I'm wrong about what constitutes a sociopathic disorder, I'm happy to be corrected if anyone can explain.

On Chris Clarke's post:
I recall reading that post before, and running downstairs saying it was one of the most amazing things I'd ever read. It seems hard to believe it was only in this march (unless I'm misreading the date of the origonal post).

----

I'm sure I'm missing something, so many intriguing ideas to process in this thread.

#214 ::: protected static ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2005, 04:32 PM:

re: sociopathic systems...

Short answer, alas: No.

By definition, sociopathy is flouting societal norms, knowing that what you are doing is completely and utterly wrong and not caring (or being incapable of caring) about societal sanctions. A society can not, then, be sociopathic. It may encourage or otherwise reward sociopathic behavior, but it may not in and of itself be described as sociopathic.

#215 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2005, 04:35 PM:

bryan wrote: "As a general thing the penalties for dragging things to jury trial are often enhanced, given that you have now went ahead and caused the system to lose money."

A judge who presides over murder cases on a regular basis recently informed me that most murder cases go to trial because there is no incentive to plead guilty. You results, depending on what state you live in, may vary.

#216 ::: sennoma ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2005, 04:36 PM:

starting Wellbutrin this week

Feel better, brother. (Paxil is my pal.)

And that'll do for my answer to you too, Laura Roberts. Any more detailed expression of my distaste for what you wrote would get me disemvoweled.

#217 ::: Laura Roberts ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2005, 04:43 PM:

sennoma: what exactly did I say that you don't like?

Although I have no idea what you're referring to, I can say that I am often thoughtless, but in this thread I have not been trying to be deliberately offensive.

#218 ::: Xopher (Christopher Hatton) ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2005, 04:58 PM:

Laura, I think it was the thing about the value to society, or lack of same, of a mentally ill or retarded person.

I suspect sennoma mistakenly believed you were saying their value was low or nil. Actually, of course, you were asking a question that many have debated and that only people severely lacking in "mere human compassion" can answer that way.

I don't think anyone should be killed merely because their value - by what criteria? decided by whom? - is low. In fact I don't think humans should kill each other at all, but my point was, the governor deciding whether to grant clemency might do well to consider whether the best interests of society are better served by the person's life (albeit behind bars) or death at the hands of the state.

I think an honest assessment of Tookie Williams would have led to the former conclusion. I do not thing Ahnuld made any such assessment.

Naturally, if I were the governor of a state with the death penalty, I would commute all the sentences without bothering to review them. That fact alone, not that it is, should absolutely prevent my ever attaining any such position.

#219 ::: aboulic ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2005, 05:00 PM:

I must be confusing my psychological terms. I guess should have wikipediaed, but I thought I was sure of my vocab.

To clarify, when i said Sociopathic, i really meant 'the mental disorder that means a person can't incorporate emotions into their thinking. Is incapable of compassion. Makes decisions on a purely rational basis, ignoring things like dying-is-a-bad-thing. Empathy-impaired'

Parhaps I mean psychopathic. (I almost used that word, but thought it was too provocative and emotive)

I'm sure if I could explain better what I meant, someone here would know the exact word. If anyone has a clue what I'm talking about and can point me in the right direction, please do so. I'm googling for all I'm worth, but nothing I've found so far fits exactly.

#220 ::: Xopher (Christopher Hatton) ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2005, 05:03 PM:

sennoma - to elaborate, Laura said this:

Xopher: well, "value to society" is a bit of a slippery slope. Take someone who's mentally ill or retarded - what's their value to society?
Now it's possible to read that as a rhetorical question, meaning "Well, these people are worthless; if that's your criterion, why not kill them?" But I did not read it that way and I feel certain Laura didn't mean it that way.

Instead, I believe she was pointing out that making "value to society" the criterion for life or death is dangerous precisely because there are people who are capable of that kind of callous, compassion-free judgement. They deserve your contempt. I don't think Laura does; she was cautioning against that very thing.

Laura, please correct me if I am in any way mistaken.

#221 ::: Laura Roberts ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2005, 05:07 PM:

Xopher: that is the only thing I can think of too. You're right - I wasn't clear that I was speaking hypothetically. Under some conditions, some people (I don't mean myself) would argue that a certain person has no value to society. I used the example of the mentally ill, but I was also thinking that non-white people are often perceived as having no value to society.

In fact, in this very thread, the (paraphrased) statement has been made: "Mentally ill people who commit crimes are like rabid animals and should be killed." I wonder why sennoma didn't take issue with that.

#222 ::: sennoma ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2005, 05:11 PM:

I did not read it that way

I did. Laura, your brief comment still seems to me to invite my uncharitable rather than Xopher's charitable reading, but I should have learned by now to give ML commenters (if not people in general!) the benefit of the doubt.

I withdraw my remark in the expectation that Xopher has it exactly right.

#223 ::: Laura Roberts ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2005, 05:12 PM:

Xopher - I was writing at the same time as you. You're absolutely correct - many thanks.

#224 ::: Magenta Griffith ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2005, 05:12 PM:

The upswing in prison population is not just caused by the emptying of mental hospitals, as someone suggested upthread. It is also the "War on Some Drugs" thanks to Reagan. A large percentage of the current prison population is there because of non-violent drug offenses, i.e. possession and "dealing" (which is often possessing more than a very small amount); few are in for serious crimes while under the influence. So-called dealing can get you a longer sentence than rape or burglary. This is fucked up, IMHO. I knew someone who was in prison for three years for getting caught giving a hit of acid to someone, and the DA decided to prosecute.

If we legalized just marijuana, the prison population would drop - and a lot of Wackenhut employees would be out of a job.

#225 ::: Xopher (Christopher Hatton) ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2005, 05:16 PM:

The idea of disemploying Wackenhut workers warms my heart.

#226 ::: Laura Roberts ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2005, 05:25 PM:

sennoma: thank you.


#227 ::: bryan ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2005, 05:25 PM:

'A judge who presides over murder cases on a regular basis recently informed me that most murder cases go to trial because there is no incentive to plead guilty'
well there is no incentive to plead guilty if the prosecutor does not offer a reduced charge of some sort, and if the court will be unwilling to accept that reduced charge. Otherwise there would be an incentive to plead guilty. The same would hold true for any crime.

However in the cases that are not murder and a plea bargain is not accepted, if the trial is lost often the result (basing this one things I've seen, no statistics) seems to be that the judge imposes a higher sentence than that which they would have imposed for a similar charge derived from a plea bargain.

That is to say

if you have a second degree felony pled down from a first.
and a second degree felony not pled down taken to trial.
I have observed imposition of sentence that seemed to me to be higher for the second than was common for the same judge in cases for the first.

Add to that parole board punishment of people haven taken their case to trial and I had the impression of people doing several years more for cases of the second sort.

However, all this is just my own impression, and only pertinent to Utah. I know of no statistics on the matter for the state, or countrywide.

#228 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2005, 05:29 PM:

Hanging as a penalty for relatively minor crimes, such as theft, mostly preceded the Superpower status of Britain. It was moderated first by the availability of Transportation, and then by the changing morality which also led to the abolition of the slave trade. There also developed the idea of the prison as a place to reform the prisoner, rather than just punish him. The number of capital crimes was inflated by sub-division, so that there were at least seven different forms of capital arson. By 1861 the number of capital offences had been reduced from 222 to 4.

No, Victorian English prisons were not fun places. But in some ways they were more civilised than the prisons of a century later. You didn't have to share a cell. You didn't have to "slop out"; at least not at Lincoln Prison. If you could read, there was a copy of the Bible.

The old Lincoln Prison, within the walls of the medieval castle, one corner of the Roman fortress, is a museum now. In the days of public executions, the gallows stood on top of one of the curtain-wall towers, and the corpses were buried wirhin the remains of a Norman shell keep. It's a slightly creepy place.

Incidentally, the last executions in Britain were on the 13th August 1964. Peter Anthony Allen (at Walton Prison Liverpool) and Gwynne Owen Evans - real name John Robson Walby, (at Strangeways Prison Manchester) become the last to be hanged. The executions taking place simultaneously at 8.00 a.m.

#229 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2005, 05:43 PM:

Bryan: In at least one state, murder 1 and 2 have mandatory sentences, life in prison. The only difference is that murder 2 has the possibilty for parole at some point, whereas murder 1 does not. This does not leave a lot of room or incentive to plea bargin for the accused, who might be able to get the whole thing thrown on an unrelated technicality or get a good lawyer or sympathetic jury.

#230 ::: protected static ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2005, 05:52 PM:

aboulic: I am not a psychologist, nor do I play one on TV, but I am married to one... I believe that the preferred term for what you are trying to describe currently goes by 'anti-social personality disorder' - and yes, 'sociopath' was the previously used term.

But again, you're going to wind up with some kind of circular definition by trying to define a society as 'anti-social'. I believe that you could describe a society as being lacking in empathy, or being indifferent to distinctions between right and wrong, but what would 'anti-social' behavior look like in such a society? Communalism? The Shakers? Quakers? What would the ur-anti-social look like?

It probably wouldn't be Ted Bundy...

(Paging Rod Serling, Rod Serling to the courtesy phone...)

#231 ::: protected static ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2005, 05:55 PM:

Magenta: no quibbles from me as to the role of the So-Called War On Drugs in our prison population (though here too you will often find a high percentage of mentally ill individuals getting caught up in drugs in an attempt to self-medicate...).

And the idea of reducing Wackenhut's revenue stream by significant amounts warms my heart as well.

#232 ::: bryan ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2005, 05:58 PM:

I suppose in other states, as well as these differences there is the matter of the death penalty. which may be something of a bargaining point.

#233 ::: Marna ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2005, 05:58 PM:

Jonathan: thank you, kind sir, I blush.

And also, yes, I do indeed vote. I suspect we don't vote in the same nation, but vote I do and have and shall.

Carrie: I confess, if I am understanding you correctly, that is in fact the only thing which gives me pause about being resolutely anti-death penalty -- the fact that there are things really, truly, actually worse than death, and our present solution genuinely might be one such thing.

Yes, we ought to do something about it. But I don't know what either (rather, I do know quite a lot of what, but despair of making it happen) and meanwhile I do remember the smaller but real number of people who have given up their appeals because they truly preferred to die, and it gives me pause. A lot of pause.

Not enough pause to alter my mind, but it does bother me.

#234 ::: Matt Austern ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2005, 05:58 PM:

On the contrary, the situation Greg describes presents tremendous incentive to plea bargain. It's the prosecutor who gets to decide whether to charge the crime as murder 1, murder 2, or something else. Someone accused of a crime with a mandatory sentence of life-without-parole has all the incentive in the world to strike a bargain in exchange for being charged with a crime that doesn't have such a harsh mandatory sentence.

The prisonder has an incentive to bargain, and is in a weak bargaining position. From a prosecutor's position, what's not to like?

#235 ::: Marna ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2005, 06:08 PM:

whups, double post, big thread:

Graydon:

the case of Guy Paul Morin, where it became obvious that much of the problem is not that the police make mistakes, but rather that they frame people as a matter of casual practice.

Also David Milgaard. I don't suppose it's much consolation to either of them that they are probably the two men most responsible for ensuring that the reintroduction of the death penalty is deeply unlikely to be seriously considered while those of us who remember those cases are alive and voting, but I hope it's at least some comfort.

(And the last I heard people had taken to whining that we're having to pay too much restitution and shouldn't they be over it? Dear Gods, if the two of them wish to spend the rest of their lives in luxury on a beach somewhere I'm not at all sure we're not morally on the hook for it. I am sure I'm happy to contribute my mite.)

#236 ::: aboulic ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2005, 06:14 PM:

Dave Bell: Hanging as a penalty for relatively minor crimes, such as theft, mostly preceded the Superpower status of Britain.

I may have been overly optimistic on my dating of Britain's superpower status. There is a fair amount of flexibility on the issue.

It wasn't my intention to claim authoritative knowledge on the start date of british superpowerhood.

I could claim that britain was first a superpower (although probably not the superpower, and certainly superpowerhood would have come and gone at least a couple of times since) in elizabethan times, after the spanish armarda was destroyed and with it the last major threat of military invasion 'til WWII, opening the way for the beginnings of british naval dominance. Or I could make a claim for the first time when britain had finished with wars of succession and civil wars that squandered it's energy and military strength. My knowledge of history is too weak to do more than bluff in sustained debate. I blame being educated under the Thatcher government. They didn't teach us any history other than the industrial revolution (economic might is power, road building beats railways in the long run. this is why I didn't like history at school).

But I'm still glad I raised the general point of; Powerful country=attitude of moral certainty=use of death penalty, country someday becomes less powerful=loss of moral certainty=abolishes death penalty. It was meant as an interesting possible parallel, rather than absolute corolation.

#237 ::: Glen Fisher ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2005, 06:53 PM:

aboulic asked
When a person can make a measured decision that the world is better if another person dies (i'm not talking about a split second decision in self defense, or anything like that) isn't the ability to make that decision sociopathic behavior?

And as a system is made up of people, isn't a system that deals out death as the end result of a logical debate a sociopathic system, and normalising sociopathic behavoir?

and later clarified

[W]hen i said Sociopathic, i really meant 'the mental disorder that means a person can't incorporate emotions into their thinking. Is incapable of compassion. Makes decisions on a purely rational basis, ignoring things like dying-is-a-bad-thing. Empathy-impaired'

For the sake of discussion, let's call the mental disorder "anemotopathy" (no-emotion-sickness). I don't know its real name either; using a newly-minted word should avoid confusion with already-named diseases.

The answer to both your questions is "no", because, in both cases, reason is (in theory) used by choice, not out of an inability to use anything else. The person and society are not incapable of considering emotional factors. They have simply chosen, for reasons they consider good and proper, to limit themselves to strictly rational ones. Since anemotopathy is, as you describe it, the inability to include emotional factors, people merely choosing to exclude them aren't (on that basis, at least) anemotopathic.

By and large, emphasizing reason over emotion has been found (in Western civilization, at least) to work as the basis for legal decision-making. It permits such things as disregarding the skin color or gender of the parties involved, which I suspect everyone here would regard as a Good Thing. Hence, the general inclination to exclude emotional factors is simply people doing What's Worked So Far. (Of course, the widespread use of reason in preference to emotion undoubtedly also has to do with the fact that people seem to find it easier to agree on principles of rational decision-making than they do on the principles of emotional decision-making. How best to include emotional factors is something people tend to get, well, emotional over.)

#238 ::: aboulic ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2005, 07:59 PM:

I finally came up with a lucid-by-my-standards explanation of 'the mentally disordered legal system' thing. I typed it up, explorer crashed and it was lost. I retyped it, upgrading it to actually-almost-coherent in the process. Explorer crashed again, this time my attempts to salvage it took the rest of the pc down with it.

Now, the call of my lonely, lonely bed is too strong. I may rewrite it tomorrow, though even now it fades from my mind.

If i rewite it, it may by then be so devastatingly clear that even the POTUS could understand it. But no, it it folly to think that such clarity of writing is within the grasp of mortal man.

Sorry, I get verbose and whimsical when I'm tired. Did I mention my lonely, lonely bed?

#239 ::: candle ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2005, 08:25 PM:

Incidentally, the last executions in Britain were on the 13th August 1964.

In that case the idea of Hanratty (1961, I think) being the last man to be hanged is simply wrong. My mistake. Sorry.

The British superpower thing needs a bit more analysis, though. The obvious abuses of the death penalty - stealing a loaf of bread, impersonating a Chelsea pensioner etc - were IIRC abolished by Peel in the early 1830s. Admittedly that postdates the Armada, but I'm not sure that a sixteenth-century legal system is a useful comparandum at this point. What is interesting is that it seems to predate the kind of moral certainty which is generally attributed to the Victorians (Victoria does not come to the throne until 1837). And in fact, despite the impression given in Dickens, the Victorians didn't do too badly when it came to arguing for prison reform. We were taught about Elizabeth Fry in school (even under Thatcher!); and John Howard, too (another native of my home town). They also taught us about panopticons. Evidently I went to a very strange school.

So: a superpower incorporating moral certainty and strong religious convictions, often avowedly conservative and certainly controlled by private capitalist interests, once actually led the fight to *improve* conditions for criminals. I think perhaps some of my own categories need revising.

...both Milton and Dante were condemned to death...

Last mention of Bedford by me, I promise, but along with the statue of John Howard we had a statue of John Bunyan, who wrote The Pilgrim's Progress while in Bedford jail. Probably not under sentence of death, admittedly, but then early modern Bedford wasn't modern California.


#240 ::: Robert L ::: (view all by) ::: December 14, 2005, 10:01 PM:

Despite his notoriety, Charles Manson is, IMHO, hardly a poster boy for capital punishment. Although he is not a nice person, is involved with racist gangs, and is most likely a murderer of other people besides the ones he was famously convicted of, his actual involvement in the killing of Sharon Tate et al. by all accounts did not involve doing the actual slaying. He is also very obviously mentally ill. (His lawyer could really have used the John Waters line, "If my client isn't insane, who is?") His conviction was at least partly due to anti-hippie hysteria. There are also a lot of unanswered questions about the whole sad series of occurrences. If he'd had a decent lawyer, and been less self-sabotaging, Manson could've beat the rap or served a lesser sentence.

Tex Watson, the man who did most of the actual killing, who when last heard from was running a prison ministry, is much more a candidate for the put-the-savage-beast-to-death sort of thing. But he's repented, so he says, and is leading an ostensibly Christian life.

Just for the record, I am opposed to the death penalty for a number of reasons.

#241 ::: Ayse Sercan ::: (view all by) ::: December 15, 2005, 12:35 AM:

I think that it's easier to tie the abolition of the death penalty to the rise of industrialization than the forming of superpowered nations. I have no idea why, but I do know the entire rotation of the world changed because of the industrial revolution, and many other social changes came about, as well. The correlation with world domination is much less clear; why didn't it happen in Spain, for example, until well after they were done with being a superpower?

#242 ::: Juliet E McKenna ::: (view all by) ::: December 15, 2005, 06:22 AM:

As far as the British legal establishment is concerned, I am told by a barrister that the majority opinion is against the death penalty. Because there is apparently evidence that more guilty murderers are acquited when juries know that their decision will end in a death, even if they honestly believe it's beyond reasonable doubt. I can't cite any such study as this was just a conversation, but there's a ring of truth to it for me.

Especially after another friend was on the jury for a murder trial - dealing with multiple London gangland axe-murders. The three accused all put up defences of mutual contradiction and counter-accusation. They were convicted, but my pal was honest about her own vote having a definite element of 'fingers crossed, if one of them is innocent at least he might have some chance of appeal.' She would not have voted for conviction knowing the men would hang.

On Tookie Williams, I don't feel qualified to comment. Erwin James, who writes for The Guardian is qualified, being a lifer convicted of murder, now out on licence here in the UK. I would recommend anyone with an interest in penal issues to read his thoughts on this execution as well as his other writings on all aspects of prison life and rehabilitation.

#243 ::: dagny ::: (view all by) ::: December 15, 2005, 07:31 AM:

Xopher, thank you.

#244 ::: Carrie S. ::: (view all by) ::: December 15, 2005, 09:03 AM:

It's working perfectly with Charles Manson and thousands of people like him.

Yeah, for everyone except the people in prison with him, and his guards.

Do you not regard working to fix the (incredibly broken) healthcare and mental-heathcare structures, so that the "rabid" may be treated before we give up all hope and kill them, as a better alternative?

I do; the next question is "What do we do till we have this better system?"

...those most "gone" into mental illness will often admit to (or finger someone else suggested to them for) almost any heinous crime that is put before them?

I would hope that there would have to be physical evidence. I am aware of the phenomenon of false confession, if that's what you mean.

are you willing to also accept the karma of having the state kill innocents in your name, in order to be sure the Mansons are killed?

I have to be, don't I, in order to be making this argument at all. If innocent people are killed, and I know that they are, that is bad. Every possible thing not only should but must be done to prevent that. And then we have to take a deep breath and accept that we're human, that mistakes can be made, and that we have to take responsibility for them.

I am not going to get into my opinion of people who won't take such responsibility--the people who think the death penalty is great all the time but that they themselves are not culpable for the mistakes.

And, sorry, but I'm left gasping at the breath-taking moral arrogance that assumes that, even if we were killing only the guilty, or sincerely believed that we were, killing a mentally ill person whom we had previously not provided proper care because, without proper care, their illness played itself out in a truly horrific way, is adequately and appropriately described as "putting them out of their misery" and morally as acceptable as doing the same to a severely injured or incurably ill dog or cat.

I wonder what part it is of being so ill that one can't help but kill people in horrible ways that you think of as not miserable.

I'm only trying to be clear about what you think, because I still can't see that you are really distinguishing between the (practical) argument from convenience (it's the best option available at the moment in certain extreme circumstances) and the (moral) argument from necessity (there will never be a better option).

I didn't say there will never be a better option; I said that we don't currently have one, and that even if we're going to be getting one in the future we have to do something in the meantime.

I really don't know whether this argument is supposed to be moral or practical anymore.

Do you think the sick person would think so? I spend a great deal of my time caring for an incurably sick person who is often in a great deal of pain. She doesn't want to die. I've asked her.

Asking presumes that the person asked is lucid enough to respond. In your case, that's clearly true. But since my opinion has nothing whatsoever to do with people who are physically ill, or the mentally ill who have not repeatedly proven themselves to be a danger, I fail to see how it is relevant.

I confess, if I am understanding you correctly, that is in fact the only thing which gives me pause about being resolutely anti-death penalty -- the fact that there are things really, truly, actually worse than death, and our present solution genuinely might be one such thing.

Yeah, there's that. We take sick people and put them in an environment in which the best possible outcome is that they won't get much worse, and then sit back and pat ourselves on the head for not killing them cleanly and quickly? Nope. I'm not going to buy into that one.

Despite his notoriety, Charles Manson is, IMHO, hardly a poster boy for capital punishment.

He was, really, just the first example that sprang to mind: he's clearly ill, not getting any better, and is a danger to anyone around him (such as fellow prisoners and guards).

I'm kind of disapointed, by the way, that no one's taken me up on the question of what such a person would be like if they could be cured. I obviously can't say for certain, but I don't know that I'd be able to live with myself.

#245 ::: Francis ::: (view all by) ::: December 15, 2005, 10:11 AM:

Candle, I've got a simple litmus test for ideologies before I am prepared to give their proponents much respect. That litmus test is one of self-interest.

If the ideology is one by which the holder profits (or thinks he profits) at the expense of others or it is a justification as to why a status quo that would favour the holder is right, I'm automatically sceptical.

The proof of the pudding, however, comes when ideology conflicts with interest. I have very little respect for ideologies that fail the first half that are not carried through when it becomes hard. I can't really think of a time America's done this since the Marshall Plan (but then my knowledge of late 20th Century American history is shaky). Early 19th Century Britain passed with flying colours - the abolition of slavery took a lot of trade out of our traders.

#246 ::: bryan ::: (view all by) ::: December 15, 2005, 10:12 AM:

" he's clearly ill, not getting any better, and is a danger to anyone around him (such as fellow prisoners and guards)."

no, he's a whiny little punk who needs to be kept seperate from the rest of the population for his safety.

"And then we have to take a deep breath and accept that we're human, that mistakes can be made, and that we have to take responsibility for them."

sounds Great! uh, what exactly does this taking responsibility thing entail. saying sorry? what?
looking all weepy on tv and talking about how mistakes were made in a nice suit, then saluting the flag and vowing to do better next time as the polls skyrocket? I am really interested in what taking responsibility will mean.

#247 ::: bryan ::: (view all by) ::: December 15, 2005, 10:15 AM:

"Because there is apparently evidence that more guilty murderers are acquited when juries know that their decision will end in a death, even if they honestly believe it's beyond reasonable doubt."

I am not of the opinion that this will be the case in the U.S

#248 ::: Robert L ::: (view all by) ::: December 15, 2005, 10:56 AM:

Carrie S> He was, really, just the first example that sprang to mind: he's clearly ill, not getting any better, and is a danger to anyone around him (such as fellow prisoners and guards).

Well, Manson has been in prison this time around for about 35 years. He is 71 years old. During those 35 years, I know of no violent acts he's committed against inmates or guards. (If you know of any I'd be interested to hear of them.) He did get in a fight with another prisoner at one point. They were working side by side; the other guy kept chanting "Hare Krishna" and Manson told him to shut up. (Here, I have to confess I'm somewhat in sympathy with Charlie.) The other prisoner poured flammable liquid on Manson and set him on fire, badly burning him.

Anything is possible, but he hasn't really demonstrated much in the way of menace since he's been incarcerated this time around. And if by age 71 he hasn't, I don't see it happening anytime soon.

#249 ::: Xopher (Christopher Hatton) ::: (view all by) ::: December 15, 2005, 10:58 AM:

bryan, the pro-death penalty pols in Texas ARE of that opinion: they've made it illegal for a defense attorney to tell a jury that the death penalty is on the table.

This is the slimiest sort of manipulative monstrosity. But it shows what they believe.

#250 ::: Robert L ::: (view all by) ::: December 15, 2005, 11:00 AM:

Woops, last part of my comment got eaten, but I recovered it. Cont'd:

Manson has recorded a number of record albums on equipment smuggled to him by sympathetic fans of his music. He knits scorpion dolls out of the yarn from unraveled socks. He writes poetry. At least some guards seem to like him. I agree that he's a danger to society and shouldn't be walking around. But as I say, if you're looking for a mad-dog killer, there are plenty of better candidates.

What would he look like rehabilitated or "cured"? A tough question, because in fact Manson takes a (for lack of a better word) radical oppositional stance to much of modern society. Would it be possible for him to be a law-abiding revolutionary philosopher, a sort of field-hippie Herbert Marcuse? Or an ex-con Neil Young? Somehow I can't picture it. In a sense, Manson is "cured"; he's thoroughly institutionalized where he really wants to be, since he's spent the majority of his life in prison. He more or less quietly serves his time.

#251 ::: bryan ::: (view all by) ::: December 15, 2005, 11:01 AM:

well I guess the desensitizing of the public has not been succesful yet.

#252 ::: Xopher (Christopher Hatton) ::: (view all by) ::: December 15, 2005, 11:30 AM:

the other guy kept chanting "Hare Krishna" and...poured flammable liquid on Manson and set him on fire, badly burning him.

Bloody dangerous, those Krishna Consciousness types!

Why the hell was flammable liquid anywhere near either of these loonies?

#253 ::: Lenora Rose ::: (view all by) ::: December 15, 2005, 12:00 PM:

Robert L: I'll quote one of Carrie S's own earlier posts (Not because she can't speak for herself, but just as a matter of note.)

From Carrie S, December 13, 12:16PM: "Manson [had a parole hearing in 2002 and] was denied early release...due to a "litany" of offenses ranging from drug trafficking to arson to assaulting guards." Earlier in his life, he was in prison and raped another prisoner at knifepoint. (This from the Wikipedia article on the subject, which is obviously not authoritative but appears to be corroborated by other sources.)

FWIW, I checked Wikipedia myself, and there's a lot more than that on the matter. No, poetry and music aside, Charles Manson is not sitting quietly in his cell or acting as a model prisoner or doing no harm.

(As for the guards liking him, the man is supposed to be charismatic in spite of and in addition to being insane.)

(I'm against the death penalty, but also against any research so sloppy *I* can make it look bad, because I know how sloppy my research skills are.)

#254 ::: alsafi ::: (view all by) ::: December 15, 2005, 12:11 PM:

This:
I do; the next question is "What do we do till we have this better system?"

And this:
If innocent people are killed, and I know that they are, that is bad. Every possible thing not only should but must be done to prevent that. And then we have to take a deep breath and accept that we're human, that mistakes can be made, and that we have to take responsibility for them.

Seem to be the crux of where we differ, then. I would say that the only responsible thing we can do, while trying to improve the system, is at least make sure we aren't murdering any more innocents. Let me reiterate that, to underscore: the least we can do is not make the mistake in the first place, by abolishing the death penalty until such time as we can be sure that we're able to apply it better. (I happen to think that time will never come, but that's me.)

Because your willingness (or anyone else's, for that matter) to "take responsibility" for the murder of an innocent person functionally makes you no different from the very same murderers you have declared to be other than human. It doesn't bring the innocent person back from the dead--it compensates them in no way for what has been done; it can't. They're dead.

In fact, by this point, you have responsibility for more innocent deaths than the most ambitious and depraved serial killer. And no one but you and your god(s) (if any) know whether your remorse is real or feigned. Should you not yourself be hanged?

#255 ::: Lexica ::: (view all by) ::: December 15, 2005, 12:12 PM:

"Because there is apparently evidence that more guilty murderers are acquited when juries know that their decision will end in a death, even if they honestly believe it's beyond reasonable doubt."

I am not of the opinion that this will be the case in the U.S

We already have evidence that it isn't the case. From The Death Penalty's Other Victims on deathpenaltyinfo.org:
"In a 1968 landmark study, Hans Zeisel, a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley, found that death-qualifying juries led to an 80 % increase in the conviction rate.... Prosecutors know that death-qualifying a jury is a great way to help ensure a conviction. That, say experts, is one reason why many of them -- particularly in jurisdictions with high death-penalty rates like Texas, Florida, Illinois, Virginia, California and Pennsylvania -- deliberately overcharge in murder cases even where they know the death penalty is not appropriate or likely."

#256 ::: Lis Carey ::: (view all by) ::: December 15, 2005, 12:31 PM:

I have to be, don't I, in order to be making this argument at all. If innocent people are killed, and I know that they are, that is bad. Every possible thing not only should but must be done to prevent that. And then we have to take a deep breath and accept that we're human, that mistakes can be made, and that we have to take responsibility for them.

And what would that look like, "taking responsibility" for having executed an innocent person because you really, truly, completely sure that they one of those who needed to "be put out of their misery" because of t/h/e/i/r/ someone else's heinous acts? Wearing sackcloth and ashes? Feeling really bad? Paying substantial monetary reparations to the family of the innocent who was executed? Saying "you can't make an omelet without breaking eggs?

Yes, Carrie, we DO need to accept the fact that we're fallible, and we need to accept moral responsibility for the decisions we choose to make knowing we're fallible. And that means there are some things that, if you do them, you HAVE to be right. You can't excuse yourself by saying, oh, gee, we were so sure... Knowingly choosing to kill a human being, when that human being is not an immediate threat to you or anyone else, and there are other options available to you for minimizing the potential future danger you believe this person represents, because you have decided that they need to be "put out of their misery"--that's one of those things. If you're right, well and good. But if you're wrong, you cannot escape moral responsibility for your act--and saying that you "accept responsibility for it" is not good enough.

And, sorry, but I'm left gasping at the breath-taking moral arrogance that assumes that, even if we were killing only the guilty, or sincerely believed that we were, killing a mentally ill person whom we had previously not provided proper care because, without proper care, their illness played itself out in a truly horrific way, is adequately and appropriately described as "putting them out of their misery" and morally as acceptable as doing the same to a severely injured or incurably ill dog or cat.

I wonder what part it is of being so ill that one can't help but kill people in horrible ways that you think of as not miserable.

It's not that they're not miserable, Carrie; it's that they're not dogs or cats. I'm truly saddened that that point wasn't obvious to you.

#257 ::: Lizzy L ::: (view all by) ::: December 15, 2005, 12:32 PM:

Carrie, thank you for your reply.
I said: Do you think the sick person would think so? I spend a great deal of my time caring for an incurably sick person who is often in a great deal of pain. She doesn't want to die. I've asked her.

You answered: Asking presumes that the person asked is lucid enough to respond. In your case, that's clearly true. But since my opinion has nothing whatsoever to do with people who are physically ill, or the mentally ill who have not repeatedly proven themselves to be a danger, I fail to see how it is relevant.

Comment 1: I don't feel comfortable drawing a line between the physically ill and the mentally ill, as you seem to do here. What we call "mental" illness often has a physical determinant. Would you feel differently about Charles Manson if you knew that he had an inoperable brain tumor?

Comment 2: I was reacting to your use of the word "mercy." In my understanding, it means "kind and compassionate treatment." I think that before you decide to kill someone who is in pain, before you can call it "merciful" you have to ask them if they would consider it a kindness. Unless you are actually saying that it is simply better for society not to have to deal with murderers, rapists, child molesters as living beings, which you may indeed be saying (and which I might dispute, see Comment 3)-- but such a statement has nothing to do with mercy.

Comment 3: the measure of a moral society is how it deals with the hardest cases. Murderers, rapists, child molesters -- are these not the hard cases? You say, somewhere, that we don't have any better options. I think we do and have, for bad and ultimately indefensible reasons, chosen not to implement them.

#258 ::: Lizzy L ::: (view all by) ::: December 15, 2005, 12:44 PM:

Comment 4(See prior post): Lis said it: human beings are not cats or dogs. Even human monsters are human, although they are also monsters. I have no doubt that they cannot be "rehabilitated" and they should never be let out or trusted. But we don't have to kill them to protect ourselves. And if we don't -- why should we?

#259 ::: bryan ::: (view all by) ::: December 15, 2005, 01:45 PM:

My only point about whether life imprisonment or the death penalty is more effective is to urge that
we kill charles manson now before he escapes again.

#260 ::: ElizabethVomMarlowe ::: (view all by) ::: December 15, 2005, 02:08 PM:

Carrie said:
"I wonder what part it is of being so ill that one can't help but kill people in horrible ways that you think of as not miserable."

Well my goodness. Let's take your ailing dog idea to its logical conclusion. Extreme arthritis can and does cause even-tempered dogs to become aggressive; it's incurable; it's miserably painful. The solution for a dog who is incurable, in pain, aggressive could be death. It could also be lots and lots and lots of Rimadyl, as thousands of dog owners around the country know only too well. Can Rimadyl shorten lifespans? Of course. So what? There's still no need for the big sleep for a good long while.

Following this model, let's take the mentally ill person who is so miserable and just chuck them in a solitary cell and pump them full of jolly juice until such time as we discover effective and humane ways to deal with their violent urges. Why not try this? It's not like we don't have a full supply of phramaceutical misery crushers at our disposal. Jeez.

Seems to me if we're going to radically overhaul the way we deal with those people who are criminals due to mental illness, it'd be a sight better than taking them out back and shooting them.

#261 ::: Barry@yahoo.com ::: (view all by) ::: December 15, 2005, 02:22 PM:

Carrie:

"And that's precisely the problem--what do we do with the unfortunate insane until a better system comes along?"

Well, step 1 is to be very, very careful not to be blackmailed by the present system.

Frank:

"One possible advantage of the death penalty is the additional scrutiny it brings to the criminal justice system."

IMHO, it tends to be a little scrutiny, which doesn't last long. Almost on a par with somebody being shocked at a botched hanging, and raising humanitarian funds to better train hangmen.

#262 ::: Jonathan Shaw ::: (view all by) ::: December 15, 2005, 02:31 PM:

On Carrie's question of what life would be like if the perpetrator of hideous crimes were to genuinely repent/recover: Cries Unheard, Gitta Sereny's book about Mary Bell the notorious child murderer (ie as a child she murdered two children) doesn't answer the question, but it's a profound exploration of the humanity of someone who has endured and perpetrated appalling things.

#263 ::: candle ::: (view all by) ::: December 15, 2005, 03:09 PM:

I didn't say there will never be a better option; I said that we don't currently have one, and that even if we're going to be getting one in the future we have to do something in the meantime.

Thanks - in my book, that's a practical argument, and as I read it the point of the quoted comment from Jon Carroll was to separate the practical and the moral arguments (admittedly aiming at a different point). Personally, my position is that *even though* prisons as they currently exist are far from an ideal solution, whether for serial killers or for cannabis dealers, the death penalty is a moral step beyond even that.

But we can disagree on morality, and I hardly think Carrie is being so reprehensible in this matter as most of the people out there (and some in here, such as William Lexner - remember?). I think it is understandable to argue that a tiny minority of people - Ted Bundy - effectively forfeit their humanity through their actions. I don't think I agree, but I've never had to deal with the question directly. It is hard work to keep seeing the humanity in a serial killer.

My worry, ironically, is a practical one. I know Carrie would accept a better prison system than the one currently in place; but support for the death penalty - even only in rare cases - in the meantime still ends up perpetuating the system. If it were not possible to deal with criminals through the death penalty there would surely be more of an incentive to clean up the prisons.

You can accept the death penalty and work hard to find a better replacement, but you have to do both (or you are indistinguishable from any old supporter of the death penalty). And even then, the two things seem to me to pull in opposite directions. To some extent, accepting the death penalty at all only helps to keep prisoners in their crowded cells and wardens in danger.

It's like treating a broken bone with aspirin: it deals with the symptom and not the cause. And it does it by killing people who might otherwise have lived a wretched life in prison, but a life.

#264 ::: candle ::: (view all by) ::: December 15, 2005, 03:15 PM:

Well, step 1 is to be very, very careful not to be blackmailed by the present system.

Damn, that's exactly what I was (ineptly) trying to say.

I feel obliged to defend Carrie, again, from what people seem to have taken to be a claim that the mentally ill should be given euthanasia. Her point, as I understand it, is that some crimes, or rather the people who commit them, are so far beyond the pale of what we consider human that the death penalty is at present an acceptable solution. I don't think I agree, but it's not exactly a hate-crimes manifesto.

Sorry for the double post.

#265 ::: Xopher (Christopher Hatton) ::: (view all by) ::: December 15, 2005, 03:18 PM:

Damn, that's exactly what I was (ineptly) trying to say.

I think you meant to put 'eloquently' in your parentheses...that's what I think, anyway. Barry did say what you were saying, but you made it much clearer, for my money. Barry's has the advantage of pithyness, but yours was FAR from inept IMHO.

And that's not a double post. You were clarifying, not duplicating.

#266 ::: Carrie S. ::: (view all by) ::: December 15, 2005, 03:32 PM:

sounds Great! uh, what exactly does this taking responsibility thing entail. saying sorry? what?
looking all weepy on tv and talking about how mistakes were made in a nice suit, then saluting the flag and vowing to do better next time as the polls skyrocket? I am really interested in what taking responsibility will mean.

It means being aware that it's my fault, paying reparations to the families of innocent people, and doing everything possible to ensure that miscarriages of justice don't happen. And when I fail, realizing that I am just as guilty as the jury who convicted the person and the executioner who killed him.

It's not that they're not miserable, Carrie; it's that they're not dogs or cats. I'm truly saddened that that point wasn't obvious to you.

First of all, I'll thank you not to condescend to me.

Secondly, why exactly is it that we're permitted to extend to an animal a mercy that we cannot extend to a human? I can't imagine it's pleasant to live in the head of a serial killer.

In fact, by this point, you have responsibility for more innocent deaths than the most ambitious and depraved serial killer. And no one but you and your god(s) (if any) know whether your remorse is real or feigned. Should you not yourself be hanged?

Of all the things I expected from the denizens of this board, straw men were not among them.

On the off-chance that this is a mistake rather than a rhetorical device, there's a rather clear difference--to my mind, at least--between illness-driven atrocity and well-intentioned miscarriage of justice. Must I reiterate again that execution ought to be reserved for the very worst of people, those who are incurably insane and have been proven, using every art and device at our disposal, to have committed repeated acts that no sane person could bring themselves to?

That is, no, the gang leader whose execution started this whole mess should not have been executed. For that matter, any insane person who can be medicated to such a point that he's not dangerous should not be executed.

The problem is that the state seems unwilling to treat such people as they need to be treated, thus dooming them to lives in which they can't get better, can keep injuring people, and are themselves tormented by the craziness in their heads. How is this better? I'm right with you all that it's a failure of the state, and that things need to be improved, but they aren't improved right now.

I don't feel comfortable drawing a line between the physically ill and the mentally ill, as you seem to do here.

Since I only mentioned physical illness at all because you brought up a terminally ill person, I don't feel this is a germane point--I am aware that mental illness often has a physical component, but you were talking about a physically ill person who doesn't wish to die despite great pain.

Would you feel differently about Charles Manson if you knew that he had an inoperable brain tumor?

Depends--would removing the tumor make him sane? If yes, then yes; he ought to receive the surgery, or be kept harmless till the technology to cure him is available. If not, no.

Let's take your ailing dog idea to its logical conclusion. Extreme arthritis can and does cause even-tempered dogs to become aggressive; it's incurable; it's miserably painful. The solution for a dog who is incurable, in pain, aggressive could be death. It could also be lots and lots and lots of Rimadyl, as thousands of dog owners around the country know only too well. Can Rimadyl shorten lifespans? Of course. So what? There's still no need for the big sleep for a good long while.

I can tell by now that it's going to do me no good to point out that a dog snapping in pain is hardly on the same level as rape, torture and murder. And if you'll note, I have not yet disagreed that those who can be medicated should be. Most of them aren't.

Following this model, let's take the mentally ill person who is so miserable and just chuck them in a solitary cell and pump them full of jolly juice until such time as we discover effective and humane ways to deal with their violent urges. Why not try this?/I>

Yes! Let's! Let me know when they actually start doing that, rather than giving the insane person just enough meds to keep them mostly quiet.

You all keep talking to me as if I'd said capital punishment were a good thing. It's not; it's really really really not. It's just better than letting dangerous, miserable people sit in prison getting worse and threatening those around them.

Well, step 1 is to be very, very careful not to be blackmailed by the present system.

I'm sorry, I understand just enough of what you meant to be intrigued, but not enough to actually get it. :) Could you elaborate?

#267 ::: Carrie S. ::: (view all by) ::: December 15, 2005, 03:57 PM:

I know Carrie would accept a better prison system than the one currently in place

Thank you, candle. If I'd realized I was being quite that obscure, I would have done my thinking over before I started posting. I'd never make a debater, as I'm no good at thinking up my opponent's counterarguments before they're presented to me.

I feel obliged to defend Carrie, again, from what people seem to have taken to be a claim that the mentally ill should be given euthanasia.

Dear lord, did it really look like I said that? I mean, I think it is euthanasia, in that they are being kept from the horrors of living in their own heads, but that's a side effect.

Let me go on the record as saying that if I should become incurably, unmedicably, dangerously insane I would very much appreciate it if I were executed rather than imprisoned. Hopefully my next incarnation will be put under less stress.

Her point, as I understand it, is that some crimes, or rather the people who commit them, are so far beyond the pale of what we consider human that the death penalty is at present an acceptable solution.

Yes, thank you.

...

...

...oh, geez, I just realized what the problem is. You all think I support the death penalty as it currently works. Which, well, no. My proposed system is about as much of a pie in the sky as the system where we take the dangerously insane and give them the care they really need.

#268 ::: Xopher (Christopher Hatton) ::: (view all by) ::: December 15, 2005, 04:02 PM:

Carrie, candle's last post but one is, among other things, an exegesis of Barry's statement. That is, if the current system is "acceptable until we get something better," we'll never get something better.

I think my fundamental point of disagreement with you is small: I think prisons are adequate to keep us safe from the murderers who've been caught. If prisons are unsafe because of the presence of such people, we should fix the prisons, and until then we should deal with the safety issue, not kill them. You don't believe either of these things.

I expect that's because I rate killing a human being (albeit a "monstrous" one) as a larger evil than you do. Also, it's not administered fairly by race, which should (IMO) be enough to abolish it if people were sane and of good will, which of course they aren't.

#269 ::: Xopher (Christopher Hatton) ::: (view all by) ::: December 15, 2005, 04:04 PM:

And of course, you posted while I was writing! We disagree less than I thought.

#270 ::: Lizzy L ::: (view all by) ::: December 15, 2005, 04:08 PM:

Carrie, thank you. I did think you were expressing support for the present system, and additionally you seemed a bit quick to suggest that killing people was a solution to something. Evidently I was not reading sensitively enough. Sorry. I think we will have to agree to disagree. I appreciate everyone's willingness to stay connected until we reached at least that level of clarity :-)

#271 ::: alsafi ::: (view all by) ::: December 15, 2005, 04:15 PM:

Carrie S.: Forgive me--it was not meant as a rhetorical exercise. I read your statement of taking responsibility for the death of innocent people (in the context of the current judicial system, too often the willful murder of people pretty generally suspected to be innocent) from a different angle, and was trying to make a point about empathy as opposed to othering. I'm afraid I also conflated some earlier points about repentance and redemption into it.

I still don't really get it, though. I honestly don't see that a clear, bright line can be obviously drawn between being so alien to humanity as to calmly admit to the rape, torture, and murder of other human beings, and being (what I see as) so alien to humanity as to calmly take responsibility for the premeditated, agonizing murder of persons found later to be innocent with something as, to my mind, inadequate as suggestions of remorse and reparations.

But then, I went from supportive to appalled when I learned just how many innocent people I am responsible for having executed, so from my perspective, "taking responsibility" means "opposing the death penalty." To me, that's the only way to truly take responsibility for such a thing--to feel remorse about it and to not do it again.

I don't really trust anyone, myself included, to draw the line of who deserves death, either. Maybe because the Jonesboro case happening just down the road a piece from me while I was in highschool gave me a really raw look at how fast that line moves from "just the ones so sick as to torture/murder/rape/etc..." to "just those too developmentally disabled to mount an effective defense," to "just the ones so sick as to be pagans when all the rest of us are Christians, so we don't feel bad about convicting them" and on down that slippery slope.

#272 ::: alsafi ::: (view all by) ::: December 15, 2005, 04:19 PM:

Augh. And then I see what everyone posted while I was writing, and all I have to say is: what Lizzy L said.

#273 ::: Renee ::: (view all by) ::: December 15, 2005, 05:16 PM:

Reading the conversation between Carrie S. and those questioning her statements, I'm reminded that I didn't list one of my central reasons for my opposition to the death penalty in my earlier post. I don't know why I omitted it; maybe it was just too personal.

I can imagine no worse torment than to want life and to have it taken away, as in murder, save to appeal to society itself and have it tell me I am not fit to live ... because it has decided I have done a thing, which I know I have not. I might escape a serial killer who attacked me, prevailing against all odds, but how to defend myself against the depredations of the well-meaning and the morally certain? There would be years of hoping, agonizing, praying for rescue that never came.

The worst of killers don't string their victims along for so long. Only a death-penalty society can--or does.

To say, "It is appropriate to kill human monsters to stop their depredations," is one thing. To say, "It is appropriate to kill human monsters to stop their depredations even if non-monstrous humans also die sometimes," is something I find monstrous in its own right. But then, I believe in the saying, "Better that ten guilty men go free than one innocent man languish under the law."

I'd walk away from Omelas and I'd never look back. YMMV.

#274 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: December 15, 2005, 05:18 PM:

Ladies and gentlemen,

This thread is a beautiful example of the difference between argument (in the sense of "debate") and trolling. Kudos to Carrie for not taking some fairly confrontational posings badly, and to all who have been making allowances for the various interpretations of her comments.

Were I a judge of these things, I would award many of you Extra Vowels. It is therefore perhaps a good thing that I am not.

#275 ::: Xopher (Christopher Hatton) ::: (view all by) ::: December 15, 2005, 05:52 PM:

LMAO, abi!!!

And I agree with you, buut eexetera vooweeles aare juuset aas haared tooo reade aas diiseemevooweeleede teexet.

Or nearly.

#276 ::: Xopher (Christopher Hatton) ::: (view all by) ::: December 15, 2005, 05:54 PM:

That should have been 'teexet wiitehe eexetera vooweeles' above. Darn.

#277 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: December 15, 2005, 06:06 PM:

Xopher,

You sound like Mrs Which from A Wrinkle in Time.

And "posings" should have been "postings", unless we are all back in the 1980's and trying to Vogue.

#278 ::: Robert L ::: (view all by) ::: December 15, 2005, 06:27 PM:

Lenora: OK, I stand corrected, though his assaults seem to be mainly spitting and throwing hot coffee at the guards (this last, I recognize, can indeed be extremely harmful to the victim; I don't know what the story is in this case). There aren't enough specifics on the other charges. Look, don't get me wrong, I'm not saying the guy is in any way a model human being. Leaving aside the Tate/LaBianca murders, he shot Bernard Crowe in the chest and left him for dead. He probably directly participated in the murder of Shorty Shea. He frequently makes death threats. I would never argue that he belongs anywhere but in some sort of confinement.

But how much of what he does these days is really dangerous behavior, and how much of it is the impotent grandstanding of an old man? At his parole hearings, which are joke because everyone knows he isn't going anywhere, officials say he's "one of the most dangerous" prisoners in the California system. Hooey. He may be still violent, but he's more just a crazy man who doesn't give a damn. Why should he? What are they going to do, lock him up?

All right, he's not going quietly, but in the violent world he lives in, I'm not so surprised. There's a lot of hype around him, though. Richard Ramirez, Randy Kraft...these are truly vicious, violent people.

Also, while I'm on the subject, someone should give him a guitar and let him record. Any money he makes goes straight to Voytek Frykowski's son, due to a lawsuit, so it would only be to the good.

#279 ::: Sandy ::: (view all by) ::: December 15, 2005, 06:31 PM:

I disagree with the death penalty, as I have said above. However, there are some arguments against it being made here that I am not sure are valid. ("Executing the innocent", by itself, is strong enough for me; other arguments, while often valid, seem. . . superfluous.)

There seems to be a creeping assumption- I may be misreading the thread- that ALL people who do horrible acts, worthy of a hypothetical death penalty, are insane. I don't think I can support this way of thinking.

The legal definition of "insane" is "unable to tell the difference between right and wrong." Any other definition of insanity, as used by the law, would have to be carefully, carefully considered.

1. I have known people with very weird thought processes; I call some of them friends.

2. "This behaviour defines you as insane" may be a slippery slope. I believe the Soviets defined dissent as insanity- although I must confess some ignorance; I got my information from Tom Stoppard's Every Good Boy Deserves Favour rather than, say, reading Alexander Solz. . .sol. . . Solzhenitsyn (Thank you, Amazon!)

Am I misreading people's arguments?

#280 ::: Xopher (Christopher Hatton) ::: (view all by) ::: December 15, 2005, 06:35 PM:

Well...the guy who was posing left. But yeah, I see your point.

#281 ::: Lizzy L ::: (view all by) ::: December 15, 2005, 07:34 PM:

Sandy: there may be some people on the thread who would say that all people who commit horrible crimes are insane; I think most of us would not say anything like that. I don't know if those who were, were using the "legal" definition of insane. I don't think anyone was saying People who commit horrible crimes are insane, insane equals weird-thought-processes, all people with weird thought processes are capable of committing horrible crimes.

I think this may be a whole other thread. Interesting.

#282 ::: candle ::: (view all by) ::: December 15, 2005, 07:52 PM:

I think you meant to put 'eloquently' in your parentheses

Thank you. It doesn't feel like that when it's being written, though. And don't bank on it ever happening again. Anyway:

Dear lord, did it really look like I said that?

Well, not to me, but that seemed to be the position that (some) people were attacking. The whole thing just got a bit out of hand, I suspect, meaning that tracing the arguments back to their source got incredibly complicated.

I'm sorry, I understand just enough of what you meant to be intrigued, but not enough to actually get it. :) Could you elaborate?

If that was to me rather than Barry - well, I don't know if I can say anything more than I did before. (And of course Xopher's praise has made me reluctant to try...) I think the point is that it is a very easy, and sometimes imperceptible, step from supporting the death penalty *just for the moment* to just supporting it. Neither of these is an illegitimate position, although I'm not keen on either of them; but it's hard to stop the first from sliding into the second.

Barry may have meant something slightly different, of course, and I can't speak for him. But you don't support the present system, and it seems to me odd that you want to argue for a move towards an execute-madmen-only system rather than a keep-madmen-from-doing-harm system. I suppose the first is more likely to come about than the second, but not by much.

Join us! Really, we're all on the same side! :)

There seems to be a creeping assumption- I may be misreading the thread- that ALL people who do horrible acts, worthy of a hypothetical death penalty, are insane.

I think - I hope - you are misreading the thread here. The argument, which AFAIR only Carrie has actually made, was more that ALL people who do horrible acts which might reasonably lead them to be judged *so insane as to be beyond all help* might be worthy of a hypothetical death penalty. It leaves open the question of how you prove that someone is insane, but Manson and Bundy are good test cases for thinking with.

Of course, it's perfectly possible to argue that 'insane' is a category constructed by society, but that doesn't invalidate it. If there aren't any boundaries to socially acceptable behaviour then there isn't any society in the first place. There is still plenty of room to debate who is insane, and which of the insane (if any) merit death, and in what circumstances any such decision can safely be made.

"Executing the innocent", by itself, is strong enough for me

Yeah, but the Jon Carroll quote was intentionally taking that issue away from the debate and seeing if there was a separate moral issue too. I think there is, and I don't think it's superfluous, but I can't really explain why.

All I can think is that it would seem odd to be opposed to murder, for example, only for practical reasons. It's the question from Plato's Republic on the nature of justice: even if you could commit a crime and you knew you would never be caught, would it still be wrong?

#283 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: December 15, 2005, 08:43 PM:

I see here a vindication of a worldview I have. Not about capital punishment, but about debate. I think it works. The latter, not the former.

#284 ::: Frank ::: (view all by) ::: December 15, 2005, 09:47 PM:

Barry- You say that I am being blackmailed by the current system, and maybe you are right. Maybe I hang out with a bad crowd too, but most of the discussions about the criminal justice system that I see or hear involve as their main component jokes about anal sex, homosexual rape, or sexual slavery. At least the death penalty makes some people take justice seriously.

#285 ::: Sandy ::: (view all by) ::: December 16, 2005, 11:12 AM:

candle: I gave this some thought. If I were arguing pro-death-penalty, I'd MUCH rather argue Death Penalty In Utopia than Death Penalty In Texas, and I'd hope that people carelessly applied the DPIU results to DPIT.

It's a death penalty debate where one side is dramatically handicapped- in the racing sense.

It is a more interesting debate, because of the handicapping, but I hate giving up such a powerful argument for nothin'.

I suppose if you have an individual case where someone is clearly guilty and sane- I don't know, Albert Anastasia or someone- it pays to think through your alternate arguments. Like "it is unnecessary" or "it increases crime" or "Thou shalt not kill."

I remember reading (good story, could be true) that Connecticut's death penalty law was seen as a victory by anti-death-penalty people, who believed that nobody could meet all those criteria and be sane. It took something like 11 months for someone to qualify.

#286 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: December 16, 2005, 11:29 AM:

Matt wrote: "the situation Greg describes presents tremendous incentive to plea bargain. It's the prosecutor who gets to decide whether to charge the crime as murder 1, murder 2, or something else."

Actually, no. At least in one state, the charge is either "murder" or "manslaughter". If the prosecuter decides to go for "murder", it is left to the JURY to decide whether the evidence proved murder 1 or murder 2. So the prosecuter doesn't get to decide murder 1 or 2.

And if the prosecuter believes he can get murder 2, then he has no incentive to plea bargain down to manslaughter, and if the prosecuter takes it to trial, he might even get the jury to go for murder 1.


#287 ::: TomB ::: (view all by) ::: December 17, 2005, 01:08 PM:

Another strong essay in the Chronicle. Michael Kroll writes about his visit to juvenile hall, where he discussed Williams' execution, and the statistics of the death penalty in California.

One lesson of war is that if we can objectify our enemies as worth less than us, then we can kill them. It could be prostitutes, as it was for the young man interested in Jack the Ripper; it could be gays as it was for that Texas judge. It could be Arabs or Jews or homeless or ... you fill in the blank. The sad truth is that as long as we classify groups of people under labels that strip them of their individual worth -- whether it's the Crips labeling their victims as "enemies," or the state labeling its victims as "gang bangers," etc. -- we can dispose of them.
#288 ::: Lizzy L ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2005, 12:00 PM:

I'm not sure where this is taking place -- it may even be in California -- but there is about to be another [discussion of] execution; the death row inmate this time is a 75 year old man, near-blind, and in a wheelchair. He did indeed order the killings of three people while in jail, and those people were killed. I don't know what has happened to the people who actually did the deeds. The pro-death penalty folks are asserting that this man does not "deserve" clemency.

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