Capital Punishment

This is a “how my mind has changed” post, I guess.

I have always supported the death penalty uneasily.

I grew up in Oklahoma and New Mexico during the 1970’s.  My formative years were the years of Helter Skelter, Watergate, Son of Sam, John Wayne Gacy.  The world I saw on my television was corrupted (even the President!), violent and sometimes threatening.  The idea that those responsible for the most heinous of those crimes–and here I do not include Watergate–would be executed for their crimes seemed appropriate to me.

In the years since, I have continued to support the death penalty, but the longer I have lived with it and the more I know about how we carry it out, the more uneasy with it I am.

So here’s where I’m at now.

I can support capital punishment in the abstract.

  • Capital punishment is appropriate.  Some crimes are so heinous that the state, by taking the life of the person who committed those crimes, is acting appropriately and within the limits of “the power of the sword” that Paul mentions in Romans 13.
    • (Spare me the “‘the power of the sword’ is military power, not capital punishment” arguments.  Whatever the context, Paul is saying that the state in some circumstances has the God-given right to take lives.)
  • Capital punishment IS a deterrent.  The opposite is often argued, but strictly speaking capital punishment is deterrent because it keeps the executed person from ever committing murder again.
    • Exhibit A is Kenneth Wayne McDuff, who committed several torture/rape murders in the 1960’s, was scheduled for execution TWICE in Texas, released on parole in the 1980’s, and committed several murders AFTER his release, before finally being executed in Huntsville 1998.
    • If McDuff had been executed in the mid-60’s, he would not have raped, tortured, and murdered several women in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s.  That’s deterrence.

But I cannot support capital punishment in the concrete.

I cannot support it, as the USA currently practices it, because of the overwhelming likelihood (if not certainty) that America has, is, and will execute people who are not guilty of the crimes for which we are executing them.

This is an area where mistakes have no redress.  You cannot correct an execution performed in error.

If we could trust that every step of the process, from investigation through execution, was done perfectly and without prejudice, then we could be confident that innocent people are not being put to death.  We cannot be confident of this, for two reasons:

  • The racial and economic imbalance is staggering.  The percentage of black people and poor people on death row is way out of whack.  Are there rich white men on death row?  Only the unluckiest.
    • Some may argue that black people commit more capital crimes.  The opposite argument is that prosecutors are much more likely to charge black people with capital crimes, whereas white defendants are more likely to receive lesser charges.
    • I do not know the racial breakdown of all criminal offenders.  However: I DO know, for example, that the same proportion of whites sell drugs as blacks.  But blacks are much more likely to be jailed for selling drugs than whites are.
  • You cannot eliminate the human factor: fallibility.  America’s law enforcement personnel, prosecutors, and judges cannot be trusted unquestioningly, because–even if they were all of the highest moral quality (and they are NOT all so), they are human and make mistakes.
    • Some of them are racists.
    • Some of them allow ambition, anger, resentment against particular defendants for whatever reason, etc., to override their judgment and evenhandedness and even occasionally their oath to uphold the law.
    • Their hurts, prejudices, resentments affect the choices they make.

Until America can guarantee that we have not and are not executing people innocent of the crimes for which we are executing them, I cannot in good conscience support capital punishment.

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