There is no defense for the death penalty in the U.S.

Last updated: 05/12/14 1:58pm


Opponents of the death penalty have to understand that supporters of the death penalty will not be moved by the botched execution of Clayton D. Lockett in Oklahoma.

They don’t care.

Given their perspective, their apathy is understandable. He was a horrible person who kidnapped a woman and then buried her alive.

What is not understandable is their support for the death penalty more broadly. The distinction is between philosophical support of the death penalty, and its practical application. Because here is the difference: Philosophical support for the death penalty is defensible and is rooted in a persons’ sense of justice, which is subjective. The available data on who is more likely to receive the death penalty and how it has been misapplied is not subjective.

John Stuart Mill, a famous philosopher of the 19th century, delivered a “Speech in Favour of Capital Punishment” in 1868. In the speech, Mill said a man who takes another man’s life forfeits his own. A majority of Americans believe the way Mill did, 60 percent to 35 percent, according to a poll conducted by Gallup in 2013.

This high rate of support is strange. It’s one thing when it’s a person whose family member was killed. The inner turmoil is understandable then. But most people who support the death penalty haven’t been affected by a capital crime, and so their support for the death penalty comes across as entirely voyeuristic.

In the 1988 presidential election, Former Gov. Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts was asked whether or not he would support the death penalty for a man who raped and killed his wife. An unanswerable question, and it isn’t unanswerable because Dukakis couldn’t respond, but because of how ridiculous it is.

If he says yes, then he appeases the crowd with their pitchforks. More to the point, he succumbs to a definition of justice that is based on our individual circumstances and inner turmoil rather than a justice system, which can be applied to society fairly and rationally.

If he says no, well, then he comes off as cowardly, as if he were to be the man to lower the ax in any case.

Given the state of our prison system, you would think the voyeurs would prefer a sentence term where the prisoner will have to contemplate their crimes until death. Which until then, they’ll likely be underfed, held in solitary confinement until they lose their already lost minds, or be subjected to molestation by either their wards or fellow inmates. (Statistics show prisoners are more likely to be sexually abused than those outside of the criminal justice system).

But the point of our justice system isn’t – or at least shouldn’t be – how we can inflict the cruelest punishment. Prison is used to sequester harmful individuals away from what otherwise is a peaceful society.

The death penalty’s objective is curious, and more primal. There isn’t any data to show that it deters crime. In fact, new data show that the severity of punishment for certain crimes actually doesn’t matter. No criminal has decidedly committed statutory rape, instead of a violent sexual assault because the former carries with it a lighter sentence. What matters is the certainty of punishment for the crime, not the severity of the punishment.

For example, Hawaii discovered that following the failure of drug tests by those on probation, an immediate and automatic two-day stint in jail sharply reduced recidivism.

Public policy has to have an objective, and the death penalty – as it is applied by the state – is public policy. What is then the objective of the death penalty in its practical application?

It is, as they say, a crowd pleaser. Which is exactly why Michael Dukakis would have been better off politically had he said yes, when he was asked whether or not he would sentence a man who raped and murdered his wife to death.

Philosophically, support for the death penalty is debatable. But support for the death penalty’s practical use is sadistic. It is a certainty that we have executed innocent men and women in the past, and there is substantial evidence that there are innocent men and women on death row today.

Our justice system, which is certainly superior to that of others, is still imperfect. In this imperfect system, it defies rationality to think that systematically we would apply a punishment with such finality, where there isn’t the possibility of correction.

States should decide whether or not they intend to use the death penalty without federal intervention, but the botched execution of Clayton D. Lockett only shows how indefensible the use of the death penalty is in America.

Published May 12, 2014 in Opinions

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