Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Death Penalty

Does the state have the right to execute one of its citizens?

Sure—there are individuals who are beyond the pale. Society has a right to expunge such members from its ranks—permanently and irrevocably, if their actions warrant it.

Leaving aside for a moment the question of where to draw the line between members of society who deserve to be rehabilitated and members of society whose actions are unforgivable, there is no question that such unforgivable members exist, and should be executed. Jeffrey Dahmer is the perfect example: A pederast, a murderer, and a possible cannibal. Need I say more?

The problem isn’t whether there are such human beings whose actions merit their execution. The problem is the mechanism a society uses to determine guilt or innocence.

All human institutions and mechanisms are fallible, by definition. To claim that any justice system never errs is ridiculous. There are cases such as Dahmer’s, where there is no doubt as to guilt or innocence—but those cases are exceedingly rare. Most cases are sloppy, with no clear-cut evidence, no smoking gun, no video-tape to prove without question that the accused is guilty.

Aside from the fallibility of the justice system, there are the individuals who operate that justice system—their motivations and actions. Mark Furhman, he of OJ infamy, wrote an extremely interesting book called Death and Justice, describing how he became convinced that an Oklahoma prosecutor and a forensic lab technician were, in essence, manufacturing death-penalty convictions. In 2001, out of the 21 people executed in Oklahoma, 13 were convicted by this pair. It’s a horrifying story, backed by solid reporting, of two criminals manipulating the criminal justice system, and the damage they wreaked. I have no doubt it’s not the only instance.

A falsely convicted man can be released after years in prison. But we've yet to figure out how to raise the dead.

So in principle, yes, the death penalty is acceptable. But in practice, no, it is not.


  1. Say the death penalty is not acceptable, but what do you replace it with? the bad guys don't care about the prison, it's their second home.
    How do you keep people from doing really bad things? (religion used to be a choice, maybe, but it's not anymore, that's for sure)

  2. I think your argument is illogical. You state that the death penalty is "just" in principle. So, for example, if 5 people are sentenced to death and one of the decisions is wrong, there is justice in 80% of the cases (4 of 5). On the other hand, if none of the convicted suffer the death penalty, there is justice in only 20% of the cases (the one person wrongfully convicted is 1 of 5). your position accepts 20% justice over 80% justice which is illogical, unless you think more than 50% of death penalty convictions are wrong.

    Socrates accepts his wrongful death sentence in the CRITO.

    An aside: can't wait until friday's football games.

  3. Anon,
    If you try to deliver "justice" to murderers(killers of innocent people) by executing every one of your five in the example even though there is one innocent amongst them, then you are in effect becoming what you are trying to punish, a murderer who kills innocents, even were it only one. If one innocent life is saved by not killing all five of your example then justice is served. People can still stay locked up. This way a life is saved and no additional murderers are added to society. There is no such thing as 20% justice or 80% justice. With the death penalty there simply is or is not justice. And because 100% certainty cannot ALWAYS be achieved it is unacceptable in practice.

    Make sense?

  4. Very soon it will be possible to use MRI scans of the brain to determine whether or not the perpetrator is truly guilty (in principle, this is already possible). Apply that technology, and the whole "execution of an innocent man" problem vanishes.

    1. No contraption made by man is infallible. Were it the case, no airplane would ever crash, no bridge would ever fall, no building would ever fail.

      My point still stands.


  5. Dear Anon who awaits "future crime" technology also, I think

    Guilty is one thing, a proper sentence is a totally different thing. Unless you think everyone in gangs, from the terrible social hell that spawns them, is the moral equivalent of Jeff Dahmer, Perhaps "giver em a trial and hang em" is all the legal niceities you require?

    Retribution again trumps rehabilitation...I suggest you read the Bio of "Tookie" Williams, who founded the Crips and think about "where do 'bad' people come from?" Suggest you think about walking in his moccassins a few of your formative years!!


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