Aug 20

Revenge vs. Learning: Which is Stronger?

In Brief — An examination of whether the death penalty is atavistic or useful to society. [Written in May 2017.]

Vengeance in the 21st Century —

Premeditated murder. It’s often referred to as first degree murder, but generally (excluding military actions) it is deliberately killing another human being. States frequently have their own variations on what it constitutes, but those are grounded on whether the killing shows “malice aforethought” (premeditation). Malice aforethought is interpreted to include several aspects, but in the final analysis it boils down to the killing being intended or at least reasonably conceivable. I urge you to inform yourself not least because your state may be killing in your name.

Prompted by the rushed executions by Arkansas and its eagerness to kill several men on death row — as well as my own opposition to the death penalty — I will show how the death penalty is not only hypocritical and illogical but a waste of a golden opportunity.

Since the victim is dead, s/he is no longer aware. What most survivors feel beyond the shock and emotional pain is a desire for vengeance against the suspected perpetrator. The victim can’t return to life, so why kill the golden goose simply because you like roast goose?

What if this a case of mistaken identity? Reams of research show that eyewitness accounts are often in error. What of the presumption of innocence until proven guilty? Related to unreliable eyewitness testimony, what if the accused perpetrator is innocent of the crime?

Rationale for Incarceration —

In discussing the death penalty it’s necessary to know the reasons for imprisoning a person. Two or more of those reasons are hollow as you will see.

The purposes of incarceration are most often fourfold:

Retribution, i.e., society’s right to inflict harm on a convicted criminal who presumably harmed society. The death penalty falls within this category. In plain words, it is revenge;

2) Incapacitation, i.e., a convicted criminal cannot commit crimes while imprisoned;

3) Deterrence, i.e., the threat of punishment presumably prevents other people from criminal acts;

4) Rehabilitation, i.e., Changing for the better the convicted criminal. Rehabilitation is said to include vocational training, counseling and, if needed, drug treatment. Good luck with those!

For incarceration to be justified, the punishment must fall within at least one of the above.

A dead condemned person obviously will not harm society again. Therefore, retribution falsely appears effective as far as society is concerned.

When a condemned person kills another person in prison, one has to question whether incapacitation is effective.

Clearly, killing the alleged condemned person doesn’t stop others in society from killing. Thus, deterrence is totally ineffective at stopping such crimes. Indeed, in medieval times when there were public executions, pickpockets worked the on-looking crowds. Picking pockets was a death penalty offense.

Rehabilitation depends on the prison, the enlightenment of the prison’s administration and the political climate of the state where rehabilitation is supposed to take place.

As we see, at least two and possibly three of the reasons for incarceration are meaningless.

Illogic and Wasteful —

Here’s the nub of my argument. If the above doesn’t convince you that killing a condemned person doesn’t make sense, then consider the following.

Once a person is dead, learning something about why that person committed the crime no longer exists. The state has foreclosed the possibility of preventing another such crime. Wouldn’t it be better to explore why the crime was committed in the first place? The person who allegedly committed the crime is the best source. Sure, you might learn nothing, but you might learn enough to head society down a safer road. What do the prisoner’s genes and environment reveal? This is the waste I refer to when I argue that executing the alleged killer leaves us in a blind alley.

Does this mean that learning why the prisoner killed will result in immediate release? No, but it may result in lowering the sentence during which time the prisoner can receive additional therapy. However, if it’s discovered that the prisoner is innocent, only then will the wrongly convicted prisoner be freed.

Will such a change in the American justice system take place? Will the current unjust system become more just? Probably not under the present political reality, but that doesn’t mean that the goal is impossible. We can’t see the future.

My final and maybe the strongest argument is that the state is committing exactly the same thing for which it is executing the condemned person: the premeditated killing of another human being. It is vengeance, plain and simple. Do you want the state to kill in your name?

The Weekly Sampler—

As a reminder, go to the Archives on the right side of the page and click on the month and year of that week’s featured Sampler. If you wish, go to the January 15, 2017, blog (“A Simple Reading Assignment”) for more thorough instructions.

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Don’t miss the Comments and my replies. Even though the Sampler pieces are from the past, feel free to comment…or not.

Go to the Archives on the right side. Click on March 2016.


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    • Dave Meyers on August 20, 2017 at 16:42

    Just as a traffic ticket does not deter you or anyone else from driving recklessly in the future, execution does not deter others from committing murder in the future, as you have pointed out. All of the reasons you have pointed out for not supporting the death penalty are perfectly valid.
    But the argument that trumps all others is the possibility of putting to death someone innocent of the crime they are charged with. There is amply evidence that this has happened in the past and will likely happen again.

    There are some truly evil people walking this earth. I suggest that many anti-social, psychopathic, crazed individuals are beyond redemption through ‘rehabilitation’ therapy of any kind. And, the facts surrounding many murders are so provable as to point to one perpetrator and one only. But in spite of that, I maintain that a sentence of death still steps over a line which can not be walked back in cases where absolute indisputable guilt might be slightly more murky.

      • Don Bay on August 21, 2017 at 06:29

      The chance of executing someone innocent looms very large, but unless we stop executing others we’ll never have the chance to know if the individual is innocent or not.

      Yes, there are many truly evil people out there, but the question is can we learn something from that depravity. Indeed, at a minimum we may learn why that individual was as evil as he/she is. That alone is a reason for keeping that person alive. As you so logically point out, executing the evil person forecloses any chance of learning why.

  1. You don’t mention the possibility of restorative justice (RJ). RJ is a process whereby the person(s) harmed by another’s action can speak with the perpetrator in a carefully controlled environment. The harmed person(s) have the opportunity to express their grief, anger, sense of loss, etc. thereby gaining a feeling of closure or reconciliation, and at the same time the perpetrator can understand how his/her action harmed the other(s). This can never happen with death of the perpetrator, and while the harmed ones get revenge it is much less satisfying than getting the chance to talk and be heard, and at the same time, if there is to be rehabilitation it is much more possible if the perpetrator can also have the opportunity to apologize, and maybe even make reparation.

    Your other rationale is spot on.

      • Don Bay on August 21, 2017 at 07:00

      You raise a good issue: Restorative Justice (RJ). Aside from the assorted exceptions that occur to me, isn’t that encompassed within Rehabilitation? What if the the answers given by the perpetrator are evasive or otherwise non-responsive? What if the perpetrator doesn’t understand or doesn’t want to understand how the action harmed another person? There are all sorts of possible exceptions which is why I think RJ is encompassed within Rehabilitation. While a grieving survivor’s talking with the alleged perpetrator may seem satisfying to you or to the survivor, that’s irrelevant. Living or dying is relevant.

      The reasons behind punishment are those officially listed. It is unlikely that the people who formulated those reasons would have been unaware of RJ. The absolute minimum here is that execution of the perpetrator forecloses any chance of learning something.

    • Susan on August 20, 2017 at 22:30

    Their is an argument for our taxes going to pay for incarceration, (which is a bunch of money).
    I’m with you however, Criminals can be rehabilitated, even the murderous kind,

      • Don Bay on August 21, 2017 at 07:16

      As you point out, there is undoubtedly a pecuniary element in the issue of incarceration and execution, but that makes the deliberate taking of human life subsidiary to cost. I think the pecuniary argument is insensitive at the least.

      Whether rehabilitation is possible or not is arguable. What is not arguable is that killing the alleged perpetrator forever destroys the possibility of learning why the alleged perpetrator did as he/she did. The chance of advancing society and human knowledge is paramount. Human life is paramount.

    • Linda on August 22, 2017 at 18:47

    “The chance of advancing society and human knowledge is paramount. Human life is paramount.” Absolutely agree. For me, this is the beginning and end of the discussion.

      • Don Bay on August 23, 2017 at 06:39

      I obviously agree. If we have a chance to learn something that will help humans become more civilized, then by all means we should take it. Not only can we learn, we will be valuing human life. It always strikes me as illogical that a person values a fetus but not a grown human. It’s illogical that many anti-abortion supporters are in favor of execution.

    • Donna Boe on September 6, 2017 at 04:21

    I agree with Jim about restorative justice. Perhaps the victims’ family doesn’t want to speak with the perpetrator, but I don’t think they get “closure” from watching an execution either. None of the arguments so far acknowledge that the perpetrator can change, but they can.
    Roger and I regularly visit or write to a person on death row. Tom is definitely guilty. He admits that he killed the men who were responsible for his wife’s death, He killed again -another prisoner, who he felt was trying to kill him. but all of that was over 20 years ago. Now, Tom is in solitary on death row, but he reads, writes poetry ,prays, and even counsels some of the young guards who confide in him. Tom is married to a wonderful woman who visits regularly and keeps us informed on Tom’s status. We are looking forward to visiting him again later this month. My point is that Tom is not the same person he was back in the time when he killed persons. People can be redeemed.
    Another flaw in this whole system is the endless number of appeals that a prisoner can use. He/she can appeal any decision to the next level, and on up, then start all over again with new attorneys if they get a negative verdict. And the state has to pay for these court cases! it would be much better and cheaper to have “life without parole” than a death sentence that never is resolved

      • Don Bay on September 6, 2017 at 06:31

      As I said to Jim, Restorative Justice is encompassed within Rehabilitation. From your experience, it appears that Tom has been rehabilitated. If the option is life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, does that foreclose a prisoner who has been rehabilitated from ever being released? Seems to me it may.

      The “flaw you mention is economic. Do we want to close all the avenues that provide a chance for release or a new trial? As long as there is a death penalty — which we agree should be abolished — let’s leave all avenues open. If the death penalty in America is swept into the dustbin of history, we’ll find that imprisonment is cheaper. When the death penalty is abolished, costs go down.

      Norway has a system through which ALL prisoners have a chance for supervised release. Unrepentant prisoners are considered for release after 21 years, but that unrepentant prisoner can be be sentenced for an additional period. Thus, the chance for parole always exists even for the most unrepentant prisoners. There is the recognition that a prisoner can always be rehabilitated. It goes without saying that Norway has no death penalty. That’s a system that is rational unlike what America has.

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