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—
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