December 13, 2005

The Death Penalty In Perspective

No doubt there are quite a few folks out there who've stopped by this website who are philosophically opposed to the death penalty. There may even be some who are disgusted at my own observations of the execution of Stanley "Tookie" Williams.

True, my comments may seem a bit offensive, but not nearly as offensive as the attempt by some - especially in Hollywoodland - to glorify a cold-blooded murderer to the point of deifying him. As far as I'm concerned, the 24 years that Tookie Williams spent on death row was 24 years of life more than he deserved. Certainly his innocent victims would have been grateful for just 24 more hours of life to spend with the loved ones they left behind. Williams denied them that. Obviously, I'm in favor of the death penalty as a method of punishment. That being said, I also feel that it should be applied sparingly to only the most heinous of crimes, as decided by a jury. How much of a deterrent it is, I can't say. Keeping a murderer from killing again is deterrent enough as far as I'm concerned. But Captain Ed, while being personally against the death penalty, posts a compelling argument in favor of it that was emailed to him by a prosecutor. Here is the jist of it:

It seems to me that it isn't enough to say that the people of California could have simply chosen to keep a killer like Tookie locked up forever. Getting rid of the death penalty means that we have to also consider the foreseeable consequences of guaranteeing criminals that they can kill as many innocent people as they want, for whatever reason at all, without even facing the theoretical possibility of placing their own lives at risk.

A few examples to make my point: Suppose we have a career criminal with a long record of violent felonies, what we in California would call a "three-striker", who knows that he will be sent to prison for the rest of his life if he is ever caught committing a new offense. When he goes to rob the local convenience store, he doesn't want to hurt anyone - he just wants the money. But he also knows that, as there is no death penalty, he will face the exact same punishment (life imprisonment) whether or not he kills the clerk, the only witness to his crime. He would be a fool not to do so. If he happens to bump into a police officer on the way out, he may as well kill him too - there is no extra charge, so to speak.

If we somehow manage to catch the "three-striker" and place him on trial, it will be in his best interest to sabatoge his own trial by killling witnesses, jurors, prosecutors or judges. After all, if we can't convict him, he goes free. (Remember that scene from the movie Traffic, where the druglord walks?) And even if we manage to successfully prosecute him for one of these new murders, he will still only face the same life sentence that he was sure to get in the first place.

If we do manage to put a murderer like Tookie away for life, he can then kill anyone he wants to - inside or out of prison - with complete impunity. What are we going to do to him - give him two life terms? In California, we presently have something like 30,000 inmates serving life terms (29,999 as of 12:01 AM!) Most of them have little or no prospect of ever being paroled. I would not like to be there on the day that they are told that they have been given a license to kill.

In short, we can be unreasonably tolerant in granting appeals and delays which put off the actual day of reckoning for decades or more (in California, were looking at about a 25-year process), but I cannot see how we can get rid of capital punishment altogether without creating powerful incentives for criminals to commit murders that they would otherwise not do. I would not want to be the legislator who had to explain to a prison guard's widow that we knew that we had created a system of justice that refused to set any punishment for the lifer inmate who killed her husband.

There are many who like to characterize the death penalty as "vengeance". As a practical matter, I would refer to the argument above as a basis for characterizing it as "accountability."

Posted by: Gary at 10:00 AM | Comments (1) | Add Comment
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1 That is a pretty good argument in favor of capital punishment, but in the situation the author outlined, where the career criminal has just committed a crime which would guarantee him life in prison, is the difference between death and life in prison really going to cause him to turn himself in when face-to-face with an arresting officer? He's not really going to turn himself in at that point in order to avoid the death penalty is he? As for the clerk, these days its all about the cameras is it not? Though I can see criminal situations where murdering the witness would become the rational choice. Still, I'd question how much weight such a cold-blooded criminal would give to the hypothetical execution vs. life imprisonment. Also, this could be a point against the use minimum sentencing guidelines like the 3 strikes law. I was wondering if you could give me some advice: I'm thinking about doing a degree in criminal justice at a program like here. Do you think these programs are a good idea?

Posted by: David Hunter at January 09, 2006 08:10 PM (hCm6g)

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