Justice and the Death Penalty

May 6th, 2010

By Tom Carter

Raymond Towler was convicted of a heinous crime in Ohio in 1981.  It was the kind of crime many believe justifies the death penalty.  In Towler’s case, however, he was given a life sentence.  Now, through the work of the Ohio Innocence Project, DNA evidence has proved that he was innocent — after he spent 30 years of his life in prison.

If Towler had been sentenced to death, he would have  been in a grave by the time his innocence was proved.    Or perhaps we would never have known — why would anyone investigate the case of a dead man?

Those who support the death penalty — I’m not one of them — seem willing to accept the reality that innocent people are going to be murdered by the state now and then.  I can’t follow the logic, but apparently they believe that the vengeance gained from executions of the worst criminals makes it all worthwhile.

It find it ironic that many of the staunchest death-penalty proponents are also people who have the least respect for government, especially what they call “big government.”  They decry the unfairness of taxation, object to common sense laws to control firearms, criticize any government action that might intrude into their private lives, and are convinced that we’re barreling pell-mell down the road to socialism.  But government killing their fellow citizens?  Hey, that’s OK.

With the addition of Towler, there have now been 254 convicted people proved to be innocent through DNA evidence.  Seventeen of those people were originally sentenced to death.  How many more will it take before we give up the barbaric practice of killing our own citizens?  How many more innocent people will spend years, decades rotting in prison until we improve our criminal justice system?

That Towler is black should be no surprise.  About 60 percent of the people exonerated by DNA evidence have been black, while about 39 percent of the U.S. prison population is black.  That gross disparity is just more evidence that justice in American is strongly biased in terms of race, income, and social standing.

Given the current tea-party inspired interest in Objectivism, I thought it might be enlightening to know what Objectivists are supposed to think about the death penalty.  Nathaniel Branden, a leading disciple and erstwhile paramour of Ayn Rand, wrote in The Objectivist Newsletter (Jan 63):

It is the possibility of executing an innocent man that raises doubts about the legal advisability of capital punishment. It is preferable to sentence ten murderers to life imprisonment, rather than sentence one innocent man to death. If a man is unjustly imprisoned and subsequently proven to be innocent, some form of restitution is still possible; none is possible if he is dead.

Indeed.  But perhaps the most telling statement, which should ring true with everyone no matter their political persuasion or views on the death penalty, comes from Sister Helen Prejean, a Catholic nun who wrote the remarkable best-selling book Dead Man Walking:

Government … can’t be trusted to control its own bureaucrats or collect taxes equitably or fill a pothole, much less decide which of its citizens to kill.

In order to be in favor of the death penalty, both your heart and your head have to be in the wrong place.

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20 Responses to “Justice and the Death Penalty”

  1. d |

    Ironic, that the death penalty is most likely a result of the Bible,yet,we are supposed to have separation of state and religion. All those protesters against the Bible in Gov. offices and schools,are most likely,for the death penalty. Religious folk are supposed to be forgiving,yet,no forgivness in the death penalty,either. It should be abolished,unless,somehow guilt is 100% proven and then,administered by victims,or at least decided by them.

  2. larry |

    This is the worst piece of editorial bunk I’ve seen in quite sometime. I expected more from you especially with the value you place on accuracy and the civility of any article posted here.
    I say this because even though you decorate you piece to look like your aim is to attack the death penalty, its appearant your true targets are the conservatives and Tea Party members.

    You sum up you entire effort in the last few words. What you really meant to say was that because others don’t endorse your views, their minds and heads are in the wrong place.

    Strictly Huffington Post material.

  3. Clarissa |

    Great post, Tom! It’s sad to see how when it comes to bloodlust, people forget completely what their ideological and religious convictions should be.

    I am also completely opposed to the death penalty. Aside from the reasons you mention, it scares me that the death penalty ends up producing killers. Those who administer the death penalty to the convicts who never did anything to them personally are turned into cold-blooded murderers. I believe that killing a person in cold blood, as part of your job, and when that person is completely helpless changes one profoundly. I don’t really want those who job it is to kill – not in a field of battle, of course – to walk around unknown. It’s just a very scary thought.

  4. d |

    It’s o.k. if their job is on the battlefield? Well,why are these guys much different,they are,also,doing their jobs,and supposedly,don’t know who the actual killer is.

  5. Nina c. |

    i support the death penalty. this is a horriable mistake but the death penalty need no more explanation when a man rapes and kills a child.

  6. Brianna |

    “apparently they believe that the vengeance gained from executions of the worst criminals makes it all worthwhile.”

    It has nothing to do with vengeance. I support the death penalty in cases of serial rape and murder, because I consider it better than entertaining even the slightest chance that these people might get free to do harm again. In just about all other cases I prefer life imprisonment, both because of the possibility of executing an innocent man and because of the practical issues involved with actually getting someone convicted and executed. You can reply if you want, but my mind’s pretty made up on this and we’ve debated it before, so I’m not going to let myself get drawn into another debate on the issue.

  7. Tom |

    There’s an excellent article in The New Yorker from about nine months ago. It takes a while to read, but it’s well worth the time. It details the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was convicted in December 1991 of setting fire to his house and murdering his three young children, who died in the fire. He was executed by the state of Texas in February 1994.

    Many people would say that it’s hard to be sympathetic toward a man who murdered his own children — one-year-old twin girls and a two-year-old girl. I completely agree. There’s only one small problem, however. Subsequent investigation, carried out after Willingham was already dead, established that he was almost certainly innocent.

    How could this happen? All the usual reasons — a poor and ill-educated defendant, inadequate counsel at trial, bogus evidence presented by so-called “experts,” inadequate resources to counter that testimony with other experts, a jailhouse snitch, a legal system and a governor unwilling to consider clear evidence of innocence, and so on.

    These kinds of tragedies will continue to happen as long as we permit government to kill people in cold blood as a form of punishment. If Willingham had been sentenced to life in prison, he would be alive and free today. Instead, he was an innocent man intentionally and wrongfully killed (that’s called “murder”) by a criminal justice system that makes mistakes.

  8. d |

    Nina, I do completely agree with you. I still think if the 100% evidence is there, o.k. I agree with you too, Brianna, imagine that? Only if real proof is there, though. Tom, you just haven’t seen that kind of horror happen to you or yours, then maybe you’d change your mind. Maybe not, but I know how I’d feel, vengeful.

  9. d |

    Plus, Tom, how can you say where someone else’s heart or mind is? It is hard to have a heart full of love for a rapist or a killer, especially of children. I, for one, am just not that religious, giving or loving. I would actually pull the lever, or whatever they do, to kill a DNA proven guilty child rapist, molester and killer. It would not cause me one moment’s regret, remorse or guilt, my heart is in the right place. My mind would be clear, my conscience clear, in my opinion, and most mothers’, my heart and mind would be where they belong. I don’t think this is a right or left subject, just a difference of forgivness and a “has this ever happened to your loved ones” subject. If it happens to you, your opinion changes, I firmly believe. Just ask Brian, he has seen the results of these monsters. We really need to be positive we have the right guy, and no racial profiling or false witness testimony. That needs to be your sore point, Tom, not the entire death penalty. Do you know how much it costs to keep all that evil in prison for life?

  10. Tom |

    No one should have a heart full of love for a rapist or a killer, except maybe his mother. I know I don’t. But that isn’t what this issue is about. It’s about the philosophical and moral questions inherent in a government killing its own citizens in cold blood, the inefficiency and errors routinely demonstrated in the criminal justice system (federal and all states), and the blatantly obvious fact that poor people and minorities have a dramatically greater chance of being sentenced to death than other people.

    Public policy is not made — or shouldn’t be made — on the basis of anecdotes, personal experiences, and questions like “what if it were one of your loved ones?”. If someone murdered a person close to me, I might well blow him away, and I’d feel nothing but satisfaction after the deed was done. Then, of course, I’d go to prison for murder myself, and that’s the way it should be.

    A few other interesting facts: In the U.S., whether you get the death penalty depends on what state you’re in and the whims of political prosecutors. 35 states plus the federal government and the U.S. military have the death penalty. 15 states plus D.C. do not have it. The U.S. is one of only three industrialized democracies that have the death penalty, and the other two have a moratorium on executions. 95 percent of all executions worldwide happen in five countries — the U.S., China, Iraq, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia. That’s great company we’re in, isn’t it?

    Contrary to what you said, Doris, life sentences cost the taxpayers significantly less than the death penalty. That information is all over the internet (here, for example).

  11. d |

    You are right,I did not say it cost more,just was expensive. Most life sentences aren’t nearly the criminals life,they are out in 15 to 23 years,I heard. Can you be sure that they will not reoffend? They are living,breathing, eating,being social,and then a lot are free men,can’t say the same for their victims. They have all their rights,can’t say the same for the victims. No,it’s not a fair system,a few are not guilty,but it wasn’t too fair for the victims. The system needs fixing,no doubt,but some criminals don’t need to be on the same earth with the rest of us.

  12. larry |

    Keeping convicted felons in jail is not cheap. Depending on your location it may vary but Federal mandates cause the rates to be pretty even. California spends $60.00 per day, Florida spends $52.00 per day per inmate. Long periods on death row for convicted killers are even more expensive but its the price we pay to allow the appeal process. The execution of one innocent is tragic but the trade off equally tragic. Our society doesn’t need to allow murder to be treated the same as bank robbery or any other felony. Of course you can also argue that abortion is legalized murder with no punishment at all. Sort of the 800 pound gorilla in the court room.

  13. Tom |

    Actually, you can’t “argue that abortion is legalized murder,” at least not accurately or logically. Murder is a crime; abortion (within limits established by law) is not a crime. Therefore, it isn’t murder. Also, there’s no such thing as “legalized murder.” It may be your opinion that abortion is murder, but that’s meaningless in terms of the law. It’s also not true that abortion is “the 800 pound gorilla in the courtroom,” assuming you’re using that expression accurately. The abortion question is settled in law, and until and unless that changes, it isn’t a looming issue in courtrooms.

    But back to the topic: “The execution of one innocent is tragic but….” How can you follow that statement with a “but”?

    If we give up the death penalty, that won’t mean that murder will be “treated the same way as bank robbery or any other felony.” If someone who commits premeditated murder is sentenced to life without parole and a bank robber is sentenced to 10 years, there’s no way to claim that it’s the same kind of treatment. What it actually does is permit us to free someone serving an LWOP sentence for a crime he didn’t commit.

  14. larry |

    We are all familiar with instances where murderers don’t serve “True” life sentences.
    Your notion that the death penalty is unjust is not universally held in this country and hopefully will remain that way.
    I cannot condon abortion as an alternate to other forms of birth control.

  15. Anonymous |

    Larry,when other forms of birth control did not work or when a girl is raped,let’s say,a 11 year old,what would you suggest? Put a child through birthing and giving away a baby? What about the deformed,or child who could not make it? What would we do with all those babies that no one wants,my suggestion that everyone who is against abortion,raise an unadoptable,or special needs child,never seems to be met with enthusiam. Abortion is not murder,in the same sense,because only one person makes the decision to end the formation of the baby. The Gov. did not do it,just allows the safe,clean and clinical aborting,as opposed to the illegal,dirty,backroom, unsafe abortions. I know,you will not hear it. I do not advise anyone to have an abortion,because they must live with that decision for the rest of their lives,but it must be a woman’s decision,gonna let big Gov. decide for us?
    I think we all agree,the death penalty is horrible,and needs to be eliminated,or made scientifically,just and 100% accurate.

  16. d |

    That was me,don’t know why it said anonymous,I;m never ashamed of anything I say:)

  17. larry |

    Rape,incest and threats to the mothers well being do deserve specially consideration but in the process we’ve allowed abortion to become an industry of sorts. One in which the product is wholesale slaughter of the unborn. If the law would hold people responsible and demand proof of the above mentioned causes I could consider compromise, maybe even government funding, but at present abortion is terrible form of birth control in my opinion.

  18. d |

    Don’t want to care for the unwanted babies?Didn’t think so.

  19. larry |

    Isn’t it strange how we can find a home for kids from Russia,Korea,China or most every nation in the world but not the U.S.?
    Thats all. I’ve had enough.

  20. d |

    Yes,I find that a horrible fact of this country,agreed.Nuff said.

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