A Forum for Opinions on News, Politics, and Life
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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