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Prop 34
November 4, 2012 4:20 PM   Subscribe

Among the ballot initiatives up for consideration on Tuesday is California's Proposition 34, which would eliminate the death penalty in favor of life imprisonment without parole. If successful, this measure would make California the 18th state to abolish capital punishment, following Connecticut's April 2012 abolition. It would also apply retroactively to the 727 people currently on death row in the state, the most of any state in the country by nearly 100%. While support has been increasing for Prop 34, as many as 17% of California voters remain undecided.

The potential elimination of the death penalty in another state this year has additional implications for death penalty abolitionism in general, as the Supreme Court has interpreted the 8th Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment to turn on evolving standards of decency, as measured in part by the number of states condoning the practice.
posted by likeatoaster (135 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

 
What is the current state of the death penalty in California? As in, are they able to conduct executions? A few years back they were in the absurd position of a court having required that a 'medical professional' be involved in lethal injection, but, of course, no willing medical professionals existed.
posted by hoyland at 4:26 PM on November 4, 2012


It would be too late for Tookie
posted by Renoroc at 4:32 PM on November 4, 2012


hoyland - In 2006, U.S. District Judge Jeremy Fogel halted executions in California after finding flaws in the state's execution process.[1] The current hold is pending judicial review of a new execution chamber and new methodologies for executing prisoners. However, the moratorium is expected to extend into 2013 because of the current court battle between inmate attorneys and the State's Attorney General. Though prison officials have revised their procedures since 2006, death row inmates allege the procedures are still flawed and expose them to cruel and unusual punishment.
posted by rtha at 4:35 PM on November 4, 2012


What is the current state of the death penalty in California?

There's been a moratorium in place since 2006, which (if Prop 34 doesn't pass) will be pushed at least into 2013.
posted by scody at 4:35 PM on November 4, 2012


jinx!
posted by scody at 4:36 PM on November 4, 2012


1) Does anyone know if the prisons/prison lobbies are supporting this? It'd mean more money for them.

2) How are they going to pay for this?

3) US prisons in general are forms of cruel and unusual punishment.
posted by curious nu at 4:37 PM on November 4, 2012 [4 favorites]


A few years back they were in the absurd position of a court having required that a 'medical professional' be involved in lethal injection, but, of course, no willing medical professionals existed

Despite the AMA's stance on physician participation in executions, I personally know several physicians who would be willing to be involved. If you include nurses and other medical professionals (such as EMT's, that number gets even bigger. Here is a debate that includes such a physician.
posted by TedW at 4:37 PM on November 4, 2012


2) How are they going to pay for this?

Pay for what? And who's "they"?
posted by rtha at 4:38 PM on November 4, 2012 [6 favorites]


How are they going to pay for this?

Presumably, it would amount to a cost savings, since the infrastructure required to have the death penalty would no longer be needed. The prisoners are prisoners, regardless.
posted by Mooski at 4:41 PM on November 4, 2012 [3 favorites]


Coincidentally, I just finished reading an article in the Boston Review regarding the death penalty. The focus was really the moral angle, but there was a passage that may be relevant for this discussion:

In California, for example, the post-conviction cost of the death penalty has exceeded $2 billion since 1978, according to a recent study by a federal appeals court judge and a law professor. If the sentences of those remaining on death row were commuted to life without parole, California would realize savings of $5 billion over the next 20 years.

Unfortunately, the article is not footnoted, so I'm not sure which report is being referenced
posted by Jakey at 4:44 PM on November 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


3) US prisons in general are forms of cruel and unusual punishment.

Solitary in Iran Nearly Broke Me. Then I Went Inside America's Prisons.
posted by homunculus at 4:45 PM on November 4, 2012 [11 favorites]


Prop 34 would represent a savings to the state of California -- if passed, it would reduce the cost of our prison system somewhat. So the question about how to pay for it doesn't make much sense to me.
posted by gingerbeer at 4:45 PM on November 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


And to answer the question about the prison guard union's position, the CCPOA has not spent any money opposing Prop 34 or Prop 36, the three strikes reform.
posted by gingerbeer at 4:49 PM on November 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


curious nu, is your post an argument in favour of keeping the death penalty? If so, it's a...curious...way to do so.
posted by Catchfire at 4:52 PM on November 4, 2012


Godspeed, Prop 34. Regardless of the fact that 3) US prisons in general are forms of cruel and unusual punishment, the death penalty is a cruel and inaccurate anachronism that places the United States in league with Iraq and Egypt, rather than with other wealthy economies.

If you can envision what the process must be like. Laying on a table in a cold, harsh room. People in suits staring at you from behind thick glass as they inject chemicals into your bloodstream to end your life. A room of sadness and pain. A process of revenge which leaves the living even further scarred – another life gone. It doesn't undo the past; it doesn't bring back victims or heal wounds. It perpetuates the cycle of pain, death, and loss. It's barbaric and an abomination practiced by a 'civilised' society. It's been proven time after time not to be a deterrent to crime, and is amongst the most cruel uses of institutionalised violence in America.

"It's a hell of a thing, killing a man. Take away all he's got and all he's ever gonna have."
posted by nickrussell at 4:52 PM on November 4, 2012 [4 favorites]


California has only executed 13 people since 1976.
posted by kirkaracha at 4:58 PM on November 4, 2012


Regardless of the fact that 3) US prisons in general are forms of cruel and unusual punishment, the death penalty is a cruel and inaccurate anachronism that places the United States in league with Iraq and Egypt, rather than with other wealthy economies.

Wealthy Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea have capital punishment.
posted by Tanizaki at 5:05 PM on November 4, 2012


>> as many as 17% of California voters remain undecided.

Great, just what this country needs, more undecided voters for the press to fawn over.

For my part, its open and shut - get rid of the death penalty. It is as wrong as whatever the crime was that landed the person on death row committed. In fact, it is probably worse because the death penalty is pre-meditated.
posted by lampshade at 5:11 PM on November 4, 2012 [3 favorites]


The death penalty has been shown, time and time again, to be an ineffective deterrent, or at least no more effective than life in prison.

Plus, it's way more expensive to execute someone than it is to keep them in prison for life.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 5:15 PM on November 4, 2012 [3 favorites]


California has only executed 13 people since 1976.

Only 13 people? Amazing. Fantastic. How did they manage that? We should have an awards ceremony...

The United Kingdom has executed only 0 people since 1976.
Italy has executed only 0 people since 1976.
Portugal has executed only 0 people since 1976.
Norway has executed only 0 people since 1976.
Switzerland has executed only 0 people since 1976.
Austria has executed only 0 people since 1976.

Oh, maybe not. 13 is still 13 too many.
posted by nickrussell at 5:16 PM on November 4, 2012 [26 favorites]


The three-year study by a federal judge and a law professor also found that California taxpayers have spent an average of $308 million for each of the 13 executions conducted since capital punishment was reinstated in the state in 1978.


Unless you really want blood, this all you need to know.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 5:20 PM on November 4, 2012 [4 favorites]


I expect if Prop 34 takes down the death penalty, we'll probably get a proposition next year promising to take away health care from former death row inmates.
posted by FJT at 5:20 PM on November 4, 2012


Basic human rights should never be up for a vote.
posted by dunkadunc at 5:30 PM on November 4, 2012 [10 favorites]


"How are they going to pay for this?"
"Prop 34 would represent a savings to the state of California -- if passed, it would reduce the cost of our prison system somewhat."

I have my state voter information pamphlet right here.

Summary of Legislative Analyst's Estimate of Net State and Local Government Fiscal Impact: posted by kristi at 5:32 PM on November 4, 2012


Basic human rights should never be up for a vote.

Well, ish. Someone has to vote to put the protections in the constitution, too.
posted by jaduncan at 5:34 PM on November 4, 2012


Basic human rights should never be up for a vote.

Notice the key word: humans
posted by FJT at 5:35 PM on November 4, 2012


Basic human rights should never be up for a vote.

Well, but, this is a vote to *increase* human rights. If you recall the Prop. 8 battle, you'll find that the US Federal Courts agree with you: A ballot proposition can not be used to restrict basic rights or enshrine discrimination in a state Constitution.
posted by drjimmy11 at 5:43 PM on November 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


Nope - human rights are moral standards of behaviour owed to all humans by virtue of their humanity - such rights obviously include the right not to be murdered by your government (spoiler alert:Locke was wrong on this point!). Unfortunatley, legal rights are not the same thing as human rights. :(
posted by Another Fine Product From The Nonsense Factory at 5:49 PM on November 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


Wealthy Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea have capital punishment.

While on the books, South Korea has been under a moratorium since 1997 and AI considers the death penalty abolished in practice. Japan and Taiwan still go at it though.
posted by the christopher hundreds at 6:05 PM on November 4, 2012


Nope - human rights are moral standards of behaviour owed to all humans by virtue of their humanity - such rights obviously include the right not to be murdered by your government (spoiler alert:Locke was wrong on this point!).

Or by your mother?

"Obviously" doesn't mean what you think it means.

Regardless of my own opinion on capital punishment, calling it an obvious moral failing does less than nothing to advance the discussion. There are plenty of people out there who think a lot of things you probably enjoy are immoral. Let's not let them pretend that there's a single morality that applies to everyone, either.
posted by Etrigan at 6:08 PM on November 4, 2012 [3 favorites]


I'm always baffled by the "capital punishment is a deterrent" argument. It's not a deterrent, I'm not sure that any reasonable person in favor of it thinks it is a deterrent.

What it is, when it works, is an outstanding evil bastard removal system. Of course, it's rarely allowed to work, as evidenced by the nightmare appeals process, botched legal cases, and shoddy crime scene work. It's horrible to think that any innocent person would be executed. I don't want innocent people executed. I want evil sons of bitches executed. (I would also prefer for the death penalty to be carried out upon conviction -- making people wait because of paperwork and bureaucracy is the cruel and unusual part of this. And the appeals process is the cruel and unusual portion for the families of victims.)

So, what do you do? Do you put a moratorium on it until you can fix the system, to ensure that only evil sons of bitches make it to death row? Shouldn't we have done that by now? I mean, what the hell is the problem? Technology? Funding?

I absolutely support the death penalty, but clearly it's not working.
posted by gsh at 6:11 PM on November 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


As a Californian, Prop 34 is my #1 reason for showing up at the polls on Tuesday.
posted by Condroidulations! at 6:15 PM on November 4, 2012 [3 favorites]


Thank god for vote-by-mail....already voted to support Prop 34.

Do you put a moratorium on it until you can fix the system, to ensure that only evil sons of bitches make it to death row?

Well, since there is no real way to guarantee that only evil sons of bitches make it to death row, I would argue that Prop 34 is a great way to put a moratorium on it.
posted by Existential Dread at 6:17 PM on November 4, 2012 [4 favorites]


I would also prefer for the death penalty to be carried out upon conviction

What. The. Fuck?

No. No no no no no no no no no no no no no god motherfucking a million times no.

This isn't some "oh if we get this wrong we can let him out of prison later" cowboy shit. You only get one shot. If you're going to take a human being's life in a bloodthirsty act of vengeance you better be damn fucking sure that you have the right guy.

Jesus tap-dancing Christ.
posted by Talez at 6:22 PM on November 4, 2012 [32 favorites]


So, what do you do? Do you put a moratorium on it until you can fix the system, to ensure that only evil sons of bitches make it to death row? Shouldn't we have done that by now? I mean, what the hell is the problem? Technology? Funding?

The problem is the fundamental imperfection of humans and organized decisions made by humans. There are no infallible humans, infallible groups of humans, or infallible processes used by humans in groups. Therefore, any theoretical system of capital punishment has a chance, however vanishingly small, of executing an innocent. If you're not OK with that, then capital punishment is not for you.

And of course here in the real world, you have to grapple with the likelihood that the chance of executing an innocent is anything but small.
posted by feckless at 6:28 PM on November 4, 2012 [5 favorites]


I would also prefer for the death penalty to be carried out upon conviction

This statement is nothing short of insanity. There are many, many people who are wrongly convicted. The Innocence Project has managed to prove the innocence of 18 people on death row (plus another 280ish other convictions), on the strength of DNA evidence alone.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 6:32 PM on November 4, 2012 [15 favorites]


For what it's worth gsh, if we did things your way, some of these people would be dead right now.

State superior courts make lots of mistakes. DAs are underhanded assholes in some jurisdictions and will withold exculpatory evidence if it makes their record look better.

I don't trust the state superior courts with a death penalty case as far as I can god damn throw them. The fact that there's multiple layers between them and the needle is a feature not a bug.
posted by Talez at 6:33 PM on November 4, 2012 [4 favorites]


I am sadly reminded of THX 1138, in which the rationale for stopping the pursuit of THX is that the chase is overbudget. I would prefer that this issue be decided for reasons of justice and common humanity. But the damned budget hovers over all other considerations.
posted by SPrintF at 6:37 PM on November 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


"It's horrible to think that any innocent person would be executed. I don't want innocent people executed."

If you execute people, you will eventually execute innocent people.

"So, what do you do? Do you put a moratorium on it until you can fix the system, to ensure that only evil sons of bitches make it to death row? Shouldn't we have done that by now? I mean, what the hell is the problem? Technology? Funding?"

Humans are fallible. Witnesses are unreliable. Technological evidence (fingerprints, DNA, whatever the latest is) tends to get over-relied upon because it's SCIENCE! The legal system is large and complex. There are temptations to cheat for everyone involved, but even the best lawyers, judges, and police make mistakes. Honest, human mistakes. That result in the death of innocent people. The system is NOT perfectable, and many of the safeguards in the justice system are in place precisely because we recognize that the system can't be made perfect. Abolishing the death penalty is another safeguard that's necessary because the system can't be perfect, and a dead man can't be released when he's proven innocent.

Your profile says you're in Chicago. Illinois executed 12 men and freed TWENTY who were innocent (I believe 13) or wrongfully convicted during the years Illinois had the death penalty (1977 to 2011).

If you execute people, you will execute innocent people.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:45 PM on November 4, 2012 [19 favorites]


Rationally I know getting rid of the death penalty is the correct course. Then I remember Richard Allen Davis and it becomes more complicated.
posted by joseppi7 at 6:47 PM on November 4, 2012


If you can envision what the process must be like. Laying on a table in a cold, harsh room. People in suits staring at you from behind thick glass as they inject chemicals into your bloodstream to end your life. A room of sadness and pain.

This honestly sounds a lot better to me than the idea of being locked in a cage for the rest of my life with no hope of escape. If I were in that position I would rather they just killed me and got it over with; putting me through decades of suffering first seems like pointless cruelty.
posted by Mars Saxman at 6:47 PM on November 4, 2012 [3 favorites]


Technological evidence (fingerprints, DNA, whatever the latest is) tends to get over-relied upon because it's SCIENCE!

"science"
posted by indubitable at 6:50 PM on November 4, 2012


If you execute people, you will execute innocent people.

Yeah. This is the clincher for me. I don't trust the justice system enough to allow it such finality. Even if I was speaking as my younger self, who was fine with the eye for an eye type of punishment the death penalty provides, in practice, with the vagaries of human nature involved, younger eyeballkid would have to concede that it is impossible to guarantee that the guilty would be the only people punished.

These days, I detest the death penalty for myriad other reasons, but the above logic has always swayed me to the against side of the argument.
posted by eyeballkid at 6:58 PM on November 4, 2012 [3 favorites]


re: paying: I don't live in California and so do not have first-hand knowledge of the bill. But California is somewhat infamous for passing laws that then no one wants to pay for; that's kind of its rep. And the prison industry is, in general, a huge money sink across the country. I'd assumed it was cheaper to have the death penalty, so I guess I was operating from a faulty assumption there. It was an honest question.

curious nu, is your post an argument in favour of keeping the death penalty?

Nope. If it was, I'd've come out and said that.

The death penalty is a damned difficult issue, for reasons all touched on above: once carried out you can't take it back if the conviction is wrong, if you kill someone you remove the ability to ever re-habilitate someone, and it's not like the courts are the fairest institutions ever; and on the other hand sometimes you get a person who's just broken in the head, and you don't know how to fix them, and either you keep them alive in oftentimes terrible conditions at the expense of the people who they victimized, OR you kill them.

All of this is exacerbated by the fact that we've turned housing prisoners into a for-profit industry, that there's this nightmare "TOUGH ON CRIME" shit that gets way more people in prison than should be there in the first place, and the gods-damned Puritan need to punish people instead of heal both the individuals and the societal pressures that were (usually) their impetus in the first place.
posted by curious nu at 6:58 PM on November 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


This honestly sounds a lot better to me than the idea of being locked in a cage for the rest of my life with no hope of escape.

This is how I feel. I can only assume that support for the death penalty is associated in some way with strong religiosity - the belief that you're sending the bastard to hell or something like that. Personally, a life behind bars with no hope of getting out has always seems to be a punishment that's (a) worse, (b) at least offers the opportunity for mistakes to be corrected and (c) does not lower society to the level of the murderers they hope to punish.

We don't have the death penalty in Australia. Our worst murderer, Martin Bryant, is currently serving "35 life sentences plus 1,035 years without parole" in a prison down the road from me. And I'd rather him be there than dead, quite frankly.
posted by Jimbob at 7:00 PM on November 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


I'm a Californian and get to vote on this on Tuesday.

Honestly, I do believe that there are criminals that deserve to be killed for their crimes. People like Richard Ramirez and William Bonin should not live.

I also believe that the criminal justice system is imperfect at times. I do think it operates much better than many in this thread, but it is not foolproof.

I'm leaning toward a yes vote, but honestly, it's the toughest choice on the ballot.
posted by Argyle at 7:03 PM on November 4, 2012 [7 favorites]


Whether the condemned are guilty or innocent (we know some are innocent), whether they are the "worst" or simply the unlucky (the imposition of the penalty has been shown to be arbitrary -- it is not more likely to be given for the worst crimes or withheld from the pathetic), I think the death penalty is beneath us. I do not want to be a part of it. I want to be better than that.

It's not about those who commit violent murders, it's about us. I care about us.

I hope the death penalty will be eliminated in the United States in my lifetime.

(And I hope that someday LWOP will be reserved for the truly worst of the worst, those who are serial killers and sociopaths and war criminals, and not for aging frail shuffling 70+ year old men who have served more than 20 years and who killed someone 30 years prior. But that's another initiative for another election.)
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 7:22 PM on November 4, 2012 [4 favorites]


I'm leaning toward a yes vote, but honestly, it's the toughest choice on the ballot.

I know CA is not TX and I am admittedly extremely biased on this issue, but I recommend any undecided voters on this issue read David Grann's incredible New Yorker article on an almost-certainly innocent person executed by TX. To me it highlights why even the narrow chance of executing an innocent person makes the death penalty unworkable and a stain on our country's legal system.
posted by sallybrown at 7:40 PM on November 4, 2012 [4 favorites]


Tonight I was watching an episode of Law and Order: SVU that had to do with an FBI agent executing a tortuous serial killer in the name of vigilante justice. The DA decided at one point that there was no point in prosecuting said agent because "what jury of her peers wouldn't take one look at what that bastard [had] done and thank her for doing her civic duty?" And that got me thinking... There are people who just can't be rehabilitated. Sure, there are those that came from bad families, from abusive upbringings, from situations that make you go, yeah, I can kinda see why you turned into the monster you are, but then there are those people who just do not exist on the same plane as everybody else. Is it better to put them to death so that their victims an their victims' families have peace, or is it better to let them sit in solitary confinement because that's a more excruciating punishment?

And where does a covert mission like the one that took out Bin Ladin fall on the death penalty spectrum?
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 7:41 PM on November 4, 2012


Honestly, I do believe that there are criminals that deserve to be killed for their crimes. People like Richard Ramirez and William Bonin should not live.

I'm going to let Gandalf take this one for me:
Many that live deserve death. Some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them, Frodo? Do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 7:44 PM on November 4, 2012 [21 favorites]


There are people who just can't be rehabilitated. Sure, there are those that came from bad families, from abusive upbringings, from situations that make you go, yeah, I can kinda see why you turned into the monster you are, but then there are those people who just do not exist on the same plane as everybody else.

This isn't a universally accepted belief, though it is very widely held, and I think it's one of the reasons why the death penalty is still accepted despite evidence that it is flawed. Putting people who commit the most heinous crimes into an "other" category--monster rather than human, etc--discounts the very real ability of "regular" people to do horrible things and lets us forget that even the worst criminals are still human beings. They are not another species; they are part of ours.

What we tell ourselves about the kind of people who are eligible for the death penalty removes the penalty from our realities in a way. I know a very serious criminal (someone who could have been death penalty eligible if the prosecutor had taken a more aggressive stance) from a similar social background to mine, and the shock with which my community greeted this possibility said a lot about how unreal/removed we had all felt from capital punishment as part of "normal" daily life. When it became something that might happen to a person we knew and had grown up with--who had done an utterly horrific (I would say unforgivable) thing--it suddenly seemed barbaric to people who would have otherwise defended it.
posted by sallybrown at 7:58 PM on November 4, 2012 [14 favorites]


I do agree with Argyle. I see no value in spending time or money to let people like Richard Ramirez live.

I do think the death penalty is applied too broadly and should only be applied in the most heinous cases where there is 100% certainty of guilty.

However, it's an easy choice. The death penalty in CA is 100% broken. We spend a astronomical sum of money on legal fees for appeals of death row inmates that will never get executed.
posted by gnutron at 8:05 PM on November 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


I do agree with Argyle. I see no value in spending time or money to let people like Richard Ramirez live.

Read up thread. It costs far, far more to execute someone in the US than it does to keep them in jail forever. The average execution in California costs $308 million. But it only costs an average of $47,000 a year to keep someone in prison. Over 50 years, that's less than $2.5 million all up (leaving aside inflation...etc.).

Executing someone is more than 100 times more expensive than keeping them in jail until they die. Where's the value in that? Is killing an evil bastard worth $300 million to you? How many cops would that pay for? How many schools? Killing him is not going to protect anyone more than keeping him locked away.

How much is vengeance worth?
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 8:47 PM on November 4, 2012 [13 favorites]


In the dialog of crime/punishment, there are 3 purposes (widely varying in implementation) for incarceration/imprisonment:

1) Segregation from society
2) Retribution (making their time unpleasant)
3) Rehabilitation (making their time useful and hopefully to prevent recidivism)

#3, we can likely agree, is massively underprioritized in favor of #2 and #1.

The death penalty is the most extreme service of the segregation purpose. No executed criminal ever is a risk to society after that.

I think societies should be allowed to consider the death penalty as the ultimate sanction -- but in practice I can honestly only support it for the, as said above "evil bastards" -- mass murderers, serial killers, etc.

I'm happy to be corrected, but I'm unaware of any people later found to have been wrongly convicted of a large number of murders. But I also find all of the current methods to be ineffective in preventing needless pain for the condemned. Perhaps a massive overdose of morphine or a nitrogen-gas chamber would be more in order than the current cyanide gas or lethal injections which rely on sedatives and barbiturates to decrease the likelihood of suffering.
posted by chimaera at 8:48 PM on November 4, 2012


I do agree with Argyle. I see no value in spending time or money to let people like Richard Ramirez live.

I'm happy to be corrected, but I'm unaware of any people later found to have been wrongly convicted of a large number of murders.


You can't make the law work that way. I mean, what would be the cutoff for capital cases? 3 murders? 4? 5?

As previously stated in this thread we will never have perfect legal systems and innocent people will get executed. That's not worth it. Not on any level whatsoever.
posted by Phlegmco(tm) at 8:57 PM on November 4, 2012


I am all for executing those who are 100% guilty and evil. Therefore, in a reality with crooked cops, racist juries, and unreliable eyewitness testimony, I can't support the death penalty.
posted by benzenedream at 9:01 PM on November 4, 2012 [4 favorites]


As an American I learned in school that it is better to execute a thousand innocent men than allow one guilty man to go free.

(Public school, you know.)
posted by Pope Guilty at 9:02 PM on November 4, 2012


I'm happy to be corrected, but I'm unaware of any people later found to have been wrongly convicted of a large number of murders.

Henry Lee Lucas is a very unusual case of something like this. Basically his situation was the perfect storm of psychopath + shoddy justice system. I haven't done a thorough reading of background materials on him so I'm not comfortable asserting he was not guilty of anything, but there is some chance he is not guilty of any of the specific murders he was sentenced to death for. (And note that his death sentence was commuted.)
posted by sallybrown at 9:02 PM on November 4, 2012


I moved to CA from TX about a year and a half ago. This is my first big election as a resident of this massively fucked-up broke-ass state. Voting to repeal a death penalty, which my husband and I did last week when I was home sick from work and we got our absentee ballots, was the first time that voting ever made me cry. I have never felt so honored, and can't even imagine a day when the same vote might come up in Texas.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:10 PM on November 4, 2012 [4 favorites]


As previously stated in this thread we will never have perfect legal systems and innocent people will get executed.

As far as I can tell, we have two options:

1) There is a death penalty. If you are accused of a heinous crime, you get the very best in pro bono counsel. The prosecutor tries hard to strike a plea bargain because prosecuting your case will take forever. There are numerous checks and balances that may take years to play out. Of course, if none of that works, then maybe an innocent person dies.

2) There is no death penalty. If you are accused of a heinous crime, you get the run of the mill public defender, and you get life in prison without parole. Your case gets no special attention because you're just one of thousands each year who get that sentence, and you're sent to a supermax prison where you spend the rest of your life in near-total solitary confinement, slowly going mad. There's the tiniest sliver of a possibility that new evidence could come to light that will prove you innocent -- but the chances of that happening are worse than winning the lottery.

Sadly, I think there's a decent humanitarian argument in favor of keeping the death penalty.
posted by miyabo at 9:11 PM on November 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


So I was a very political and militant 19 year old and I was pretty pro-death penalty because I believed, and I still do believe, that there are things that negate your right to exist. You can do stuff that makes us say, as a culture, you should not continue to live.

However, our system is not infallible. it is so, so not infallible. And along with the introduction of DNA evidence and bias and racism and railroading and corruption and well, everything else that makes up our totally fallible justice system, that I would rather someone be left to live for a crime they may have committed then for someone to be killed for a crime they may have not committed.

Cause you can't undo killing someone. And in an ideal, unfalliable world I do support the death penalty but in our actual, totally fallible world I do not. Cause the risk of murdering an innocent person weighs heavier on my soul then the risk of keeping someone alive.
posted by The Whelk at 9:16 PM on November 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


That is a really impressive false dichotomy.

We can actually improve the quality of commonly available legal defense without killing anyone. All it would take is money!
posted by LogicalDash at 9:18 PM on November 4, 2012 [3 favorites]


"Is it better to put them to death so that their victims an their victims' families have peace"

Many victim's rights groups actually oppose the death penalty for this reason. Victim's rights generally place the importance of restorative justice -- making the victim whole again -- above retributive justice (punishing the offender). Crimes are always against not just the victim but against society, and historically society (in the guise of the state) has been the more important aggrieved party in U.S. courts. (Which isn't necessarily bad; part of the reason we don't just allow random vigilante justice but instead entrust justice to the state is that people are bad arbiters of justice when they personally have been injured.)

So in cases like theft, restorative justice is relatively easy to think about: restore the objects stolen, and then the thief and victim usually participate in some form of mediated meeting where the victim is able to express anger and the thief expresses remorse and hopefully the victim is able to grow towards healing from the crime.

But when someone has been murdered, the dead family member obviously can't be restored, so thinking about restorative justice becomes a lot more difficult. However, victim's rights advocacy groups have found over the years (they've been around since the 60s and 70s mostly) that in many cases (certainly not all), families struggle a lot more after an execution than after a life-without-parole sentence. The families often feel that the murderer got closure but they didn't, and after a murder family members often come back with questions they finally feel able to ask 10 years or 20 years down the road, and they want to talk to the murderer at that point. For some it's an unbearable agony that the murderer has been executed and they (the families) now can't get their own closure and have a harder time with the process of healing. Families also often feel they have betrayed the memory of their dead loved one by seeking the death penalty instead of forgiveness, especially if the victim had a belief system that included an emphasis on forgiveness or pacifism.

This certainly isn't universal, but it's a very common dynamic -- common enough that you will quite often see, in newspaper reporting on sentencing statements made by family members asking that the murderer NOT receive the death penalty, family members reiterating these as their reasoning.

"where there is 100% certainty of guilty. "

Which cases are those?

"Is killing an evil bastard worth $300 million to you? How many cops would that pay for?"

It may have been Connecticut that put it in almost exactly these terms when discussing abolition. They said, "The differential between maintaining the death penalty and just keeping them in prison for life is $X millions per year, which allows us to put 58 cops on the beat, forever, which will prevent this many violent crimes." And whichever state this was proposed earmarking the saved money to do exactly that, apportioning it among high-crime areas. I recall it being fairly persuasive when people saw how many cops they'd be getting.

"I'm happy to be corrected, but I'm unaware of any people later found to have been wrongly convicted of a large number of murders."


I know what you mean (and I won't nitpick about killing many people at one time as an arsonist might, etc. -- a man in Texas WAS executed for a fire that killed his children that he almost certainly didn't set), and I can't think of any wrongful serial-killer convictions either off the top of my head. I will ask a friend of mine who's a federal defense attorney and has some mob clients, I bet she's seen a few.

But the point is, if we're thinking about straight-up serial killers, there just aren't that many of them. As long as we have executions, we will EVENTUALLY have someone wrongfully convicted of serial killing and we will execute that person. (Also, with legit serial killers, detectives often aren't that eager to have them put to death, because you come up with a cold case two years later that you're pretty sure is from that serial killer ... it's a lot harder to interview him about it when he's dead.) But because there are so few serial killers, you probably have quite a long lead time before you have a wrongfully-convicted serial killer.

But yeah, in summary, the Death Penalty:
*Can't ensure the innocent aren't executed
*Costs more than life without parole
*It's unfairly applied, only against certain perps, or on behalf of certain victims, and always and forever based on your county and whether your state's attorney Has Ambitions to higher office (some state courts have found it so unfairly applied as to violate equal protection)
*It doesn't necessarily serve victims or bring them peace
*It doesn't deter criminals from committing crimes
*It doesn't rehabilitate the criminal

It just punishes, in the most expensive and final way possible, someone the system can't be 100% sure is guilty. I don't think punishment is an invalid purpose of the law, but the law doesn't need to go to the extreme of "death" in order to achieve its punishment goals.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:19 PM on November 4, 2012 [9 favorites]


If you are accused of a heinous crime, you get the run of the mill public defender, and you get life in prison without parole. Your case gets no special attention because you're just one of thousands each year who get that sentence,

I don't know about the second part of this...even now, in a country with the death penalty, groups like The Innocence Project represent prisoners sentenced to life (and shorter) terms in addition to those on death row. My sense is that ending the death penalty would increase the special attention to prisoners with life sentences.
posted by sallybrown at 9:22 PM on November 4, 2012 [3 favorites]


Sadly, I think there's a decent humanitarian argument in favor of keeping the death penalty.

So will you volunteer to be the person to take the hit for the team? Since someone obviously has to.
posted by Talez at 9:50 PM on November 4, 2012


The idea of innocent people being executed is not just a cautionary tale. Innocent people have been executed. Though we can only really prove a small number, I think that the real number of wrongfully executed people would shock us if there was any way of actually knowing. I did a project on the death penalty in college and I ran across a quote from someone (I'm thinking it was Justice Louis Brandeis but can't remember for sure, it also might have been former San Quentin warden Clinton Duffy, who was a notable opponent of the death penalty, as are most prison wardens) that said that they knew of something like around 100 cases of innocent people that had been executed. But I bet it's even higher than that.

I highly recommend reading the New Yorker story of Cameron Todd Willingham linked by sallybrown above.
posted by triggerfinger at 10:05 PM on November 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


Sadly, I think there's a decent humanitarian argument in favor of keeping the death penalty.

Whether the state executes a criminal directly or just locks them in prison and waits for old age to do the job, either way the punishment is that they don't get to live their life. I don't see how "years of prison, then death" is more humane than just "death". If we are going to have a punishment which is "you don't get to live", then we ought to just be honest about it and execute them as soon as their guilt has been established. If we're not comfortable with that, then perhaps we should re-examine the idea of life imprisonment as well.
posted by Mars Saxman at 10:44 PM on November 4, 2012


perhaps we should re-examine the idea of life imprisonment as well.
Sorry, it needed fixin'.
posted by Goofyy at 10:55 PM on November 4, 2012


It's not just that innocent people might be executed. It's that they often are executed. Look at what happened in Illinois.

Who winds up on death row? It's disproportionately poor (black) men who can't afford good legal representation.

Even if you think that it's permissible for a state to take the life of a citizen as punishment for a crime, surely it's not permissible to have a system that wrongly executes the poor because they can't afford adequate legal representation.
posted by professor plum with a rope at 11:16 PM on November 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


There are a bunch of important propositions on the ballot in California on Tuesday. The one that will have the strongest impact on my own life is Prop 30, as it will stop further draconian cuts to California schools and universities. But in terms of justice, Prop 34 and Prop 36--which amends the insane three-strikes law--are the most significant.
posted by professor plum with a rope at 11:25 PM on November 4, 2012


If we are going to have a punishment which is "you don't get to live", then we ought to just be honest about it and execute them as soon as their guilt has been established. If we're not comfortable with that, then perhaps we should re-examine the idea of life imprisonment as well.

You're missing the one most important difference between the two, though, which is that if an innocent person is sentenced to life in prison, there's a chance they'll have the time and resources to prove their innocence and be released. Those who are executed at once will not have such an option.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 12:04 AM on November 5, 2012


I understand the sentiment, flawed justice system, budget crisis etc; but I am always struck by how much more people seem to care about these highly visible death row prisoners and their families rather than their invisible victims and their families.

It's like a bizarre carnival mirror of the pro life movement's total lack of concern about what happens to the inalienable rights of these precious children upon their birth.
posted by hobo gitano de queretaro at 12:25 AM on November 5, 2012 [4 favorites]


I'm a "shades of grey" kinda guy when it comes to morality. Ive had all kinds of crazy things confessed to me that I just shrug off. Walk long enough in someone's shoes and you can usually make some sense of the thought process that lead to Unspeakable Moral Travesty X. Not forgive, but at least see how Condition A + Action B lead to X.

The Death Penalty is literally my only exception to this. Yeah, there's the cost issue, there's the corrupt legal system issue, the execution of innocents, but wipe all that aside, and you're still left with the central issue -- I will paraphrase a much younger, angrier Jerry Brown:

The government of civilized people should not be in the business of murdering its own citizens. This is for animals, psychopaths, and war generals.

Every time one of these discussions comes up, someone says, "oh yeah, the system is corrupt and we need to stop until the system is reformed so we don't accidentally kill an innocent."

Animal. Psychopath. War general.

"Oh but Bad Guy Bob, he did some really heinous things, I'm against the death penalty but that guy seriously has no right to live."

Animal. psychopath. War General.

"But Slarty dude, what if it was *your* wife and family that was raped and flayed open on the living room rug?"

Good lord, my mental state is somewhere between animal and psychopath and you're putting this decision in *my* hands??!



Yeah man, let's talk about the logical reasons to abolish capital punishment, the cost, the ineffectiveness, the racist way it's applied, the execution of innocents, yadda yadda. But if you need any reason beyond the total visceral repugnance that we are ruled by frothing dogs who think that state sponsored murder paid for by my taxes somehow restores cosmic order, well I guess you really don't have a soul worth redeeming. I mean I realize society affords many of these animals and psychopaths the same "rights" as me, but you all are pretty easy to spot and stay away from. Im quite happy over here in "civilized society" with all my friends. I was just a little surprised at the number of frothing dogs, animals, and psychopaths here on MeFi.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 1:36 AM on November 5, 2012 [8 favorites]


It would also apply retroactively to the 727 people currently on death row in the state, the most of any state in the country by nearly 100%.

It also bears pointing out that California has more than double the population of any other state barring Texas. On a per-capita basis, CA ranks 20th in death sentences. Still not an admirable state of affairs, but context is important.
posted by psoas at 4:04 AM on November 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


gnutron: I do think the death penalty is applied too broadly and should only be applied in the most heinous cases where there is 100% certainty of guilt

Which means, in other words, that you are actually in favor of abolishing the death penalty, you just haven't thought your way through it completely.
posted by Malor at 4:36 AM on November 5, 2012 [8 favorites]


but I am always struck by how much more people seem to care about these highly visible death row prisoners and their families rather than their invisible victims and their families.

And I am always struck by how death penalty supporters mistake bloodlust for caring for the victims?

Should I ever be murdered in some horrific manner, don't act as if you're caring about me or my family while you try to kill someone in my name.
posted by hoyland at 5:21 AM on November 5, 2012 [13 favorites]


I had to sign off yesterday, but the scenario I mentinoned earlier has happened:

In California, Susan Atkins, of the Manson Family, was denied leave from jail in 2009 because she was suffering from brain cancer. So, she passed away in prison, suffering from brain cancer. I'm just posing this as a possible direction the death penalty argument will run in the future: That, it's not man's place to execute people, but if God wants them, we shouldn't get in the way.

Or as Batman puts it: "I won't kill you, but I don't have to save you."
posted by FJT at 6:19 AM on November 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


California has 727 people on death row and has executed 13 people since 1976. The majority of them will never be executed. Death row inmates "already are more likely to die of old age, other natural causes or suicide."
posted by kirkaracha at 6:35 AM on November 5, 2012


But if you need any reason beyond the total visceral repugnance that we are ruled by frothing dogs who think that state sponsored murder paid for by my taxes somehow restores cosmic order, well I guess you really don't have a soul worth redeeming.

Animal. Psychopath. War general.


For somebody who claims to have a soul, you have a surprising lack of empathy for other viewpoints. It must be very convenient for you to lump anybody you disagree with into the "Animals/Psychopaths/War Generals" box so that you can loathe them properly. I believe the behavior you demonstrate is referred to as "othering" and it's generally not a compliment.

I oppose the death penalty since the risk of killing an innocent is too high, and (as others have pointed out) it's a very uneconomical proposition. But I don't think that people who support the death penalty are fundamentally bad, I find animals to be more virtuous in many ways than humans, and I genuinely respect Colin Powell and others who have devoted their lives to military service. What I don't respect are sanctimonious people who try to impose their morality on others, as you are doing here. Are you a fundamentalist Christian conservative, by any chance? Your belief that your own personal morality regarding the sanctity of human life is the One and Only True Path that we must follow seems to be a central hallmark of the fundamentalist pro-life movement.
posted by wolfdreams01 at 7:12 AM on November 5, 2012


Would any of you support the death penalty 150 years ago? In the sense of a frontier society that has a small population, with a lack of solid law, and a real possibility of felons escaping?
posted by FJT at 7:18 AM on November 5, 2012


Whatever else the death penalty is, it's not "state-sponsored murder." Or else you might as well call prison for rapists "state-sponsored kidnapping" and fines for fraudulent bankers "state-sponsored armed robbery"...well hey, that does sound like some political parties right now, actually.

When something is done with due process and under the aegis of a reasonably legitimate political system, it's very different from a simple crime.
posted by shivohum at 7:19 AM on November 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


Would any of you support the death penalty 150 years ago? In the sense of a frontier society that has a small population, with a lack of solid law, and a real possibility of felons escaping?

Ask someone 150 years ago on the frontier who is actually living in that context and whose answer would have some real-world relevance. Otherwise, bringing it up is an attempt to divert the discussion.

Prop 34 is about California in 2012, where & when a lot of us actually live.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 7:42 AM on November 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


I kinda feel the way about death penalty support the way I do about slaughterhouses: Public executions and glass-walled slaughterhouses.

If society has such an appetite for death, society has to watch.

Me, I'm just glad Damien Echols didn't get killed by the state based on lies, incompetence, & prejudice.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 7:48 AM on November 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


Ask someone 150 years ago on the frontier who is actually living in that context and whose answer would have some real-world relevance. Otherwise, bringing it up is an attempt to divert the discussion.

And you're just attempting to shut it down by saying that. There are different ways to approach the discussion of the death penalty. We're not under a court of law that restricts us to yes and no answers. Some people are approaching the discussion on moral terms, others are approaching it on economic terms. I'm approaching it from another direction. If you don't feel it's applicable, then you can simply ignore my question.
posted by FJT at 7:49 AM on November 5, 2012


Some people are approaching the discussion on moral terms, others are approaching it on economic terms. I'm approaching it from another direction.

If you're not approaching this from a moral or even economic point of view, then in what terms is "yeah but what if we lived in Deadwood?" approaching the death penalty question? I mean as a thought exercise it's interesting, but I think what PBZM is saying is that hypotheticals that have no basis in the reality we live in are unhelpful in talking about this.

So, if the time-traveling scenario isn't an attempt to approach the death penalty question in moral or economic terms, what is this "other direction"?
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 8:01 AM on November 5, 2012


In what practical, real-world way does determining who someone feels about frontier justice 150 years ago inform how someone is going to vote on California's prop 34 tomorrow?

Some people are approaching the discussion on moral terms, others are approaching it on economic terms. I'm approaching it from another direction.

You're approaching it from the angle of intellectual masturbation , and this is a real-world issue that will be decided at the polls on Tuesday, with real-lives on the line.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 8:08 AM on November 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


Death penalty questions seem absurdly simple to me.

Let's accept the proposition that some people have committed crimes for which they deserve to forfeit their lives. This is a question worthy of some debate, but the answer doesn't really affect the question of a death penalty so we might as well concede the point.


It strikes me that no moral society should accept a state-imposed death penalty in which there is a non-zero chance that people will be executed who are innocent of the crimes of which they have been accused. This is, of course, an impossibility.

It also strikes me that no moral society should accept a state-imposed death penalty in which there is a non-zero chance that the nature of the system or those administering it advantages or disadvantages certain classes or categories of defendant compared to other classes or categories of defendant in capital cases. This, of course, is also an impossibility.


But really, the issue seems even more simple than that...

The state shouldn't be in the business of killing its citizens.


What more possibly needs to be said?
posted by slkinsey at 8:16 AM on November 5, 2012 [3 favorites]


The only reason I'm voting no on this proposition is the fact that it commutes the death sentences of the following people:

* Rodney Alcala - "The Dating Game Killer" - murdered anywhere between 8-130 people, convicted of 5 murders.
* Lawrence Bittaker - Tortured and murdered five women. Death row since 1981.
* David Carpenter - "The Trailside Killer" - murdered between 5 and 9 people.
* Dean Carter - Murdered 5 women.
* Kevin Cooper - Murdered a family with a hatchet and knife. Death row since 1985.
* Cynthia Coffman - Murdered 4 people
* Randy Craft - "The Freeway Killer"- Raped and murdered at least 16, but up to 60 boys and young men.


And the list goes on and on...do I want, as a voter, to be the one to make the decision that these people, among others, should be allowed to live the rest of their lives, despite the fact that they were found guilty and sentenced to death for these absolutely heinous crimes? I don't know.
posted by allseeingabstract at 8:16 AM on November 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


I'm happy to be corrected, but I'm unaware of any people later found to have been wrongly convicted of a large number of murders.

We just had a thread on the Swedish serial killer who never was.

BBC Radio 4 ran a story the other day about a couple who met late in life (one American, one Irish), having both been sentenced to death for murdering policemen and later exonerated.

Your case gets no special attention because you're just one of thousands each year who get that sentence, and you're sent to a supermax prison where you spend the rest of your life in near-total solitary confinement, slowly going mad. There's the tiniest sliver of a possibility that new evidence could come to light that will prove you innocent -- but the chances of that happening are worse than winning the lottery.

So it's better to go slightly-less-slowly mad, knowing that you're an innocent person being sent to your death? Better to be one of a list of forgotten prisoners languishing on deathrow, rather than on a list of forgotten prisoners languishing in prison who would otherwise have been on deathrow?

I wonder what would have happened to one of Australia's most maligned "murderers" if we'd had the death penalty in the 1980s.
posted by rory at 8:20 AM on November 5, 2012


And the list goes on and on...do I want, as a voter, to be the one to make the decision that these people, among others, should be allowed to live the rest of their lives, despite the fact that they were found guilty and sentenced to death for these absolutely heinous crimes? I don't know.

How many innocent lives of people who committed NO CRIME have to be snuffed out by someone on the state payroll so that you can be absolutely sure to all the bad actors pay with their lives?

Because if it is important to you that those horrible people not escape death at the hands of a taxpayer-funded state employee, then you have to sit down and get right with exactly how many innocent lives that measure of blood vengeance is worth to you as a Californian.

How many Damien Echols are you okay with being strapped down and murdered so that David Carpenter will be sure to get his turn?

Mistrust those in whom in instinct to punish is strong
-Nietzche (or possibly someone else)
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 8:22 AM on November 5, 2012 [3 favorites]


do I want, as a voter, to be the one to make the decision that these people, among others, should be allowed to live the rest of their lives, despite the fact that they were found guilty and sentenced to death for these absolutely heinous crimes?

How about asking yourself this question another way? Do you want, as a voter, to be the one to make the decision that an innocent person will be executed by the State of California? Since there is a >0% probability of innocent people being executed, you could frame the decision as either voting "yes" to stop killing innocent people or "no to continue killing innocent people.
posted by slkinsey at 8:22 AM on November 5, 2012 [5 favorites]


The proposition should be for an abolition of the death penalty, but with no retroactive commutations. How about including in the proposition a thorough judicial review (or independent review) of every death row case currently pending, so that justice is still served for those who have already been sentenced to death?
posted by allseeingabstract at 8:26 AM on November 5, 2012


So, if the time-traveling scenario isn't an attempt to approach the death penalty question in moral or economic terms, what is this "other direction"?

To try to find out why people support the death penalty. Some people may support it purely because it's always been this way (tradition). Others may do it because of a real concern of potential harm this decision might cause.

For example, the emotional feelings regarding "Yeah, but they could escape" partially created the media circus around the whole Gitmo thing. I see it as applicable, because it can definitely be used to dissuade people from doing away with the death penalty. Because on the opposite side of the coin of accidentally killing the innocent, is the other side where you don't kill a guilty person. And as long as that person is alive, there's a possibility they can escape and do harm to others.
posted by FJT at 8:29 AM on November 5, 2012


as long as that person is alive, there's a possibility they can escape and do harm to others.

I wonder when is the last time a convicted murderer escaped from a maximum security prison in the United States.
posted by slkinsey at 8:39 AM on November 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


There does appear to have been one escape from a supermax prison in the past forty years. "All eight fugitives were later captured, one making it as far as Canada. Throughout the manhunt, no one was injured."

So, set that against the known wrongful convictions and executions of the same period in your mental balance sheet, and you're good to go.
posted by rory at 8:40 AM on November 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yeah, I gotta say that the possibility of a serial killer escaping maximum security prison to go on another rampage is ranked somewhere between "velociraptor attack" and "leprechauns with rabies" in terms of what I consider real-life threats. Innocent people executed, on the other hand, seems to be a very real thing.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 8:43 AM on November 5, 2012 [6 favorites]


"In what practical, real-world way does determining who someone feels about frontier justice 150 years ago inform how someone is going to vote on California's prop 34 tomorrow?"

It may not be a strategy that you like, but thought experiments like this can help people sort out their opinions on moral questions, especially "hot" moral questions where emotions are involved. It's easier to emotionally distance oneself when thinking about a hypothetical from 150 years ago. The thinker may say to himself, "Okay, so I think it would have been necessary 150 years ago, why? Because you couldn't guarantee the perps would stay in prison. But today prisons are a lot safer and people don't escape very often. Is it still necessary? Maybe not. What if we put GPS trackers on perps? Okay, yeah, then I think we should definitely get rid of it."

When I teach ethics I often walk my students through very unlikely or even absurd hypotheticals to help clarify our thinking about much more current issues where emotions make it hard to sort out one's moral reasoning from one's gut reactions. When we discuss abortion, they're often at first like, "Why are you trivializing this by pretending there are talking dolphins?" but as we start to focus in on key principals and become able to clarify them through these hypotheticals, they start to engage with them more enthusiastically and come up with their own.

Not that it can't be done in bad faith, but I don't think FJT was doing it in bad faith; it's an interesting question that might help someone clarify their thinking about the modern death penalty. If you don't like the hypothetical, or don't think in that way, you don't have to engage with it.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:48 AM on November 5, 2012 [3 favorites]


I wonder when is the last time a convicted murderer escaped from a maximum security prison in the United States.

Yes, that's true. But the counter argument is, "Well, before 9/11, when was the last time someone succeeded in ramming a large passenger jet into a skyscraper?" Black swans, etc.

You can try to assure people with statistics, but it's emotion oftentimes that sticks. Why else do you think Prop 34 is going to lose or win on a razor's margin?
posted by FJT at 8:49 AM on November 5, 2012


allseeingabstract "The only reason I'm voting no on this proposition is the fact that it commutes the death sentences of the following people..."

But that's not the complete list right? Because the honest list would, as history has constantly taught us, have at least one more person:

* John Doe - Innocent, never harmed anyone

By voting no, by saying that the death sentence should exist. You're quite simply saying "These people deserve to die because they killed innocent people, and I'm okay with more innocent people dying for that to happen".
posted by Static Vagabond at 8:51 AM on November 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


Why else do you think Prop 34 is going to lose or win on a razor's margin?

Lust for revenge.
posted by slkinsey at 8:54 AM on November 5, 2012 [3 favorites]


You can try to assure people with statistics, but it's emotion oftentimes that sticks. Why else do you think Prop 34 is going to lose or win on a razor's margin?

I don't think the proper strategy to confronting a morally complex issue is to feed irrational appeals to emotion. The way you get to break this down is to show people the facts of the matter - invocations of 9/11 notwithstanding.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 9:18 AM on November 5, 2012


What I don't respect are sanctimonious people who try to impose their morality on others, as you are doing here. Are you a fundamentalist Christian conservative, by any chance? Your belief that your own personal morality regarding the sanctity of human life is the One and Only True Path that we must follow seems to be a central hallmark of the fundamentalist pro-life movement.

I prefaced my sanctimonious rant with a statement that directly contradicts this assessment. I'll even say it: some people's lives are worth more in quantifiable terms than others. But the controlled, institutionalized killing of humans by a government for no purpose other than revenge is so far beyond what the awesome power of the state ought to be allowed to do, that arguments about cost and the execution of innocents ,though persuasive, are peripheral. We kill murderers because it makes us feel better and I'm not even saying that there's something bad or changeable about our emotional nature. I'm saying civilized governments create laws and institutions that strive to promote fairness, equality, freedom, safety, and prosperity, not act out our emotions.

Feel free to hang on to your own morality, just don't use my tax money to carry out your* bloodlust, I'd much rather pay for your therapy.

*the hypothetical "you", I recognize you said you oppose capital punishment
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 9:33 AM on November 5, 2012 [3 favorites]


You're missing the one most important difference between the two, though, which is that if an innocent person is sentenced to life in prison, there's a chance they'll have the time and resources to prove their innocence and be released. Those who are executed at once will not have such an option.

I'm not so much arguing for capital punishment as I am arguing against life imprisonment. Whether we sentence someone to "death by gas chamber" or "death by lethal injection" or "death by old age", we're still sentencing them to death. Yes, in the case of "life imprisonment" / "death by old age" there is a remote possibility that someone on the outside might decide to spend enormous amounts of time and/or money working on your case, and might actually, against all odds, succeed in getting you sprung, but it doesn't seem to happen very often. Against that hope, there's the near certainty that you will spend 40 or 50 years rotting away in prison before you die, which is generally thought to be a fairly substantial punishment on its own.

The low probability of exoneration, combined with the high intensity of punishment, makes me think that life imprisonment is not, on balance, a significant improvement over the death penalty.

I don't know what the right answer is. I just think this is a complicated problem, and that there are unpleasant consequences lurking behind every corner. I think we, as a society, are probably better off not using the death penalty, but I'm not convinced that simply abolishing the death penalty will on its own make our "justice" system more just or more humane.
posted by Mars Saxman at 9:59 AM on November 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's not just the murdering of the innocent...what about someone who did the crime, but had an improper sentence? In my work I've seen examples like a defendant sentenced to life when he should have served 10 years, all because someone made a mistake about his prior offenses. Maybe the State makes a similar mistake, decides to go for death because they had incorrect information. And on and on. Also, minorities get incarcerated longer and given the death penalty more than whites for the same crimes. We already don't apply it fairly. It must go. Barbaric to continue it.
posted by agregoli at 10:01 AM on November 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


I don't think the proper strategy to confronting a morally complex issue is to feed irrational appeals to emotion. The way you get to break this down is to show people the facts of the matter - invocations of 9/11 notwithstanding.

And once the facts have been dispensed and the dust clears, what do we do when the opposing side remains? Usually what happens is we write them off as villains, and it becomes a war of attrition: either who has the most money to spend or who's side gets tired of having to vote repeatedly first.

There's lots of bad propositions that got farther then they are, and usually because of emotion. If you bring in sex crimes, child/animal abuse, and potential endangerment of the public into a proposition then it usually gets a lot more support even if it is badly written.

Personally, I'm probably not going to vote on this proposition because I'm uncertain on what the right choice is. The only certainty is, that whatever choice I make, I will be branded as either allowing the potential death of the innocent, or in support of murderers.
posted by FJT at 10:03 AM on November 5, 2012


"Dante once said that the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in a period of moral crisis maintain their neutrality."
-John F. Kennedy, 1963
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 10:08 AM on November 5, 2012


And once the facts have been dispensed and the dust clears, what do we do when the opposing side remains? Usually what happens is we write them off as villains, and it becomes a war of attrition: either who has the most money to spend or who's side gets tired of having to vote repeatedly first.

Well, there's always going to be those who support capital punishment. But we have this dialogue and this referendum as a part of the democratic process of reflecting that which most citizens want. So, I don't really see the need to "do" anything with death penalty proponents, to be honest. We're not going to convince everyone.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 10:20 AM on November 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


Personally, I'm probably not going to vote on this proposition because I'm uncertain on what the right choice is.

This is my hail mary pass...give Justice Blackmun's dissent to denial of cert in Callins v. Collins a read if you have time before voting. He moved from strong support of the death penalty (in fact, he dissented when the Supreme Court struck down the penalty in '72) to strongly opposing it in his last few years on the Court. It is a powerful explanation of why a penalty that many find acceptable, moral, and fair in theory is not functional in practice.

(I am super jealous you have a chance to vote on this issue.)
posted by sallybrown at 10:22 AM on November 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


Yeah, if the death penalty isn't a deterrent, I fail to see how "double hell" would be effective either.
posted by FJT at 10:22 AM on November 5, 2012


FJT: "There's lots of bad propositions that got farther then they are, and usually because of emotion. If you bring in sex crimes, child/animal abuse, and potential endangerment of the public into a proposition then it usually gets a lot more support even if it is badly written."

Look no further than the next item on the California ballot for that: Prop 35, which claims to be about stopping sex trafficking, and will actually just further criminalize the people it says it will help. It's a horribly written mess of a proposition, and most people are just going to look at it and say "why, yes, sex trafficking is bad! I will vote yes!" In reality, it will force people with long-past convictions, as well as potentially the family members of people newly-convicted of sex work, to now register as sex offenders and live under an absurd set of restrictions. It won't end actual sex trafficking as much as criminalize and drive further underground the people it claims to want to protect.
posted by gingerbeer at 10:23 AM on November 5, 2012 [5 favorites]


Ugh. Prop 35. Staring at that trainwreck of a law on my ballot and knowing that my piddling little black line wasn't going to do much to stop it was the low point of my voting experience.

That 34 is polling as well as it is softened the blow somewhat.
posted by Doublewhiskeycokenoice at 10:42 AM on November 5, 2012


If you really don't know how to vote on the death penalty item, maybe go read about Jeanne Woodward, who used to be the warden at San Quentin and has been in corrections for decades. She is working to overturn the death penalty. She knows what there is to know about it - how it's administered, what it costs, who gets it and who doesn't.

For the seven super-bad bad guys listed above: How much is it worth to keep them on death row? Is it worth several billion dollars? Dollars which could be used in more positive ways (like, maybe, programs that help keep kids in school/out of gangs/out of the justice system/lower tuition and fees at UC and CSU)? Or do we just keep paying more and more? Because it's not going to suddenly get cheaper to keep the death penalty if this measure fails.
posted by rtha at 11:13 AM on November 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


But the controlled, institutionalized killing of humans by a government for no purpose other than revenge is so far beyond what the awesome power of the state ought to be allowed to do, that arguments about cost and the execution of innocents ,though persuasive, are peripheral. We kill murderers because it makes us feel better and I'm not even saying that there's something bad or changeable about our emotional nature. I'm saying civilized governments create laws and institutions that strive to promote fairness, equality, freedom, safety, and prosperity, not act out our emotions.

Feel free to hang on to your own morality, just don't use my tax money to carry out your* bloodlust, I'd much rather pay for your therapy.

*the hypothetical "you", I recognize you said you oppose capital punishment


The desire for vengeance is a perfectly valid emotion, and it evolved for a very good reason. I don't think you can dismiss it as worthless bloodlust simply because it doesn't align with your world view. If getting vengeance on a savage killer/rapist makes the victims feel better, then vengeance has a high value to them - and considering what the victim has suffered, I don't think it's unreasonable for the state to give the victim partial compensation in the form of revenge against whomever who wronged them. By taking away that option, you're prioritizing the murderer's physical well-being over the victim's emotional well-being. Furthermore, you're being exceptionally arrogant and close-minded when you try to turn your disdain for revenge into a system of morality that you claim the rest of us ought to follow. You're behaving like a right-wing anti-abortion fundamentalist, in fact - ascribing a sanctity to all life that you seem to want all the rest of us to follow unquestioningly, and being judgemental of those who disagree with you. Seriously, was it really necessary to call other MeFites "psychopaths" simply because they believe in the principle of retribution? Most of human society secretly believes in revenge: that's why we glamorize it in movies such as Batman or Dirty Harry. If believing in revenge makes people psychopaths, then welcome to the global asylum - grab a straightjacket and strap yourself in.

I think the best point you made is the one which you're trivializing - the fact that your tax dollars pay for it and that gives you a say in how its spent. This is the only point you made which does not in some way involve you attempting to force your belief in the sanctity of life onto other people. So yes, you're welcome to disagree all you want with people who support the death penalty - and for what it's worth, I agree with you. But I strongly disagree with how disrespectful and judgemental you're being of them, and how much lack of empathy you seem to display towards a system of morality that differs from your own. Their views have a solid rationale to them and are worthy of respectful discussion, not personal insults.

On a side note, thank you for acknowledging that I don't believe in capital punishment simply because I'm willing to speak up for the people who support it. That was surprisingly fair-minded of you and most people in your position would have tried to demonize me by conflating my respect for people who support capital punishment into being the same thing as support for capital punishment itself.
posted by wolfdreams01 at 11:32 AM on November 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


If getting vengeance on a savage killer/rapist makes the victims feel better, then vengeance has a high value to them - and considering what the victim has suffered, I don't think it's unreasonable for the state to give the victim partial compensation in the form of revenge against whomever who wronged them. By taking away that option, you're prioritizing the murderer's physical well-being over the victim's emotional well-being.

No, this is exactly wrong. It is perfectly natural for someone who has been injured to want vengeance on the person they think has victimized them. This is among the many reasons we have a system in which the accused aren't judged and punished by their alleged victims.
posted by slkinsey at 11:38 AM on November 5, 2012 [5 favorites]


I don't think it's unreasonable for the state to give the victim partial compensation in the form of revenge

But the state already doesn't do this. Death penalty charges are not laid against every person eligible for them. And there are non-capital-crime homicides committed all the time in this state - the victims (I assume you mean the families of the murdered person, since the murdered person themself no longer has any desires about revenge) of those crimes don't get to seek state-sponsored killing as revenge.

Did you know that it's a capital offense in California to shoot and kill someone from a car? I can guarantee that not every gangbanger who's done a drive-by and been caught has been charged with death-penalty-eligible murder. And it's heavily dependent on where the crime takes place. This guy was convicted of shooting three people (from a car, even), but he committed his crime in San Francisco County, which doesn't elect DAs who bring death penalty charges. If he'd done it in a different county, he might have gotten the death penalty. Or maybe not. As it is, he's never getting out.
posted by rtha at 11:59 AM on November 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


For the seven super-bad bad guys listed above: How much is it worth to keep them on death row? Is it worth several billion dollars? Dollars which could be used in more positive ways (like, maybe, programs that help keep kids in school/out of gangs/out of the justice system/lower tuition and fees at UC and CSU)? Or do we just keep paying more and more? Because it's not going to suddenly get cheaper to keep the death penalty if this measure fails.

For clarity, that's a sample of 7 out of the 725 people on death row in California.
posted by allseeingabstract at 12:00 PM on November 5, 2012


If getting vengeance on a savage killer/rapist makes the victims feel better, then vengeance has a high value to them - and considering what the victim has suffered, I don't think it's unreasonable for the state to give the victim partial compensation in the form of revenge against whomever who wronged them.

Well, no.

There has never been a state that has wielded this power without abusing it. And I reject the notion that the only way to comfort a victim is by taking another life. It's a violence based solution that cannot be part of an impartial enlightened system of justice. I'd feel a fuck of a lot of comfort if the guy who stole my car got 50 lashes but ultimately the cost of living in a society with this mentality isn't worth that kind of comfort. There are far healthier ways to help compensate and support victims' families than exacting a 300 billion revenge murder, in fact continuing the cycle of violence is pretty dismissive of the well being and needs of the victims' survivors.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 12:30 PM on November 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


If getting vengeance on a savage killer/rapist makes the victims feel better, then vengeance has a high value to them - and considering what the victim has suffered, I don't think it's unreasonable for the state to give the victim partial compensation

I absolutely do. Leaving aside the ethics of revenge killing as compensation, it simply isn't the state's mandate to compensate the victim, much less to compensate the victim through the spilling of blood. If the victim (or victim's kin) desire compensation they already have an avenue dedicated to that proposition; civil court.

Criminal cases are not (nor should they be) a case of victim-vs-criminal, they are state-vs-criminal. There are good reasons for that.
posted by Justinian at 12:38 PM on November 5, 2012 [5 favorites]


I suppose I should clarify, I could care fuck-all for the truly guilty. I care a lot about a nation that uses its reptilian brain to solve its problems.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 12:39 PM on November 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


Seriously, was it really necessary to call other MeFites "psychopaths" simply because they believe in the principle of retribution?

The desire to cause harm to another person without a threat being present and nothing conceivable to be gained harming them is the very definition of psychopathic.

Most of human society secretly believes in revenge: that's why we glamorize it in movies such as Batman or Dirty Harry. If believing in revenge makes people psychopaths, then welcome to the global asylum - grab a straightjacket and strap yourself in.

This was something I addressed specifically in my comment. The desire for revenge is probably hard wired into our brains, but not necessarily for good reasons. If I was a caveman in a tribal society, maybe, but capital pubishment is about using the resources of 350 million people to exact your revenge.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 12:56 PM on November 5, 2012 [3 favorites]


The desire to cause harm to another person without a threat being present and nothing conceivable to be gained harming them is the very definition of psychopathic.

Um, that's a distorted and sloppy "definition". So you're saying if someone fantasizes, even fleetingly, about kicking their boss in the nuts, then they are a psychopath?
posted by FJT at 1:22 PM on November 5, 2012 [4 favorites]


Of course you're right, not the desire, but the belief that one *should* act on violent emotions when there is nothing to be logically gained by doing so is maladaptive in civil society.

In truth, psychopathology is the lack of emotional depth which would ordinarily constrain individuals from taking advantage of others for personal gain. The term is inappropriate and I withdraw it. I think illogical and counterproductive are appropriate but lack the right kind of moral wallop. Now if you'll excuse me, I need to catch the next transport back to Vulcan where we haven't had a murder in millenia.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 2:15 PM on November 5, 2012


I understand the desire to administer a death penalty; I do believe that there are crimes heinous enough that they're essentially a declaration of social nihilism, meaning that they cannot be tolerated nor rehabilitated.

However, I simply cannot sanction giving the state that power. It's inevitable that the death penalty kills innocents, and that's a more corrosive corruption of justice than any life sentence could be.

There are realms in which the state's power should not ever be regarded as legitimate; even Hobbes recognized that everyone has the right to rebel against the threat of death. The death penalty is one of those realms — the state simply should not be able to kill people.

(There was a quibble earlier about "state sanctioned murder" that missed the crux of that descriptor — it's state-sanctioned murder when the person being executed is innocent. That innocence robs the due process of legitimacy necessarily. A process that works as it should and still results in killing innocent people is an unjust and absurd process.)

Weirdly enough, I think 37 is the one that gives me the most back-and-forth: I don't think it's a particularly good law, but I'm voting for it out of spite over the Monsanto ads that they've been mailing me — they're at least as deceptive as the ones about 32.
posted by klangklangston at 3:18 PM on November 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


I have a question:

If the death penalty is struck down, wouldn't all the money still be used? Only, instead of appeals to capital punishment, it would be used to try to commute sentences or to have more lenient sentences or secure something else.
posted by FJT at 5:10 PM on November 5, 2012


Only, instead of appeals to capital punishment, it would be used to try to commute sentences or to have more lenient sentences or secure something else.

This makes no sense. How does it cost money to have 'more lenient sentences'? Commuting sentences doesn't cost money either. If you bothered to, say, consult the voter guide or think what other states have done after abolition, you'd realise that sentences would automatically be commuted, which is, um, free.

Asking whether it would be possible to divert they money from the prison system is a question that can be asked. If the answer's no, I'd hazard it's because California is housing inmates in county jails because the prison conditions were deemed unacceptably overcrowded by the courts. But perhaps it'd result in 10 cents for the school system and that'd be something.
posted by hoyland at 5:35 PM on November 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


"If the death penalty is struck down, wouldn't all the money still be used?"

The cost savings primarily come from not having to segregate the inmates in a special, more-secure death-row unit in the prison, and from the state not having to pay to defend the many appeals from the condemned prisoner. Prisoners condemned to death are entitled to more appeals than prisoners facing life without parole (for example) precisely because the death penalty is irreversible, so those sentenced to death are entitled to a very high standard of due process. (In practice, in most states that have the death penalty, this works out to a lot of pro-forma appeals without a lot of actual review of the case, I think. The very high standard of due process has turned into just the PROCESS part, not the substance part.) That money can be diverted to other, more useful places in the state budget, like not deficit-spending it in the first place, or into education, or into more police on the beat.

Public defense attorneys who are defending the prisoners will still file appeals for those sentenced to life without parole, but prisoners will be entitled to fewer appeals and public defenders are typically really drastically underfunded anyway. Any money saved by attorneys NOT contesting death sentences will definitely be diverted to other cases, but it won't even come close to bringing most public defenders up to an adequate level of funding for their caseloads.

Private defense attorneys will continue to cost whatever they cost, but it won't be paid for by taxpayers.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:42 PM on November 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


"If the death penalty is struck down, wouldn't all the money still be used?"

To add to what Eyebrows McGee said, trials in capital cases also tend to be more expensive, due to factors such as more complex and lengthier jury selection, the hiring of more expert witnesses, and the tendency to have a two-phase trial (first guilt, then sentencing). So even if you only outlaw the death penalty for future defendants, there will be immediate cost savings.
posted by Carmelita Spats at 8:01 PM on November 5, 2012


A Challenge to Dennis Prager, Death-Penalty Supporter: Defending costly executions, he writes that "justice should never be a matter of money." Will he follow that argument where it leads?
posted by homunculus at 8:38 PM on November 5, 2012


Malor: Which means, in other words, that you are actually in favor of abolishing the death penalty, you just haven't thought your way through it completely.

Tomorrow I am going to vote to abolish the death penalty in CA. I think it's the right thing to do. But I also think Richard Ramirez should be fucking dead. I'm complicated like that.
posted by gnutron at 9:41 PM on November 5, 2012


a notable opponent of the death penalty, as are most prison wardens

I'd like to know more about this, if anyone has links to articles about it.

I'm not convinced that simply abolishing the death penalty will on its own make our "justice" system more just or more humane.

Don't let perfect be the enemy of improvement - of course one little ballot won't fix the system all by itself. No-one has suggested that it will.

But abolishing the death penalty prevents the execution of innocent people. It definitely makes the system more just - life on parole, even in the shittiest jail, is still more of a chance to prove innocence than if you were executed upon conviction. Why would you refuse an innocent person that chance, just because there are other problems with the system?
posted by harriet vane at 12:53 AM on November 6, 2012


I still like Scott Turow's take on this.

The death penalty in the US is so broken, I don't think it matters whether we agree with the death penalty in the abstract.

I do think the death penalty has become a distraction. We act as if we're doing people a favor by not putting them to death, when life without parole in our prisons is probably worse for most people.
posted by BibiRose at 6:52 AM on November 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


Texas Carries Out 250th Execution Under Gov. Rick Perry

I think this entitles Perry to one free execution of any Texan of his choosing.
posted by tonycpsu at 8:30 AM on November 6, 2012 [2 favorites]


Texas Carries Out 250th Execution Under Gov. Rick Perry

I think this entitles Perry to one free execution of any Texan of his choosing.


Clearly you didn't read the fine print on the offer - it's only valid for any one Texan whose net income is less than $25000. Furthermore, it only applies if Gov. Perry remembered to bring his execution card and have it stamped each time he executed somebody. (Although he does earn double points if he taunted them.)
posted by wolfdreams01 at 12:30 PM on November 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


Looking at the last polls and the results it seems like pretty much all undecided voters voted "NO" in the end.

Maybe the proposition needs to ged rid of the retroactive clause to get more people over on the "YES" side (although I'm still not sure what miracle those voters expect to happen to get the 700+ convicts executed in less than 2000+ years). Otherwise it seems ~ 4 Billion $ is an acceptable price for the majority of Californians to get maybe 13 more executions out of that pool in the next 30 years. Prop 36 at least has passed easily.
posted by ZeroAmbition at 12:59 AM on November 7, 2012


Sad that it didn't pass, but also had something pointed out to me last night. Automatically commuting everyone over to life imprisonment without parole would severely diminish their leverage in appeals and make it very difficult to challenge their sentence based on mitigating evidence, the way you can (and do) in a death penalty context. If there are people on death row in California who have good cases for new sentencing hearings, regardless of their guilt (as I am sure there are), then those people likely would not get a chance at a reduced sentence, since mounting proportionality challenges to life imprisonment without parole is extremely difficult, if not completely gutted.

I even suspect that this concern might explain some of the NOs. Although I can't imagine a proposition that instead grants everyone a new sentencing hearing would get much political traction.
posted by likeatoaster at 12:31 PM on November 7, 2012


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