Join 3,377 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


A strange social fact that stands in need of explanation
December 15, 2010 10:19 AM   Subscribe

The death penalty in America is “a strange social fact that stands in need of explanation.” John Paul Stevens served as Associate Supreme Court Justice from 1975 to 2010 and became a beacon for progressive and liberals. Here he writes on the death penalty, reviewing David Garland’s new book Peculiar Institution: America’s Death Penalty in an Age of Abolition.
posted by JL Sadstone (55 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

 
You know, I hear a lot of talk against the death penalty, from people strangely silent on prison reform.
posted by effugas at 10:23 AM on December 15, 2010 [6 favorites]


“a strange social fact that stands in need of explanation.”

It's pretty straightforward: we have to kill people to show people that killing people is wrong.
posted by mullingitover at 10:27 AM on December 15, 2010 [7 favorites]


As l'affaire d'Assange demonstrates, a significant number of Americans get off on the idea of the state putting its enemies to death.
posted by Joe Beese at 10:30 AM on December 15, 2010 [3 favorites]


The death penalty makes perfect sense in America. What doesn't make sense in America is that it isn't used for every single crime. Considering we don't seem to believe in any concept of "serving your time" or "redemption", considering we get outraged at any attempt to make prison life more humane, considering we think prison rape is something to casually joke about (and, in many cases, wish for), and considering that our prisons are filled with minorities that we can't seem to make non-prison life bearable for, then I don't know why we don't just put a bullet in a dude's head as soon as he's convicted (hell, accused) of any crime and be done with it. Or at the very least, set up a huge gulag in Alaska we throw them all into.

What I'm saying is, we're a savage country that loves quick fixes. I'm amazed we don't have more executions.
posted by Legomancer at 10:30 AM on December 15, 2010 [19 favorites]


Or at the very least, set up a huge gulag in Alaska we throw them all into.

We would do this but it would get in the way of like five gallons of oil we want.
posted by shakespeherian at 10:35 AM on December 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


Europeans abolished the death penalty in the decades after World War II.

It's a bit more complicated than just that. On this past November 23, Sweden marked 100 years since its last execution. The death penalty in Sweden (for crimes committed in peacetime) was abolished in 1921. The death penalty for crimes committed during a time of war was not abolished in 1975 when also corporal punishment and torture were also forbidden by the Swedish constitution.

See: Once you abolish capital punishment, it's a short walk until the government won't let you smack your kids around or torture your enemies.
posted by three blind mice at 10:42 AM on December 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


From where I'm standing, the government here in the U.S. currently won't let us smack our kids around. The enemies thing....
posted by spicynuts at 10:49 AM on December 15, 2010


It's pretty straightforward: we have to kill people to show people that killing people is wrong.

Look, I'm pretty opposed to the Death Penalty myself, but I've never really understood this concept. Every single punishment for a crime would be a bad, wrong thing to do to someone otherwise. We lock people up behind bars for committing crimes, for years on end; that isn't something we'd be OK with under any other conditions. So why is killing different and special? Why don't we claim that fines need to be abolished because it's government telling people that theft is okay, or that prison is immoral because it sends a message that locking people into rooms is wrong? It's really not hard to comprehend that punishments for crimes are generally going to be things that we're ok with the State doing on our behalf to people who've committed crimes, but wouldn't want the State, or anyone else, doing to people under any other conditions.
posted by Tomorrowful at 10:54 AM on December 15, 2010 [9 favorites]


I guess it depends on what you view the purpose of the justice system to be.
Those who believes it exists to "set an example" or exact revenge may have no particular issue with the death penalty.

Those who believe that the justice system should exist to reform inmates are going to be less comfortable advocating for the death penalty.

Likewise prison reform.
posted by Stagger Lee at 10:59 AM on December 15, 2010


Tomrrowful: I think, besides concerns over the irreversibility of wrongful convictions, because it calls into question (however inartfully) the entire set of assumptions behind a lex talonis conception of punishment. We do not sentence rapists to rape (er, wait a second: bad example given the condition of American prisons, I know) because that would be, well, brutal and cruel in a way that (presumably) incarceration is not. The fact that a significant subset of Americans think state-sanctioned prison rape is both funny and just, well ...
posted by joe lisboa at 11:00 AM on December 15, 2010


So why is killing different and special?

Because it's permanent. That's like asking, look, we do something terrible when we lock somebody up, what's the difference if we want to flay their flesh? What's the big deal about blinding them?

And even in our death penalty, we strive to be humane (we haven't succeeded, but it's not for a lack of trying.) We don't throw people on open fires, we don't kill them by the death of 1,000 cuts, we don't disembowel them while still alive, we don't blood eagle them, or any of the millions of other monstrous ways men have killed men in the past.

Yes, prison is terrible. But I'll take it over a blood eagling any day.
posted by Astro Zombie at 11:07 AM on December 15, 2010


Blood eagling?
*googles*

Thanks Astro Zombie for introducing that lovely little nugget to my vocabulary.

Jesus.
posted by leotrotsky at 11:13 AM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


The Blood Eagle was a method of torture and execution that is sometimes mentioned in Norse saga literature. It was performed by cutting the ribs of the victim by the spine, breaking the ribs so they resembled blood-stained wings, and pulling the lungs out. Salt was sprinkled in the wounds.
posted by leotrotsky at 11:14 AM on December 15, 2010


Yeah, I was prompted to google "blood eagle" also.

Holy crap.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 11:15 AM on December 15, 2010


Legomancer: I'm surprised that we don't have blood fights daily, and I suspect that is where we're going next, given that prisons are privately owned and run for profit.
posted by Old'n'Busted at 11:16 AM on December 15, 2010


You know, I hear a lot of talk against the death penalty, from people strangely silent on prison reform.

Bad sampling? Different sampling? Because everyone I know who's against the death penalty is also more than willing to hold forth on the need for prison reform.

For instance: all the anti-death penalty folks I know here in California are clear on the fact that life-without-parole is not the best solution if the rules about appeals are not solved. (Basically, you're worse off, appeals-wise, if you get life without parole than if you get the death penalty.) More here.
posted by rtha at 11:18 AM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


The application of the death penalty in America may be problematic, but I don't find its existence to be so. Retribution as the sole end of punishment is not an inherently immoral or wrong reaction to truly callous, inhumane and violent acts against innocent victims. And out of many criminals, there are a few who shouldn't continue to breathe. When a criminal has committed a heinous crime, his or her interests should be considered infinitely subordinate to the interests of the victim in receiving some justice, and to the value of the victim's destroyed life. When I see the anti-death penalty movement, I see a lot of murderers getting a lot of solicitous attention from those who wouldn't otherwise touch them with a ten-foot pole because they happened to get a death sentence instead of life in prison. And I feel that once someone has committed a vicious murder, whether they get life in prison or death, it's fair. Whether race possibly influenced the outcome, whether the outcome would have been different in another state, or whether the killer was abused as a child, etc., are not issues that I can care very much about, after guilt has been established for a very severe crime. A weak punishment for murder denigrates the value of the victim's life, and the value of human life in that society.
posted by knoyers at 11:20 AM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


We have to kill people send people to heaven to show people that killing people is wrong.
posted by LordSludge at 11:24 AM on December 15, 2010


> You know, I hear a lot of talk against the death penalty, from people strangely silent on prison reform.

That may be because your conversation was about the death penalty, not prison reform, and they had the discipline to stay on topic. If you ask them about prison reform, they may have opinions to share about that as well.
posted by ardgedee at 11:26 AM on December 15, 2010 [5 favorites]


Don't look up death by a 1,000 cuts. There are images of it online.
posted by Astro Zombie at 11:30 AM on December 15, 2010


As soon as I read the definition of "blood eagle," I knew it had to be a band name as well.
posted by brundlefly at 11:32 AM on December 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


A weak punishment for murder denigrates the value of the victim's life, and the value of human life in that society.

A life sentence isn't a weak punishment. Once you have prisons that effectively prevent escape, there are few practical reasons to favor the death penalty over life imprisonment. While the death penalty boasts a zero recidivism rate, life imprisonment has the same statistic with the benefit of a few cases that get overturned by new evidence.
posted by dgran at 11:38 AM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


Astro Zombie, you do know that's like telling someone not to think of an elephant?
posted by gottabefunky at 11:40 AM on December 15, 2010


knoyers, you do realize that many people find your attitude to be barbaric, right?
posted by oddman at 11:54 AM on December 15, 2010 [3 favorites]


A life sentence isn't a weak punishment. Once you have prisons that effectively prevent escape, there are few practical reasons to favor the death penalty over life imprisonment. While the death penalty boasts a zero recidivism rate, life imprisonment has the same statistic with the benefit of a few cases that get overturned by new evidence.

Actually, from a pragmatic stand point, there's plenty executing criminals instead of locking them up forever succeeds at. First, people do escape prisons all the time. Secondly, especially with gangsters that are serving time, they can also pass on information to the outside and exert power over their organization (such as directing killings). Execution of course solves both of those problems (while creating many new ones).

If we used execution fairly and firmly it would not be nearly as debatable. Death is hopefully not the worst thing that happens to a human being in their lifetime, and although not everyone can choose when to exit this world and how we do it, we all ultimately do.

But it is not used fairly and firmly. Since our goal is justice (not how we affect future criminals or whatever pseudopragmatic case one makes), a death penalty that is not administered this way is such a gross deviation from human dignity as to lessen the authority of the State to administer it. No, I'm actually amendable to the view that any execution lessens the human dignity of the state, but I see the death penalty used in a partial and corrupt manner to be a much stronger reason for not doing it.
posted by Lord Chancellor at 11:55 AM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


Don't look up death by a 1,000 cuts. There are images of it online.

Thank you Astro. You stopped me just as I was typing it into Google.
posted by Wordwoman at 12:07 PM on December 15, 2010


I approach the death penalty from a sort of social contract position: in exchange for the guarantee of certain freedoms, privileges, and security, we the governed consent to a certain amount of authority in the form of the government. When a citizen breaks the laws created out of that authority, by contract the government may revoke rights or privileges granted. But it doesn't have the right to revoke what it has not granted. The government does not grant one life and doesn't have legitimate authority to deprive a citizen of it.
posted by barrett caulk at 12:13 PM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


. . . Whether race possibly influenced the outcome, whether the outcome would have been different in another state, or whether the killer was abused as a child, etc., are not issues that I can care very much about, after guilt has been established for a very severe crime. A weak punishment for murder denigrates the value of the victim's life, and the value of human life in that society.
posted by knoyers at 11:20 AM on December 15 [1 favorite +] [!]



Juries systematically give the death penalty black defendants more often than whites, for the same crimes and with the same mitigating and aggravating factors. Therefore, the dispositive issue in many death penalty trials is the race of the convicted. The government systematically executes people because they are black. I don't know that I'd admit to not caring "very much about" something like that, but that's just me.
posted by r_nebblesworthII at 12:13 PM on December 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


Blood Eagles
posted by rainperimeter at 12:26 PM on December 15, 2010



A weak punishment for murder denigrates the value of the victim's life, and the value of human life in that society.


Some things are just a tragedy, and have to be accepted as such. You can't balance the scales again by taking someone else's life.

I'd argue that terrible crimes tend to be committed by the damaged or desperate, and I think that the justice system exists to protect us from ourselves until the social problems largely responsible for crime can be resolved.

The justice system can't and shouldn't exist to mete retaliation, it should exist to protect and stabilize society.

I'm appalled by the idea of a society where justice is measured in the ability of a justice system to match crimes with equally horrific punishments. That's not the kind of world I want to live in.
posted by Stagger Lee at 12:29 PM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


The justice system can't and shouldn't exist to mete retaliation, it should exist to protect and stabilize society.

Not necessarily true either as the justice system is not inherently utilitarian. Things like guilt and innocence exist not merely as social factors, but as individual determinations. For an example, even if releasing a widely suspected murderer that has been found not guilty might destabilize society, it still might be just to do so as it prevents the crushing of personal dignity by the society at large. (And yes, you can simply claim that respecting dignity is overall the most stable thing to do. I'm addressing direct effects, not indirect, and to determine all the positive or negative effects of releasing one person back into society cannot be used to determine guilt.)

Ultimately the Justice system is to be just. This is retributive (rather than distributive) justice, of course, though that doesn't mean it's vengeful. To pursue justice is to determine the appropriateness of an action, and in this case, within society. We determine that when someone gets drunk, runs over a bicyclist, and kills them, it's appropriate that they spend some time in prison even if they would never hurt a living soul (or touch another drink) again. Through the civil process, they might make restitution to the family for the death. If they have certain responsibilities like being a lawyer, doctor, or official, they might be relieved of those responsibilities (though often those are done through non-criminal systems, it is done to pursue justice).

Now, I personally believe that the death penalty's use is too fraught with error to be appropriate, but that doesn't mean that the Justice System is only concerned with social stabilization.
posted by Lord Chancellor at 1:08 PM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


As for barbaric executions, I see your Blood Eagle and raise you a scaphism.
posted by zardoz at 1:13 PM on December 15, 2010


I see what you're saying Lord Chancellor

We determine that when someone gets drunk, runs over a bicyclist, and kills them, it's appropriate that they spend some time in prison even if they would never hurt a living soul (or touch another drink) again

I've often wondered if the justice system could play a benevolent role in cases like this. By punishing and releasing the killer, the implicit message is "your debt is paid, go back to your life." In that case it could fulfill a social role by providing symbolic forgiveness, like a Catholic confessional. Of course that will only work properly if we trust our justice system to release people reformed and to deal in appropriate punishments, and I don't think that very many people really have the sense that it does. But that's another story.
posted by Stagger Lee at 1:19 PM on December 15, 2010


.......to the interests of the victim in receiving some justice........

Relevant
posted by lalochezia at 1:55 PM on December 15, 2010


r_nebblesworthII: Therefore, the dispositive issue in many death penalty trials is the race of the convicted.

The race of the victim is another variable affecting whether a criminal gets life or the death penalty (from Scott Turow's Ultimate Punishment: A Lawyer's Reflections On Dealing With the Death Penalty, a well-written, balanced take on death penalty pros and cons.) White victim = greater likelihood of getting the death penalty.
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 2:13 PM on December 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


Just saw this, really scratching my head as to what possible benefit this ruling could serve:

A homeowner who kills someone he reasonably believes is a burglar breaking into his home is eligible for the death penalty if it turns out the person is actually a police officer lawfully entering the home pursuant to a no-knock warrant

via Fark
posted by LordSludge at 2:15 PM on December 15, 2010


Good point, c. interruptus; however that only makes the ultimate state of the death penalty in this country worse IMO.
posted by r_nebblesworthII at 2:20 PM on December 15, 2010


In that case it could fulfill a social role by providing symbolic forgiveness, like a Catholic confessional.

Optimally (at least to me), it should. Justice, like mercy, charity, duty, beauty, truth, or heroism is an unscientific ideal. Sure, we might try to justify it using pragmatic arguments (locking up criminals makes society safer, giving to the poor inspires less crime, beauty improves social stability), but ultimately, we believe in these things because we believe that by possessing these things, we're uplifting the human condition, both individually and as a whole. Justice then becomes something more than just a way to deal with troublemakers; it becomes an aspect of a civil spirituality, and like all spirituality, it must affirm the body that creates it.

I believe that the purpose of retributive justice is neither vengeance nor rehabilitation, but reconciliation. When someone commits a crime, they separate themselves from the society by their infraction. Now, a sundering like that is untenable both for the individual and society, but it must be acknowledged and repaired. The society cannot simply absolve every crime against it else the society becomes irredeemably fractured and lawless. Neither can it deal with crime in a totalitarian way else the society becomes inhuman, and thus not attempting to preserve human dignity. The criminal must be reconciled to the society, to "pay their debt" in a very real way that ensures that at the end of it all, the former criminal and the society are once again at peace. The greater the sundering, the greater the process, but the goal at the end should always be the healing of that gulf whenever possible. It does the society no good to have a permanent criminal class and does the criminal no good to have no way to return to society. For these reasons, though I strongly believe in the need for prison, I loathe the attempt to humiliate former prisoners. Also, because of this, the Just society must also be Merciful to attain equity. It pardons people from time to time. It holds the sword, but it is never brandished in emotion. It protects the weak, but must realize that even those that prey on the weak can themselves be part of the low.

So, yes, I believe in Justice. I believe it is a very real virtue that an individual or a society can have. It is a trait that relies on human faith to have any meaning and purpose. It is every elusive, but certainly something we should aim for.

(By the way, I use a lot of terms like faith, belief, reconciliation, spirituality, virtue, and mercy. These are not used in a supernatural sense though I will accept they are of a sort religious.)
posted by Lord Chancellor at 2:25 PM on December 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


The fact that a significant subset of Americans think state-sanctioned prison rape is both funny and just, well ...

Ahem, that's laissez-faire prison rape. It nicely gets around the Constitutional prohibition on the State administering cruel or unusual punishments, because it's not the State doing the raping.
posted by acb at 3:43 PM on December 15, 2010


There is a parallel universe in which the Supreme Court banned the death penalty in the 1930s on the grounds that it was too bloodless; that allowing a man to take another's life with the flick of a switch or the pull of a lever was an immoral and dishonourable act. Shortly after that, methods of execution were devised which did not suffer from this disadvantage. While the electric chair was the state of the art in executing the condemned, pulling a switch would not do; the executioner would have to physically exert force to annihilate the prisoner's life. Various solutions were tried: treadmills, stationary bicycles, flywheels. And then, an inventor decided to combine the electric chair with another recent innovation: the electric guitar. The executioner would have to drive the current by strumming strings on the guitar, and to get enough current to kill a man, he would have to play it with great force.

In this universe, the death penalty is totally metal.
posted by acb at 3:50 PM on December 15, 2010


In his view, an important reason Americans retain capital punishment is their fascination with death...

The Death Penalty is administered by the Justice System, but it has nothing to do with justice.

The Death Penalty is essentially a pagan ritual, practiced by unsophisticated cultures, where a token sacrifice is demanded to release the overall tension which the group collective feels in a stressful environment.
posted by ovvl at 3:57 PM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


r_nebblesworthII: that only makes the ultimate state of the death penalty in this country worse IMO.

Absolutely. I meant only to mention another layer of race-related fucked-upness, compounding (not countering in any way) the problem you pointed out.
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 5:14 PM on December 15, 2010


The Death Penalty is essentially a pagan ritual
What do you mean by "pagan", in this context? I ask because the Bible prescribes death as a punishment in a whole lot of cases.
posted by Flunkie at 6:18 PM on December 15, 2010


A life sentence isn't a weak punishment. Once you have prisons that effectively prevent escape, there are few practical reasons to favor the death penalty over life imprisonment. While the death penalty boasts a zero recidivism rate, life imprisonment has the same statistic with the benefit of a few cases that get overturned by new evidence.
posted by dgran at 11:38 AM on December 15


Notwithstanding the fact that it is possible to continue killing after being incarcerated, I acknowledge that the death penalty is basically impractical, given the additional legal and other expenses the state and taxpayer must incur to see it through. That willingness to undergo the cost, effort & inconvenience of imposing the death penalty, so that a killer awaits doom instead of merely rotting in prison, is a statement that I feel is appropriate on occasion.

knoyers, you do realize that many people find your attitude to be barbaric, right?
posted by oddman at 11:54 AM on December 15


really? don't care

This issue isn't an abstraction. There are many real, sadistic, senseless murderers of children and other innocent persons walking around right now. Should they get away with it? What is it to be murdered, or to lose someone to that? If a member of my family were harmed, God forbid, I would want the one who did it to suffer and to be punished in a substantial manner. To my mind, other people's loved ones who were actually victimized are as deserving of justice. Civilization doesn't forgive certain transgressions or allow perpetrators of the worst crimes to be redeemed. Given a choice between the barbarism of capital punishment or the barbarism of a killer to looking forward to freedom or walking free, I find the latter to be worse.

But it doesn't have the right to revoke what it has not granted. The government does not grant one life and doesn't have legitimate authority to deprive a citizen of it.
posted by barrett caulk at 12:13 PM on December 15


The prison came to replace capital punishment as an earthly imitation of hell, where the damned soul, stuck in discomfort and monotony, is separated from life, love and society. Existing in prison is not the same as living life. Both capital punishment and the life term (without parole) effectively end the criminal's life. The distinction between life in prison and death has more to do with finality. If the government has the authority to separate an individual from life in every other sense, the government also has the authority to deprive him of his breath.

Juries systematically give the death penalty black defendants more often than whites, for the same crimes and with the same mitigating and aggravating factors. Therefore, the dispositive issue in many death penalty trials is the race of the convicted. The government systematically executes people because they are black. I don't know that I'd admit to not caring "very much about" something like that, but that's just me.
posted by r_nebblesworthII at 12:13 PM on December 15


This is Justice Stevens' major issue with the death penalty and the most important issue raised. Elements of racism continue to be found in many aspects of American society and certainly in the justice system. Must we disarm the justice system because it is unfair, insofar as it contains and reflects the biases and inequalities endemic to our society? I say no. To me, the frame of reference for a murderer's punishment should be the murder itself and the victim, not how a different murderer was dealt with in the next county, or statistical rates of the imposition of capital punishment. If a life was taken in cold blood, capital punishment is not disproportionate. To commit murder (or any crime) is to take the criminal justice system as it is. Killers aren't executed because they're black, but because they murdered, were convicted and then sentenced to death. If a killer finds it unfair that he got death and somebody else got life, what about his victim? Only the latter plight moves me.

You can't balance the scales again by taking someone else's life.

In the words of President Obama, yes we can.

social problems largely responsible for crime can be resolved.

Adults, not excluding criminals, are by and large solely responsible for their own actions. Social problems will never be resolved, but murderers can have the justice that they deserve.

The justice system can't and shouldn't exist to mete retaliation, it should exist to protect and stabilize society.

"Retaliation" vs. "protecting society" is a false dichotomy.

I'm appalled by the idea of a society where justice is measured in the ability of a justice system to match crimes with equally horrific punishments.

Punishments imposed by the law to deliver justice and the horrific crimes that take place aren't the same.

That's not the kind of world I want to live in.
posted by Stagger Lee at 12:29 PM on December 15


Well, what kind of world do you think we live in?

Relevant
posted by lalochezia at 1:55 PM on December 15


Neither life in prison nor capital punishment is "an eye for an eye."

At present, we remain awfully far from an America where victims control punishment. If that would be wrong, it doesn't mean that the victim's suffering and value as an individual shouldn't be acknowledged in years or decades, or by the death penalty, when justice is dispensed. Criminal violence against human life must be punished severely to the extent that human life is considered important and sacred.

The Death Penalty is essentially a pagan ritual, practiced by unsophisticated cultures, where a token sacrifice is demanded to release the overall tension which the group collective feels in a stressful environment.
posted by ovvl at 3:57 PM on December 15


I suppose that a culture of true sophistication wouldn't feel as much tension if sheep are taken from the herd.

Someone punished for murder is in no way a random "sacrifice," like an Incan maiden on a mountaintop.
posted by knoyers at 7:59 PM on December 15, 2010


Must we disarm the justice system because it is unfair, insofar as it contains and reflects the biases and inequalities endemic to our society?

Strawman. Disallowing the death penalty does not equal disarming the justice system. And a system that imposes the ultimate penalty in such an inconsistent, racist, and classist manner is not "justice."
posted by rtha at 8:52 PM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


You know, I hear a lot of talk against the death penalty, from people strangely silent on prison reform.

True. But there are organizations that work for prison reform and to stop the casual violation of the 8th Amendment that goes along with de facto penalties like prison rape. Just Detention International is one organization that I actively support. I would encourage the like-minded to do the same.

As l'affaire d'Assange demonstrates, a significant number of Americans get off on the idea of the state putting its enemies to death.

While I agree with you that this opinion has been pushed by many mainstream pundits, citizens, and some in the federal government, I would submit that it's not that way everywhere. And some advocates of the abolition of the death penalty might surprise the hell out of you, I know it has me.

Here in Illinois a bill to take the death penalty off the books (a moratorium has been in place since former Republican Governor George Ryan put it into effect in 2000) is co-sponsored by Republicans, specifically west of Chicago, an area that is dominated by Republican politics at both the state and federal levels. While the push to end the death penalty forever here doesn't quite have the votes it needs for advocates to move it to a vote before the new year, it will likely be voted on in January, in a Democratically dominated legislature, with bi-partisan support. We can only hope that this trend continues.
posted by IvoShandor at 9:04 PM on December 15, 2010


Those who believe that the justice system should exist to reform inmates are going to be less comfortable advocating for the death penalty.

Damn, sorry for the double comment here, I missed this my first time through.

But there is a big problem with people believing that the justice system exists simply as retiribution. That problem is parole. If we parole people our government is saying that the prison system does in fact exist to reform people. There really isn't an argument there, we parole murderers, rapists and other violent felons all of the time. We simply can't have it both ways.
posted by IvoShandor at 9:12 PM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


Someone punished for murder is in no way a random "sacrifice," like an Incan maiden on a mountaintop.

It takes a profound ignorance of the reality of the death penalty- I would like to say an honest ignorance, but I'm done pretending death penalty advocates have redeeming features- in order to type this.
posted by Pope Guilty at 10:46 PM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]



That's not the kind of world I want to live in.
posted by Stagger Lee at 12:29 PM on December 15

Well, what kind of world do you think we live in?



Is this where I'm supposed to say, "Christ, what an asshole."?

I live in Canada, thank god. /snark
But we could stand for some prison reform up here as well.
posted by Stagger Lee at 7:52 AM on December 16, 2010


Someone punished for murder is in no way a random 'sacrifice,'

California has 713 people on death row and has executed 14 people since 1978, so only 1.9% of the people given the death sentence have actually been executed. Even if we stipulate that everyone on death row is guilty, and they all committed horrific crimes, how is executing one person over another not random?

Also, three "killer counties"--"Los Angeles, Orange and Riverside -- accounted for 83 percent of all death sentences in 2009. The strange reality is fewer and fewer California counties are sending more and more people to death row." So the same crime can get the death penalty in one of those counties and life imprisonment in California's other 55 counties.

The death penalty exists mainly so politicians can preen about being tough on crime and so citizen feel like bad people who did bad things will get what's coming, even though they may actually never be executed. Take Scott Peterson for instance, who was sentenced to death by lethal injection for murdering his pregnant wife. He's a dirtbag and committed a horrible crime, but he will probably never actually be executed.
posted by kirkaracha at 7:55 AM on December 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


The vigilante side of my brain thinks some people need killin'. The more rational side of my brain thinks that the system is imperfect, and the state shouldn't be given the right to kill it's citizens using an imperfect system.

That said; if executions are performed, I think they should be incredibly public...but with absolutely no fanfare. I think it should be mandatorily broadcast on every channel, at prime time. If the society cannot stand to watch someone die, if we turn our delicate eyes away from the state stopping someone's heart, then we as a society need to change the laws so that it doesn't happen.

But if we allow it, then we, as a society based on law, have the responsibility to watch how we have empowered the state.
posted by dejah420 at 11:50 AM on December 16, 2010


Strawman. Disallowing the death penalty does not equal disarming the justice system. And a system that imposes the ultimate penalty in such an inconsistent, racist, and classist manner is not "justice."
posted by rtha at 8:52 PM on December 15


Of course I never meant that ending the death penalty would completely disarm the justice system. But it would disarm it in a significant way.

Justice is punishment that fits the crime, and some crimes are so horrible that the pronouncement of a death sentence is a fitting punishment. Both class and race are irrelevant to this.

Crime requires immediate and swift justice, not justice to be had whenever the whole system is declared non-racist by academics.

If we parole people our government is saying that the prison system does in fact exist to reform people. There really isn't an argument there, we parole murderers, rapists and other violent felons all of the time. We simply can't have it both ways.
posted by IvoShandor at 9:12 PM on December 15


Even if the justice system tries to reform most offenders, more than can actually reform, a few are considered unredeemable because of the heinousness of their crimes. There is no contradiction in this.

It takes a profound ignorance of the reality of the death penalty- I would like to say an honest ignorance, but I'm done pretending death penalty advocates have redeeming features- in order to type this.
posted by Pope Guilty at 10:46 PM on December 15


Is this where I'm supposed to say, "Christ, what an asshole."?
posted by Stagger Lee at 7:52 AM on December 16


My views on this topic are apparently in the minority here, but I have said nothing crude or mean.

Committing murder is a choice. Being a murderer is not random. Being executed for murder is not random, it's a consequence.

California has 713 people on death row and has executed 14 people since 1978, so only 1.9% of the people given the death sentence have actually been executed. Even if we stipulate that everyone on death row is guilty, and they all committed horrific crimes, how is executing one person over another not random?

Also, three "killer counties"--"Los Angeles, Orange and Riverside -- accounted for 83 percent of all death sentences in 2009. The strange reality is fewer and fewer California counties are sending more and more people to death row." So the same crime can get the death penalty in one of those counties and life imprisonment in California's other 55 counties.

The death penalty exists mainly so politicians can preen about being tough on crime and so citizen feel like bad people who did bad things will get what's coming, even though they may actually never be executed. Take Scott Peterson for instance, who was sentenced to death by lethal injection for murdering his pregnant wife. He's a dirtbag and committed a horrible crime, but he will probably never actually be executed.
posted by kirkaracha at 7:55 AM on December 16


I am well aware that the death penalty being sought has a lot to do with the jurisdiction and that politicians use it to look tough. Those points don't alter my opinion of the legality and necessity of the death penalty. Once someone has committed a cold-blooded murder, as far as I am concerned, their death sentence (or life term without parole) is deserved. Whether the plot would have been different in another setting is neither here nor there.

Even when it is never actually carried out, the sentence of death hangs over the prisoner, and it carries symbolic meaning as a judgment -- that he does not deserve to live after doing what he did.

By the way, that's Los Angeles (around 20% of California's population) and two of the other four most populous counties in California, all with abundant crime and murder. So I'm not completely shocked by the 83% of death sentences.
posted by knoyers at 6:09 PM on December 16, 2010


Both class and race are irrelevant to this.

Saying this doesn't change the reality that class and race are all too relevant. It does make you sound like someone for whom principals are more important than people, and when it comes to a system that's as demonstrably flawed as the death penalty, that's kind of...the least rude term I can think of is unpleasant.

Crime requires immediate and swift justice, not justice to be had whenever the whole system is declared non-racist by academics.

And yet, we have a system in which justice is neither immediate nor swift, and as a bonus, is both racist and classist!

Being executed for murder is not random, it's a consequence.

Being executed for murder is a consequence of living in a jurisdiction where the DA is more likely to bring capital murder charges than the DA the next county over. It's also a consequence of being from particular races or classes.

It's also a consequence of being wrongly convicted. But if you're such a law n order type, I guess that executing a non-zero number of innocent people is the price we pay for ensuring Justice, which can only happen if there's capital punishment.

Once someone has committed a cold-blooded murder, as far as I am concerned, their death sentence (or life term without parole) is deserved. Whether the plot would have been different in another setting is neither here nor there.

Of course it's here - how could it not be? You say you are concerned about justice, but how is it justice that by committing murder in county A you're more likely to be charged with a non-capital murder charge than if you committed it in county B?

By the way, that's Los Angeles (around 20% of California's population) and two of the other four most populous counties in California, all with abundant crime and murder. So I'm not completely shocked by the 83% of death sentences.


Some numbers (pdf):

Tulare, Los Angeles, San Bernardino, Alameda, Sacramento, and Contra Costa counties have murder rates higher than the statewide average and actively sentence people to execution. These six counties account for nearly one-half of all death sentences since 2000.

Riverside, Ventura, San Diego, and Orange have lower than average homicide rates. These counties are responsible for nearly one-third of all death sentences since 2000.

posted by rtha at 10:02 PM on December 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


Both class and race are irrelevant to this.

Saying this doesn't change the reality that class and race are all too relevant. It does make you sound like someone for whom principals are more important than people, and when it comes to a system that's as demonstrably flawed as the death penalty, that's kind of...the least rude term I can think of is unpleasant.


Class and race do not bear upon my view that "some crimes are so horrible that the pronouncement of a death sentence is the fitting punishment."

What does either have to do with that statement?

Regrettable, how those interested parties whom I would care most about in these "unpleasant" situations are generally no longer available to comment on them.

Crime requires immediate and swift justice, not justice to be had whenever the whole system is declared non-racist by academics.

And yet, we have a system in which justice is neither immediate nor swift, and as a bonus, is both racist and classist!


Because we have juries, there is more subjectivity in American justice. I still prefer having juries over the alternative of not having them.

Given the crimes that take place in our country, it is necessary to punish the most egregious criminals as they merit, however problematic our justice system and our society may be.

Being executed for murder is a consequence of living in a jurisdiction where the DA is more likely to bring capital murder charges than the DA the next county over. It's also a consequence of being from particular races or classes.

Let's say that in County A, burglars usually get two years in jail and pay a fine. In the draconian County B, the equivalent burglars may get as much as four years. It does not follow that County A is "just" and County B "unjust" and that the burglars of County B are tragic victims of circumstance.

I don't believe that one can be executed "because of" class or race after committing the capital crime.

One may find that class or racial inequalities are statistically visible through the prism of capital punishment. This does not mean that the legality of capital punishment causes inequality. (Class and racial inequalities are statistically visible through the prism of free school lunch). Nor would such inequality mean that capital punishment should end. Likewise, we cannot go and empty the prisons just because they are disproportionately filled with black men relative to the population.

It's also a consequence of being wrongly convicted. But if you're such a law n order type, I guess that executing a non-zero number of innocent people is the price we pay for ensuring Justice, which can only happen if there's capital punishment.

Unless presented with strong contrary evidence, I would presume that convictions reflect actual guilt as well as legal guilt. I am only aware of one case in which there is good reason to think that an innocent person might have been executed since the resumption of capital punishment in the United States -- an early '90s Texas arson case.

If there have been some disgraceful and sloppy capital cases as recently as the '80s and early '90s, I think that the likelihood of that type of thing is much diminished, as juries have been groomed by their televisions to demand more powerful evidence, especially DNA and forensic evidence and most especially in capital cases.

I don't think that juries in capital cases take their responsibility lightly.

While capital punishment certainly has a long, ugly history (not only talking about the U.S.), I still believe that certain egregious crimes dictate that capital punishment is the most appropriate and just punitive response (if any reader of this thread wasn't aware).
posted by knoyers at 7:45 PM on December 17, 2010


There is no contradiction in this.

There absolutely is, because our prison system isn't really reforming anyone. Of course there are irredeemable convicts, that's what life without parole is for. But apparently you haven't noticed the absurdly high rates of recidivism in the United States?
posted by IvoShandor at 3:41 AM on December 22, 2010


« Older The Bra Mask. The Youth Condom. The Train That Nev...  |  For their January 2011 "Meanin... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments