Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Death Penalty: Are Inevitable Mistakes Acceptable?

Writing in the Washington Monthly blog "Ten Miles Square," Andrew Gelman (left), director of the Applied Statistics Center at Columbia University, considers the bottom line regarding the death penalty: Is one willing to accept the inevitable execution of the innocent? In my view, such an inevitability cannot be justified. Gelman writes in "The Death Penalty":

My larger perspective on the death penalty, informed by my research with Jim Liebman several years ago, is that you can only accept capital punishment if you’re willing to have innocent people executed every now and then. And, the more effective you want the death penalty to be, the more innocents you have to execute.

The occasional execution of innocent people might be deemed ok in some settings—they shoot deserters in wartime, and if a country is in the midst of a big enough crime wave, I could see people accepting the need for the occasional lethal mistake of the judicial process. My point here is just that if you want to execute people on a regular basis, you’re gonna make some mistakes. We saw this in our research on death-sentencing reversals, which were not merely the actions of a few liberal court panels.


Michael The Molar Maven said...

And your opinion is precisely correct. If there ever was an innocent person executed - and we know there have been many - capital punishment loses becomes unacceptable for a civilized society.

The argument to the contrary, as I've heard it, is that there is a war on crime and that in a war innocent people on both sides will die. It is inevitable. Personally, I find every aspect of that statement - its premise and its conclusion - to be unsupportable.

But personal morals aside, the death penalty has never been shown to be an effective deterrent and may in fact have a reverse effect in that someone who has committed a crime that is punishable by death is free to commit as many crimes as he or she wants. After all, the criminal can only be executed once.

I think it was William Kuntsler who argued that once someone has commited such a crime, killing a law enforcement officer becomes justifiable as an act of self defense. That may be a stretch, but it should give food for thought.

Jeff Tone said...

There is always, of course, a "war on crime." The idea that executing an individual for someone else's crime is unfortunate "collateral damage" is reprehensible. Besides the other arguments you mention (and yes, Kuntsler's argument does seem a stretch), that alone is enough reason to be against the death penalty.