Monday, September 26, 2011

The death penalty

I've written before about my conflicted feelings about capital punishment. Some of the reasons for my ambivalence could be seen in the case of Troy Davis -- executed last week in Georgia -- such as witnesses changing their story, jurors having second thoughts, lack of forensic evidence, and a defendant going to his death insisting he was innocent. Of course none of this proves definitively that an innocent man was put to death, but it raises questions. Does the Davis case (and others like it) raise enough doubt to justify abolishing the death penalty? Ross Douthat says no and if I was to support the continuance of capital punishment it would be on the basis he lays out.

If capital punishment disappears in the United States, it won’t be because voters and politicians no longer want to execute the guilty. It will be because they’re afraid of executing the innocent.

This is a healthy fear for a society to have. But there’s a danger here for advocates of criminal justice reform. After all, in a world without the death penalty, Davis probably wouldn’t have been retried or exonerated. His appeals would still have been denied, he would have spent the rest of his life in prison, and far fewer people would have known or cared about his fate.

Instead, he received a level of legal assistance, media attention and activist support that few convicts can ever hope for. And his case became an example of how the very finality of the death penalty can focus the public’s attention on issues that many Americans prefer to ignore: the overzealousness of cops and prosecutors, the limits of the appeals process and the ugly conditions faced by many of the more than two million Americans currently behind bars.

Simply throwing up our hands and eliminating executions entirely, by contrast, could prove to be a form of moral evasion — a way to console ourselves with the knowledge that no innocents are ever executed, even as more pervasive abuses go unchecked. We should want a judicial system that we can trust with matters of life and death, and that can stand up to the kind of public scrutiny that Davis’s case received. And gradually reforming the death penalty — imposing it in fewer situations and with more safeguards, which other defendants could benefit from as well — might do more than outright abolition to address the larger problems with crime and punishment in America.

Also related to the death penalty was an incident at a recent GOP presidential debate where Texas Governor Rick Perry claimed he'd never had a hard time sleeping at night in view of the 234 people executed under his governorship. Perry's answer was met by loud cheers from the audience. I was happy to see this response from Chuck Colson.

Now, I have to admit that I was deeply troubled by the governor’s response. I recall the life-and-death decisions I participated in when I was in the White House. Some nights I would go home deeply concerned that I might be putting people in peril. I know that I lost sleep — it’s hard to imagine anybody not being troubled by having to make those kinds of decisions.

What’s more, my experience with the criminal justice system, which, like any human institution, is capable of grave errors, doesn’t instill in me a level of confidence anywhere approaching that of the governor’s.

Let me be clear: I think that there are times when capital punishment is necessary and justified. But the thought of taking another person’s life, however heinous their crimes, should give us pause. It’s never to be made lightly or causally [sic].

And it certainly shouldn’t be the occasion for cheering as the crowd in California audience did twice. If the governor’s response troubled me, the crowd’s cheering chilled me.

Colson goes on to express his hope that the folks doing the cheering weren't Christians. Indeed.

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