As AM radio drifts in and out of my consciousness today I can’t help hearing snippets of conversations about whether or not the Boston Marathon Bomber should get the Death Penalty. I guess the parents of the youngest victim have requested that he not get the Death Sentence, for fear that he will spend endless years appealing it and they will have to spend endless years in limbo going to court case after court case hearing his attorneys explain why he should get his sentence overturned.
From what I have seen and read, this fear is not unfounded. And at the risk of raising the ire of those who think they know more about this than I do, and at the risk of raising the ire of those who may truly actually know more about this than I do, I am going to tell you what I think about the Death Penalty.
I think the Death Penalty can be a great deterrent if it is administered swiftly, fairly, justly, and with certainty. The problem is that none of the four criteria are ever met, nor do I believe they are almost ever possible to meet.
In order for the Death Penalty to have a deterrent effect, it must come soon enough after the crime that a criminal will know it is a logical consequence of his actions. It will have to come speedily enough that he has time for his case to be fully heard, yet not much longer after that. But since THE IMPRESSION WE HAVE (although this is statistically not true…) is that mistake after mistake happens during a trial, we have to leave time for the Appeals process to play out. In truth, however, if heaven forbid the accused is your loved one, or the case is your case, even one mistake during trial is too many. So until we can tighten up our Judicial System and clean up our house (see next point), swift justice just won’t happen.
In order for the Death Penalty to have a deterrent effect, it must be seen as a fairly earned punishment for crime. As long as the perception is perpetuated- and it is perpetuated because it actually happens- that poor defendants and minorities are disproportionately sentenced to death, it can’t deter crime in any real way because committing crime will always be seen as a game of playing the odds instead of a A=B equation. Whites and wealthy or well-connected defendants will assume they can skate away from charges, and everyone else will assume it’s a coin toss anyway. If there is no fairness, there is no respect for the law, so it’s hard to convince people to abide by a system that consistently plays them false.
In order for the Death Penalty to have a deterrent effect, it must be seen as just. That means that the punishment must fit the crime. That means that there needs to be some sort of uniformity in how Death is distributed. It’s a bit of a hard sell to say that in one state a person should die just because they were already a felon when they committed murder, but in another a person must commit the most heinous crime against a child before the State would ever even dream of invoking this most serious of punishments. Either the Death Penalty is drastic and dramatic, and it is reserved for the most awful crimes, or every life taken deserves to be avenged by a life taken, but whatever the standard is, life is Arkansas can’t be more or less valuable than life in Texas, or the Death Penalty is not just.
And in order for the Death Penalty to have a deterrent effect, it absolutely must come with 100% certainty. A criminal must know that if he commits murder, he will die. He can appeal errors in his case, but then it’s game over. There is no 28 years on Death Row, there is no 60 Minutes interview set three years from now, there is no ‘what if technology changes in a decade and we find out we got the wrong guy?‘ That’s an insanely disturbing question, and I don’t know how to answer it, but if we are going to have the Death Penalty- which I believe has many benefits for society- then we are going to have to swallow some bitter pills along with it. Just like in war, sometimes things happen that you would rather not have happen. Not talking about them doesn’t magically wish them away, and not admitting to them doesn’t make them less objectionable. Not saying that sometimes long after a conviction, that conviction is overturned would be me being a liar- or me hiding the facts to make my own case sound better. So, sorry, I am in favor of the idea of the Death Penalty, but there are things about it that make me super uneasy and that’s the ugly truth.
I think warehousing prisoners for a gazillion years is stupid and wasteful. I think Death Row is a sick joke. I think the problem with the Death Penalty is not the idea of it, but the ways we implement it. Does that make me evil? You may think so. I think it just makes me open to discussing an idea.
Maybe you will agree.