A Few Topical Thoughts on Capital Punishment
Sometimes I get the feeling I haven’t caused enough controversy lately, so here it goes…
1) It strikes me that in many ways the execution of Troy Davis in Georgia underscores a lot of the points that opponents of capital punishment which make cause even supporters to feel a bit uncomfortable: The execution occurred 20 years after the trail, and only after numerous appeals that cost the state more than life in prison would have. Several witnesses recanted their testimony after the fact and alleged police coercion (though other witnesses continued to maintain they had seen him commit the crime). Claims were made about poor defense representation. Claims were made about the race composition of the jury being an issue (though I’m unclear how this works, and Davis is black and the majority of the jury was as well.) Etc. All of this does not necessarily serve to clear Davis, but it is the sort of thing that could make many people wonder if it would be easier all around to simply lock such cases up and not deal with trying to use the death penalty.
2) On the other hand, the execution on the same day of Lawrence Brewer in Texas underscores why most Americans support capital punishment in at least some situations. There was absolutely no question as to Brewer’s guilt in the sadistic and racist murder of James Byrd, Jr., and the day before Brewer’s execution he told a reporter, “As far as any regrets, no, I have no regrets. No, I’d do it all over again, to tell you the truth.” For all the claims that society can be kept safe from such people without the use of capital punishment, most people, I think, naturally feel both that someone like Brewer (who had been in prison and released twice before he participated in Byrd’s murder) needs to be executed for the safety of society and also that there is a two mile stretch of bloody highway which “cries out to heaven” for justice.
3) Discussions of this topic invariably display the odd ways in which people vary their assessment of the effectiveness of deterrence depending on their political commitments. Those opposing the death penalty insist that the death penalty does not deter crimes. Those against anti-abortion legislation often insist that it would not actually reduce the number of abortions. Yet many people who hold both of these positions simultaneously believe that banning guns would deter people from buying guns.
4) Many of those who are most angered by the idea of the state executing the guilty are simultaneously most adamant about the “right to choose” the killing of the innocent. Even among Catholics, there is often a split in which those who are most anguished and hesitant about the idea of ever punishing someone in any way for the killing of the innocent via abortion are at the same time the most loudly against the execution of those guilty of murder.
If all of these seem very “sic et non”, it’s because my thinking on capital punishment is very mixed. On the one hand, I grant a lot of respect to the statements of John Paul II and Benedict XVI that the use of the death penalty should be avoided whenever possible. Goodness knows, given the experiences of state action both those men saw in central and eastern Europe, I can see why one would want to take that power away from the state for good. At the same time, I find it hard to accept as a matter of practical wisdom that, given the society we see around us, it is possible for the state to protect the common good while completely forswearing the use of the death penalty. I think that in the modern US it is often applied inconsistently and far too long after the crime to make much sense, but at the same time I cannot help thinking that a polity in which crimes such as those of Lawrence Brewer are punished with a sober application of the ultimate penalty is a more just and balanced polity than one which does not.