Friday, November 2, 2007

The Death Penalty: Honest Arguments Needed

The Death Penalty: Honest Arguments Needed

I oppose the death penalty for a variety of reasons: the lack of an Undo button being perhaps the most serious, but at the core of my opposition to it is that it makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up to think of the government intentionally taking people out and killing them when it has other choices. The 1984 movie version of 1984 has one of those profoundly disturbing scenes where during the Two Minute Hate, prisoners of war are being publicly executed in front of the cheering mob. That we do it more dispassionately and without the blood lust doesn't help me much. (I must confess that there are some monsters that make me waver a bit--there's a guy in California who is probably still on Death Row for a rape/torture/murder of a 2 year old little girl committed back in the 1980s for whom I might be prepared to make an exception.)

However, just because I don't approve of the death penalty, doesn't mean that I particularly approve of death penalty opponents. I find the arguments advanced by death penalty opponents astonishingly dishonest. The argument that the death penalty is intrinsically cruel and unusual punishment? Nonsense. The death penalty was common in America when the states ratified the Bill of Rights.

The argument that electrocution or gas chamber inflict unnecessary suffering, thus violating the cruel and unusual punishment clause? Nonsense. Hanging was the common method of execution in 1791, and while many of those so executed died quick and relatively painless deaths when their necks broke, there are gobs of botched executions in that time with people who weren't heavy enough just struggling for long periods of time while they were strangled. That's part of why Michigan has never had a death penalty. One of those botched executions in Michigan just before statehood had a powerful impact on all those who had the misfortune to be there.

The argument advanced some years ago that the drugs used in lethal injection had not been approved for use on humans, and their safety wasn't known? That would almost be funny, if it was a Saturday Night Live. Not in a courtroom.

I've never been particularly sure of whether the death penalty deterred murder or not. John Lott's new book Freedomnomics points to a number of studies that show that it does. This column by him in the November 2, 2007 New York Post makes the point that many of the arguments against the death penalty are absurd:
A common claim is that executions - now down to about 60 per year - are too rare to deter criminals. To see the spuriousness of this complaint, consider that "only" about 55 police officers are killed each year - yet we (academics and the public alike) still see it as a dangerous job, one whose stresses help account for higher divorce and suicide rates.

Yet those killings are spread across about 700,000 U.S. police officers. By contrast, 2005 saw 60 executions and 16,700 murders - that is, we executed murderers at 45 times the rate at which criminals killed police officers. Given the impact on police, how can we believe that murderers would be unaffected by the much larger risk they face? Critics also point to mistaken convictions - yet they still can't point to a single case in which an innocent person was executed. This is ultimate proof that our justice system works well - making due account, for example, for the fact that witnesses sometimes make misidentifications.

Others, like the American Bar Association, claim racial biases in how the death penalty is applied. In fact, while African-Americans have committed 53 percent of all murders since 1980 in which the killer's race is known, they have accounted for only 38 percent of the executions.
Let's hear it for honest arguments against the death penalty--not dishonest ones.

UPDATE: A reader points out that it is cheaper to put a murderer in prison for life than to execute them. This is true. But why? It is so expensive to execute a murderer because the ACLU has made it so expensive. Even a careful painstaking review of the evidence, trial record, and the law shouldn't cost many millions of dollars each and every time. Imagine if conservatives controlled the federal courts, and required every individual release from prison to be this thoroughly checked. You could make the argument that, "It's cheaper to keep convicted burglars in prison for life, than to let them out."

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