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by Peter Moskos

September 3, 2009

Do Not Murder

Ta-Nehisi Coates has an interesting post about the death penalty and "innocent" people on death row. I assume it's inspired by this story in the New Yorker.
I feel the need to highlight the case of Roger Keith Coleman, a man claimed innocence to the end, and whose case was murky enough that it garnered this cover story from TIME back in the 1992. Coleman was executed anyway.
The DNA test came back and proved the state was right. Coleman had done it. You must understand what this meant. There were people who had devoted their lives to proving Coleman's innocence, and they almost did. They were played by Coleman while he was alive, and he continued to play them from the grave.

I bring this out to make something clear. I don't have any doubts, first and foremost, about what, exactly, lies behind prison walls. There are evil people in this world. And there are, even more so, reckless people in this world who don't much care about human life.

I think there's this presumption that people who are anti-death penalty get there out of some sympathy for criminals, or some wide-eye naivete. Maybe some people get there that way. I came up in an era where young boys thought nothing of killing each other over cheap Starter jackets. I don't have any illusions about the criminal mind. I don't believe in the essential goodness of man--which is exactly why I oppose the death penalty.
I'd love a little followup on that last line. But it's thought provoking.


Unknown said...

i thought he was saying that justice is not blind, and that the life and death of a human being shouldn't be left up to our fallible judgment. Ta-Nehisi posted on the New Yorker piece earlier in the day.

Frequent Poster said...

Death penalty is a tough issue and I have gone back and forth on it in my lifetime.

DNA testing is not a tough issue and it regularly reveals prosecutors and judges who oppose it, or even oppose allocating state funding for it, as a bunch of heartless thugs who care don't really want justice, but merely delight in cruelty against the underclass.

Disclaimer: Not accusing you of opposing DNA testing or its funding, PCM. However, I am sure some of your colleagues and students do. Bad people. Evil people, in fact.

NewOldSalt said...

I don't believe in the essential goodness of man--which is exactly why I oppose the death penalty.

I know, this does seem ironic.

But I think what the author is driving at is something like avoiding being like Stalin, Hitler, and other various cultures that think because someone has done something wrong (whether proved or not), it's OK to just kill them, or that killing people is necessary to weed out the 100:1 ratio of bad folks to good folks.

However, I have a problem with the logic the author espouses, "I don't believe in the essential goodness of man."

This is a gross over-simplification of reality. While I totally agree "truth" can be found by removing confusing window dressing, and even down to the point of splitting hairs, at some point a person (or saying) has dumbed down the saying to the point of gross over-simplification that it's uselessly over-general.

Thinking one can categorize all of humanity as "essentially good" or "essentially bad" is such a statement. Maybe such a simplification can be applied to individuals, but all of humanity? I don't think so. That's hardly naïve.