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by Peter Moskos

November 10, 2010

Kill them all and let God sort 'em out

I'm strangely un-passionate about the death penalty. I think it's wrong to kill. If I could wave a magic wand and do away with it, I would. And yet I don't really care when criminals are executed. I certainly don't shed a tear them.

Recent poll data show that 83% of Americans support the death penalty (other polls have shown this figure to be a bit lower, around 70%). But what I don't get is that 81% of these same Americans also believe that innocent people have been executed (and just 39% believe it acts as a deterrent). That means at least 44% of Americans believe we've killed innocent people and still support the death penalty. How can you support the death penalty if you think we've killed innocent people?

I wish there were, when giving the death penalty, a standard of judicial proof higher than "beyond a reasonable doubt." Something like "we know 100% damn well for certain without any doubt that the person is guilty." Then we could debate the death penalty. Then I might even support it. Until then, I think Justice Blackmun was right when he said, "I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death."

Just FYI, in Russia, the not quite comparable figure in support of the death penalty is 44%. Many people love to think the rest of the world, compared to America, is horribly barbaric and blood-thirsty. These same people usually don't have a passport.


suz said...

Interesting points. The death penalty is NOT a deterrent to anybody who thinks it won't happen to them, or to anybody who doesn't bother to think at all. That covers the vast majority of eligible criminals. In principle, it's a just punishment for murder and a few other heinous crimes, but there's little justice in how it's applied in our system. It isn't given to most of the people for whom it would be "just," and innocent people are executed all too often. I agree that the standards of proof should be much higher. If that were the case, I wouldn't hesitate to support it.

Dana King said...

Agree with all of the above. Part of the problem in this country is that we pass out the death penalty like speeding tickets on Labor Day weekend, to too many people, and for too many crimes.

I've been talked out of the death penalty several times by friends, always to have a poster child for its acceptability (DC sniper, Timothy McVeigh) show up, someone who has shown such disregard for society's principles and the lives of others that he just needs to go. But we need to be sure beyond a reasonable doubt before we push the plunger on anyone.

Anonymous said...

Another factor, for me, is the cost. Ironically costs way more to execute someone than it does to lock them away forever. I agree with your idea about a higher standard of proof, but the simple money factor is the big turn off for me. We waste too much money on these clowns as is.

MisguidedPotential said...

Who cares about the financial cost or whether it's a deterrent. A person who rapes, tortures and murders someone deserves to die, plain and simple. It is justice and it is deserved for offending society. If someone killed your mother you wouldn't blink before calling for their execution, and neither would I. Even if it costs less why would you want to pay for these people to eat, go to the gym, and lay in bed all day doing nothing?

That said, there is a huge disconnect between theory and in practice. In practice, at least a few known innocents have been executed recently, and there have likely been more in the past but we can't know whether they were innocent or not.

Another thought, maybe capital punishment isn't a deterrent because it takes around 15 years on average for an execution to be carried out.