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Posts Tagged ‘capital punishment’

Here’s one of many, many available stories of someone the US government really, really wanted to murder. He was 17, and ended up on death row.

He was pretty clearly innocent, and it’s hard to imagine the gross extent of the incompetence and misconduct responsible for letting the case go as far as it did. Which is a great place to hang the argument against capital punishment: the system is completely unreliable, as evidenced by the fact that the government were preparing to execute a teenager, despite flimsy details like prosecutors knowingly lying about the evidence and airtight alibis being bizarrely ignored and the clear unreliability of witnesses being suppressed.

So we really can’t be sure innocent people won’t be killed unless we just stop killing everyone. The Innocence Project has counted 330 exonerations of convicted criminals in the last 25 years, through DNA testing, including some who were days away from being put to death. How many others weren’t caught in time?

All that’s still a good argument to make. But this is a reminder, to me as much as to anyone else, that I’d oppose the death penalty even if somehow those objections were utterly resolved.

The problems in any one particular case, with dishonest prosecutors and unreliable witnesses and so forth, are all basically moot. The end result was, you killed someone, or you were going to. I’m not okay with that, and it doesn’t really matter how you got there. No human system of establishing guilt will ever be reliable enough that it deserves to be granted that much trust – but even if it somehow were, let’s still not murder each other over it.

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Stuff I’m too lazy/tired/dull to write about in any great depth but which is worth mentioning. (Mind you, my 1200 word blarg on Monday was supposed to be one of these, so we’ll see how it goes.)

– Catholic hospitals refuse to perform abortions because a fetus is a person so that would be murder, but also deny that a fetus is a person when being sued for wrongful death. And also demand the right to not offer services like contraception if they decide it goes against their faith. For an organisation calling themselves a hospital, they don’t seem all that bothered about providing medical care, do they?

– In Florida since the 1970s, 74 prisoners on death row have been executed, while 24 have been exonerated. That means for every three people killed by the state, there’s one guy they were totally prepared to kill but who actually should never even have been in prison in the first place. Some people might find this fucking horrifying. Others – like the people who sadly get to make the decisions – think we should stop dawdling and kill more people.

– Speaking of the Criminal Justice system, that whole area seems to be particularly immune to evidence and rationality. We’re still doing shit we know doesn’t work.

– Happier things now. This short article by Penn Jillette on whether atheism should replace religion is the first thing I’ve read in a long while where I categorically agree with every single word.

– If you like meet cutes, this is the meet cutest.

– And the Merseyside Skeptics Society has a new podcast: Be Reasonable. Hayley Stevens and Michael Marshall talk with people holding fringey or “alternative” beliefs, balancing being totally polite and respectful with a proper savvy for skeptical interrogation. You can be nice to someone who’s taken time out of their day to come on your show and defend their ideas, without switching your bullshit detector off or letting extravagant claims go unchallenged. I’ve not heard an interview show that gets the balance this right since the same two interviewers did much the same thing back on the Righteous Indignation podcast.

Phew, none of that got out of control. Time for dinner.

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In some ways, I’m just not like other people.

“What?” I hear you cry, your shock and alarm carrying across the interwebs and back in time to my unusually spacially and temporally receptive ears. “You, a socially awkard bloke with not many friends who spends a lot of time on the internet, are telling us that you sometimes feel that a yawning gulf separates you from your fellow men? I find such a notion to be utterly preposterous.”

First of all, learn to talk proper. Second, I have something specific in mind, so pipe down.

This is a photo that’s been doing the rounds on Facebook lately:

The two men pictured have been implicated, in some way, in the disappearance of 12-year-old Tia Sharpe. [Edit: No they haven’t; the one on the left is Ian Huntley. I’ve been writing while sleepy again.] To my understanding, nobody has yet been charged with any crime relating to this case, and the body recently found at Tia’s grandmother’s house has not yet been positively identified.

The above image is among the more subtle and tasteful of the numerous calls for these two men’s execution that have appeared on the internet recently. It looks restrained next to some of the sentiments that have been expressed:

get a 20ft rope tie it to him pour petrol over him and the rope set fire to te rope at the end and give him 1 of those hand held plastic fans make him feel how that poor girl felt b4 he killed her.

This kind of reaction strongly demonstrates two things in particular. The rush to judgment is quite alarming, given the tenuousness of any such certainty about a man’s guilt based solely on media reporting in the early days of an investigation, something which has gone badly wrong in the past; and the absolute spitting fury and hatred is as pure and untainted by understanding as it gets.

The first of these is somewhat relatable. I’m hardly free from guilt when it comes to making my mind up too quickly about something based on preliminary evidence, even when it seems like there’s good reason to have strong suspicions.

But the fury and hatred… I just don’t have that. Not even something similar to the above but with better spelling.

It’s not like I don’t get that murdering a child – if, indeed, anyone’s actually done that in this case – is about the most terrible crime there is. But because it’s so obviously an unspeakably appalling thing to happen, I’m not sure I see the point in anger.

When people feel compelled to pour out reams of creative abuse at someone who they believe has done something terrible, it can prompt the question of what they’re trying to prove, and to whom. Apparently it’s important to Lynden Hadley that everyone be clear that he’s totally not on board with this whole child murder thing. But does that really need pointing out? Why would anyone have doubted that about him in the first place?

I suspect that Lynden would share the view of another commenter on that first picture, who opined: “They are not human”. Which is simply empirically incorrect. People who commit horrible murders absolutely are human. Deplorable atrocities are well within the bounds of feasible human psychology.

Distancing yourself from evil-doers is one thing, but denying a similarity of species is a dangerous road to go down. Once you’ve decided it’s only non-humans who do terrible things, it stops being important that you treat those people with humanity and refrain from doing terrible things yourself. It nicely justifies anything you do, since obviously you are a human. Not like those monsters.

People who wish painful, agonising, brutal, violent death on someone they’ve never met and who may well be innocent of any crime are humans too.

But they do make me angry.

I’m not the only one in my online social group, such as it is, to have exhibited greater rage over these pre-emptive calls for a person’s murder, as over the murder that may have actually been committed. If I were a proper blogger, I’d have done some intelligent self-examination and be able to explain why that is. I think the level of my creative output for this last week rather well refutes that possibility, though.

But here’s a poorly thought-out guess: When a crime is committed, there’s a criminal justice process to deal with it. It’s universally accepted that killing people is not okay, so literally everyone is unified in wanting this girl’s disappearance investigated, and action taken against anyone guilty of a crime.

But the mob justice has a sheen of social acceptability. It’s not just one wacky individual calling for an exception to the “killing people is not okay” agreement, and it’s not something the police are probably going to deal with. Large numbers of people believe that treating people like this – with unnervingly sincere threats of inflicting pain, and claiming to act in defence of moral propriety – is appropriate and justified. Perhaps that’s far more offensive than simple, obviously evil, child murder.

Of course, I also get angry over incredibly petty things which have almost no real effect on anybody’s lives, which barely rise above the level of minor annoyance, and where there’s not even a worthwhile current of opinion to take a stand against. The rogue apostrophes on the “GOOD’S INWARD’S” sign on a building I walk past on my way to work make my blood boil. How much must you have misunderstood even the most simple workings of the English fucking language to cock something up that much?

That’s a ludicrous point about grammar. I didn’t get that sweary when discussing the very real chance that a 12-year-old girl was murdered. And my main complaint seems to be with the mob justice crowd’s self-righteousness, more than with the actual ending of people’s lives. Maybe it really is me that’s broken.

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– I vow to make other people’s decisions for them and deny my family any autonomy that defies my idea of a patriarchal family structure.

– I still haven’t seen The Passion Of The Christ. Even though I’ve heard Penn Jillette repeatedly describe it as a very sexy movie, and now I find out it’s hilarious too!

– According to one prominent Christian spokesman, God is in favour of capital punishment, even though he knows it’ll mean some innocent people get murdered.

– Here’s a useful one to be brought out on any future occasion when they’re harangued for defending atheists’ rights: a list of instances of the ACLU defending the rights of Christians.

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Two lives were taken by the government in the southern United States last night.

One, in Georgia, received a great deal of media attention, and has invoked those opposed to capital punishment to speak out in force and in great numbers. This was in part due to the serious doubts raised about Troy Davis’s guilt.

The other, in Texas, hasn’t been talked about quite so much.

There are reasons why the former may have more effectively brought out the humanist sentiment in many people. For one, Lawrence Brewer (the man executed in Texas) was a white man involved in an appalling racial assault; Troy Davis was black. Whatever influence this may have had on their respective juries, it’s likely to have worked in Davis’s favour since then in inspiring a campaign of support, and made it easier for him to be seen as a tragic victim.

Further, Brewer’s involvement in the attack isn’t really in any serious doubt, even by his own account; Davis always protested his innocence, there was never any physical evidence linking him to the crime, and many witnesses have recanted their testimony against him. While this didn’t help Davis one iota at any point during the workings of the justice system, it’s easier and far more comfortable for protestors to rally around the guy who probably didn’t even do it.

But of the people protesting Davis’s killing, many are citing his case as an example of the system failing, and why the fallibility of human judgment means the death penalty should never be enforced. Although this one particular injustice has attracted their focus, they’re acting as campaigners against capital punishment itself, across the board. At least, I think most of them are. If there’s been a large contingent declaring:

Troy Davis’s execution is wrong! The state should only take the lives of criminals it’s really sure are guilty, and this particular case just isn’t up to scratch!

…then it’s passed me by. Most people protesting this death say they don’t want to see any government ever taking the lives of its citizens.

Which means, perhaps inconveniently for some, that a racist murderer’s life is just as important to fight for as an innocent black man’s.

On Twitter this morning, Skeptoid’s Brian Dunning said, of Lawrence Brewer, “I find it hard to oppose this particular execution”.

For the record: I don’t.

(h/t Skepchick)

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Troy Davis has been awaiting the death penalty since his conviction for murder in 1991.

There was never any physical evidence linking him to the crime, and no murder weapon was found. He was convicted largely on the basis of eyewitness testimony.

Of the nine non-police eyewitnesses who testified against Troy, seven have since taken it back, alleging police coercion and intimidation.

Still, he’s due to be killed in three days’ time.

This is all happening in Georgia. Meanwhile, Rick Perry’s home state of Texas is the place with the highest rate of criminal exoneration based on DNA testing in the country. Perry presides over one of the most thorough and persuasive bodies of empirical evidence that eyewitness testimony is dangerously unreliable and is sending innocent people to prison or to their deaths.

He’s not interested. It’s something he’s “never struggled with“. Nor, it seems, have the judiciary in the state of Georgia.

The attitude that develops among Perry and others in charge of states that mandate the death penalty seems to run something like this:

“The state has the right to murder people it deems guilty of unacceptable crimes; we’re going to take pride in these people’s deaths; and we’re going to deliberately forego procedures which are known to uncover mistakes in the system, and which would almost certainly demonstrate the innocence of men and women whose lives we intend to take.”

I’m not getting into the sticky theological issue today of exactly what “evil” is, but I’d say that’s a pretty good start.

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Here’s David Allen Green being correct, for the most part, on the resurgent issue of the death penalty.

In brief: capital punishment is impractical, inefficient, ineffective, and anti-humanist. It fails to do the things it ostensibly is intended to do. It is a bad means to a bad end.

I’m not completely with David on every aspect of his argument. I’m not sure who these “libertarians” (with his own “scare” quotes) in support of the death penalty are, with their apparently inconsistent vision of the state’s role in taking citizens’ lives. This certainly doesn’t sound like any formulation of libertarianism I’ve heard from people actually involved with that political group. [Edit 9/8/11: My commenters have started doing the actual research I didn’t bother with again: see below. A brief flit through the interwebs seems to indicate that libertarian thought on capital punishment is divided, although citation needed.]

And the deterrence argument isn’t quite as dismissable as he finds it. I’m not sure it even matters whether or not it promotes an injustice, if the claim that capital punishment deters other people from committing serious crimes isn’t even true. There are some complex questions raised in that link, but there’s certainly no good evidence that a deterrent effect does exist. If it did, presumably a competent application of statistics could demonstrate this, and then the necessity for “speculation about incidents which may never exist” could be annulled by actual data.

(I think the question is interesting enough to be worth asking: Could a deterrent effect be big enough to justify the death penalty? How much crime would it have to demonstrably prevent before it became a good idea for the state to take the lives of convicted murderers?)

But David is right that the orchestrated taking of a human life is simply a moral wrong on its own face.

Personally, as I think I’ve said before, I feel that being a humanist requires being completely opposed to all forms of retribution, i.e. making things worse so that they’ll be more “fair”.

If you can argue that killing somebody will make things better – that it’ll prevent similar crimes, or prevent recidivism more efficiently than incarceration, or will bring about good in some other way – then I’ll hear it. But so far it doesn’t look like the supporters of the death penalty have reality on their side.

See also Heresy Corner’s discussion on the British government’s new e-petitions website, and the reasons why public opinion on capital punishment is becoming a contemporary topic again.

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