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Posts Tagged ‘death penalty’

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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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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While I was offline for a month, I kept a note of any links and news stories worth commenting on. Now that I’m back, I’m aiming to post two short items a day here, about stuff that happened during my online absence, until I’ve cleared the backlog. This is one of those.


One of the primary arguments that campaigners against capital punishment have used for a while is that, if the state executes a convicted prisoner, and it’s somehow later proven that the conviction was mistaken and the executed victim was innocent, then no-one can ever undo this cruellest imaginable miscarriage of justice.

It’s never worth the risk, they argue, that the state might kill an innocent person by mistake.

Well, there’s a good chance that that’s totally happened.

Claude Jones was executed for murder ten years ago. In 2010, DNA evidence undermined the best evidence that tied him to the crime. And it was a pretty flimsy-sounding bunch of evidence to begin with.

It’s not an exoneration, but go to that link and read up on the rest of the details about how he was found guilty. Then ask yourself if that’s really the kind of evidence you’re okay with your government using to justify putting someone to death.

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The first I heard of it was on the Radio 1 news report that woke me up today, though I get the impression that I’m rather late to the game. This morning, a British man called Akmal Shaikh was executed in China.

He’d been caught at an airport in 2007, carrying 4kg of heroin, which he’d apparently smuggled in from Kyrgyzstan. He may or may not have been an unknowing pawn of the real drug traders’ cruel machinations, as I believe some have claimed. He also may or may not have suffered from some significant mental illness; the courts refused to allow a mental examination. I don’t think either of those things is desperately relevant.

Well, they’re certainly relevant to some broader, more general questions about the ethics of capital punishment, and its application here. Mental illness is hugely relevant to the question of diminished responsibility, as is the extent to which the evidence implicates Shaikh himself in the crime, and the nature of his role in it – as hapless victim, low-level drug mule, or monstrous kingpin.

These are valuable questions, and for the most part I’ll spare you my unqualified musings. They tie in to a deeply controversial debate about the death penalty, and while my fundamental feelings on the matter can be quite neatly summed up with the word “against”, it’s not an entirely one-sided issue. Sometimes, somebody on some other part of the spectrum (and it is a deeply complex spectrum) than the extreme “against” side will have some compelling arguments to make.

But amidst all this vagueness, there’s one thing I’m pretty damn sure of.

And that’s that, when China executes a British citizen, whatever your thoughts on capital punishment in general might be, the correct response is not “I’m glad he’s dead, and the rest of his lot should all go the same way.”

I’m paraphrasing, but that’s pretty much the gist of this Daily Mail article by Leo McKinstry.

It’s really worth a read. If you do, it should be clear that I’m not just having a go because someone dares to disagree with me on the basic matter of whether executing people is ever okay. I’m really open to arguments in favour of the death penalty. I’m against it, but I know people who aren’t, and we get on okay, partly because they don’t characterise my position as “liberal wailing” and their position doesn’t ever strike me as, say, “bloodthirsty and primitive sadism”.

There’s plenty of room for differing viewpoints. But this is just bullshit.

In what I understand is a typical angle for the Daily Mail to return to, it’s explained why it’s pathetic and whiny of us to object to China’s refusal to listen to the UK government’s pleas for clemency: “Ordinary citizens are constantly bullied through a plethora of bureaucratic regulations, yet violence, burglary, theft and drug abuse carry no consequences.”

Read that last bit again. He’s saying without qualification that there are “no consequences” in this country for violent crimes, burglary, and drug abuse. Never has my tendency to forego rational argument for sarcasm and personal abuse been more appropriate. If McKinstry honestly thinks that what he wrote there is literally true, then he’s a fucking retard.

Again, I really don’t object to a discussion about, say, whether crime victims get the help they need, or whether certain measures introduced with the aim of securing people’s human rights actually have a beneficial effect, or how various forms of penal retribution affect recidivism rates. That sounds like a useful and important debate, in fact, on which I have some tentative views, but on which I could probably learn a lot by talking about it with someone who wasn’t a colossal prick.

The case of Tracy Housel is also mentioned in this article. He was a British man executed in the US a few years ago, to the “hysteria” of liberals in the UK. He was brain-damaged and mentally ill, but we’re told that “this hardly explained his record of extreme violence”. I can’t find the bit of this article where it details McKinstry’s medical qualifications and doctorates that would justify him in such an analysis, and give any authority whatever to such a sure statement about the effects of a brain injury and serious medical condition on the behaviour of a person he’s never met. I’m probably just not looking hard enough.

And anyway, this Akmal Shaikh guy was “amoral, selfish, and irresponsible.” Everyone knows it’s okay to kill the selfish and irresponsible. Have we really forgotten what Jesus taught us? Doesn’t someone remember his parable about the state murdering people if they were carrying drugs and acted like kind of a dick to someone in the past? I’m pretty sure he was cool with it.

If you’re still not convinced, look, there’s a big picture of Kate Moss. Checkmate, liberals.

Okay, I’m all out of anger. I’m feeling good about being back in the saddle, words-wise, and I’m off to get some fried chicken.

Oh, one more thing before I go: Demi Moore’s lawyers have sent a threatening letter to Boing Boing, demanding that one of their posts (which raised the question of whether a magazine cover picture of her had been digitally manipulated) be removed. Xeni’s response is pretty awesome. Right, now I really am hungry.

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