Friday, September 23, 2011

Thoughts on the Death Penalty

On Tuesday night, something very interesting as far as the death penalty debate happened - Georgia executed Troy Davis, a person who's guilt was in doubt, and Texas executed Lawrence Russel Brewer, the douchebag who dragged James Byrd, Jr. from the back of his truck until Mr. Byrd died for no good reason other than Mr. Byrd was African American.

What's interesting about this event is that my emotions to these events are pretty much how everyone feels about the death penalty - I was saddened by Troy Davis' death, and a bit horrified that Georgia may have executed an innocent man. But with Lawrence Russel Brewer's execution, I felt a grim sense of satisfaction - justice has been done.  And I think most people feel the same way.

Now, there are arguments about the death penalty, from all sides, but let me knock out one of them right now - the deterrence effect.  The death penalty does not deter anyone from committing murder anymore than life imprisonment does.  Or rather, killing criminals by way of lethal injection is no more of a deterrence than taking their lives away through imprisonment.  What is a deterrence, though, is increasing the chances of getting caught. 

So let's dispense with the deterrence argument - the real reason people support the death penalty is because we want to see justice be done.  There are horrific crimes that we want punished to the extreme.  The torture and killing of a man for no good reason, a la Lawrence Brewer, is such a crime. But if the death penalty is about punishing the worst of the worst, then we're all shaken when the state executes the innocent, children, and those with severe mental disabilities. 

Troy Davis fits into those fears.  He was convicted on the basis of eyewitness testimony - which is highly unreliable when people testify about seeing someone they don't know.  To that end, 7 of the 9 witnesses retracted their testimony against Mr. Davis.  Now, I don't know if Davis was innocent or not, but knowing that 7 of 9 witnesses retracted their testimony is enough to give me pause.  Granted, if the other 2 knew Davis intimately, then all bets are off.  And so we're bothered by this because if there's a good chance that Davis was innocent, and Georgia killed an innocent man.

And here's where the Death Penalty opponents have a decent argument - as long as we have the death penalty, we're going to run into these problems.  Yes, imprisoning someone for life is bad, but there is time to correct mistakes (actually, probably not).  Plus, because we are so determined to only execute the truly guilty, the appeals process takes forever and is costly.  Moreover, the evidence is pretty clear that the justice system fucks up on a regular basis, especially along racial lines. 

At the same time, we get guys like Lawrence Russell Brewer, who kinda got what they deserved.  And that's why the death penalty will never, ever be resolved completely.  Its our heads (the cost-benefit analysis of the death penalty) versus our hearts (retribution against the bad guy). 

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