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March 18, 2015

Death penalty symbolism and Robert Durst

Everyone interested in pop culture criminal law is now busy talking about the seeming confession of infamous real estate figure Robert Durst during the final episode of the HBO documentary series "The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst." Though I find interesting the debate over the potential meaning and use of Durst's statement that he "killed them all," as a sentencing fan I find even more notable this headline about these headlines about case:

Because Durst is aged 71 and California has not executed anyone in nearly a decade, the odds that Durst would be sentenced to death and executed before he dies of natural causes are about the same as the odds that a 16 seed will win the NCAA basketball tournament. But, as in true in so many cases, here a death penalty penalty charge is not really about seeks a true punishment but rather about symbolically sending a message that Durst is among the worst of the worst criminals.

I am always ambivalent about the value of state actors spending lots of time, money and energy on seeking a form of punishment that will never actually be carried out. But the Durst case serves as a great example of why the death penalty (and sometimes other punishments like Bernie Madoff getting 150 years in prison) is often much more about criminal justice symbolism than punishment reality.

March 18, 2015 at 07:34 AM | Permalink


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"Symbolism" was a major issue in capital punishment back in the day too. The execution itself was one big theater event, including the expectation that damned would repent with a statement at the gallows. A fictional representation can be seen in "True Grit."

The whole trial has a lot of symbolism. Also, this calls to mind the whole idea of "cold cases." If the killer, e.g., died, what is the value of determining who did it & proving it? There is a sense of closure. This is all understandable and I take it you are merely providing a clear example to remind us of it.

Posted by: Joe | Mar 18, 2015 8:52:07 AM

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