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July 27, 2008

The capital punishment company we keep

As various US states get back into the execution business in recent months, this new CNN article about executions in another nation provides a reminder of some of the capital punishment company we keep:

Twenty-nine people convicted of various crimes, ranging from murder to being a public nuisance while drunk, were hanged in Iran, state TV said. Iran's semi-official Fars News Agency reported earlier that 30 people would be put to death. It was not immediately clear if the last person's life was spared.

The Iranian judiciary's statement said that all 30 were convicted of various crimes, which included: murder, murder in commission of a crime, disturbing public safety and security, being a public nuisance while drunk and being involved in illegal relationships -- relationships between men and women who are not married to each other.  Kidnapping and using weapons while committing a crime were also among the charges.

The statement also said that 20 of the convicts were convicted of drug and alcohol dealing, armed robbery and smuggling arms. The judiciary statement said that the convicts had their cases tried by the highest judicial authorities and were found guilty of the charges brought against them.  The verdicts were final with their sentences carried out on Sunday.

The judiciary said the hangings should serve as a warning to those who are contemplating committing such crimes, the agency reported....  According to Amnesty International, Iran executed 317 people last year, second only to China's 470.

Interestingly, the last few paragraphs from the CNN report includes a description of Iran's latest anti-crime campaign that sounds quite similar to press releases we regularly see from American law enforcement officials (excepty for the adultry part):

Iran's government launched a campaign March 20 to increase public security and bring the crime rate down. Police cracked down on alleged drug dealers, whom they called criminal gang members, and alleged habitual criminals who use guns in the commission of their crime.  Alleged weapons smugglers and people who break social and religious laws, including adulterers, were also targets.

July 27, 2008 at 10:07 AM | Permalink


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Though I do not condone the criminals and the crimes committed, I DO condemn the authorities, whom, in my mind, are more primitive, barbaric and bloodthirsty then the criminals themselves. They should be prosecuted by an international court, starting with the judges, Ahmedinejad himself and so on. How can human sole stand there and watch those horrific?

Posted by: Mario Manzella | Jul 27, 2008 11:03:45 AM

Mario, Once you accept the death penalty, the only disputes remaining are:

1)what substantive crimes you will apply it to;
2)what (if any) procedural safeguards will be in place; and
3)what methods will be used to kill people.

In the past few months there have been arguments in the US about allowing the US to kill people for all sorts of crimes. The Supreme Court appears to have a requirement that at least one person has to die for the state to be able to kill people.

Many governments (including state governments) argue that they should be able to kill people with few procedural safeguards. At one point the federal government was arguing that they should be able to kill prisoners without the possibility of judicial review based on the say-so of a GS-12 that there is a “war” or something. Conventional wisdom was that the executive should not have to prove that someone actually did it, because if they had to do that, and they failed the prosecutors might become sad.

While various jurisdictions differ in the manner in which they intend to kill people, many people in the US will say that people that the government has decided to kill can be tortured to death or something. While many lawyers will tell lay people they think this way in public, in private they have more nuanced views of the 8th amendment.

Posted by: S.cute.us | Jul 27, 2008 11:33:46 AM

And repressive governments also lock people up for robbery too . . . .

This "company we keep" stuff is just propaganda. The issue is not capital punishment qua capital punishment, but how we get there. And that separates us from Iran et alia. The propriety of capital punishment does not turn on the fact that Iran executes people.

Posted by: federalist | Jul 27, 2008 1:23:35 PM

I agree with federalist and would like to add that "the company we keep" includes Singapore and Japan. (The former, with a population of only 4.5 million, manages to execute more people than the US in some years. A large number of those executions are drug dealers.) I'm quite proud of their company. Perhaps the US can work with other pro-death penalty states and pass a UN resolution calling on the European Union to abandon their misguided jihad against the death penalty and embark on the glorious and righteous path of capital punishment?

Posted by: realist | Jul 27, 2008 1:29:13 PM

Singapore is a very interesting country. You may feel safe in a country where 1 out of every 100 citizens is employed by the police department but life would be quite different.

It also has a very divided jurisprudence. Commercial cases are transparent where as criminal cases have a wide variance of transparency. Perhaps some US legal practitioners may aspire to this, but
with out a doubt, we'd have a very changed country

Posted by: beth curtis | Jul 27, 2008 2:48:56 PM

Yes, and then we can advance a resolution calling on the UN to repeal its ill-conceived ban against acts of aggression by one nation upon another. Let's really let our inner crazy go wild!

Singapore is a one-party, authoritarian State. While I realize the crazies find that state of affairs pleasant and desirable (and would love nothing more than for the authoritarian Republican party to accomplish that lofty feat in the U.S.--which Cheney, Bush, DeLay, et al., certainly tried to accomplish), it is not exactly a democratic state of affairs, not even one as marginal as the U.S. Japan has likewise been a one-party State for most of its post-war history. In this way, Singapore and Japan are actually quite similar to Texas and other Southern States (post-Civil War) that retain and use the death penalty. But that is hardly an ideal for which to strive.

All governments that view killing its own citizens as solutions to its problems are rightly condemned as barbaric.

Posted by: DK | Jul 27, 2008 2:53:18 PM

DK, where would you rather live, Singapore or Detroit?

Posted by: federalist | Jul 27, 2008 3:51:55 PM

Indonesia and India also have the death penalty, although the latter uses it only rarely.

As federalist correctly notes, the phrase, "the company we keep" is biased and misleading. As I have said here before, without contradiction, the legal process for imposing and carrying out the death penalty in this country is the most painstaking, rigorous and heavily scutinized legal process IN THE WORLD. The idea that our country's legal system bears any realistic resemblance to the theocratic and primitive system of Sharia law is preposterous.

These generalized bromides upbraiding the United States always mangage to avoid specific cases. Such as: What punishment does John Couey DESERVE? The guy abducted, raped and buried alive a nine year-old child.

In answering the question of what Couey deserves, it's a bit of an understatement to say that Iran is irrelevant. One might as well talk about the legal system on the moon. When dealing with Couey's case, we need to confront and take seriously -- for once -- what COUEY did.

And after him, we can talk about Timothy McVeigh.

And then John Wayne Gacy.


Finally, those castigating the United States for "keeping compaany" with a minority of capital punishment countries seem strangely silent when it's pointed out, as it was only recently in the New York Times, that we are the ONLY country that automatically excludes illegally obtained evidence, no matter how slight the police misconduct or how horrendous the crime.

Yet the United States' uniquely rigid stance toward the exclusionary rule -- which is applied probably 10,000 times more frequently than the death penalty -- gets almost no mention, and certainly no condemnation as being out-of-step with the rest of the world.

This could give double standards a bad name.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jul 27, 2008 4:44:37 PM

This is not really a partisan issue. When Bill Clinton was running for president in 1992 he interrupted his campaign to go to Arkansas and sign the execution warrant for Rickey Ray Rector.

This will be a national discussion about deterrence, "community standards", coursing the culture, and finances. Punditry is only a distraction.

Posted by: beth curtis | Jul 27, 2008 4:51:26 PM

Bill, that's not a good analogy. When a government takes the life of one of its citizens, it is doing an affirmatively harmful act. No mentally healthy person believes that executions are not regrettable. That is to say, even people who support capital punishment must do so because they believe it absolutely necessary, not simply because they enjoy killing people. At least, I have yet to see a death penalty supporter publicly rationalize his support by pointing to his enjoyment of taking human life or asserting that the State should be in the citizen-killing business as a matter of course (i.e., not as a last resort). (Those that do believe such things are sufficiently anti-social that their opinions are and should be irrelevant.)

The reason why the company we keep is very much relevant to the death penalty is because those who support it claim it to be an absolute necessity (as they must lest they be no different from the persons they kill). That countries--including the most successful of industrial countries--get along perfectly well without capital punishment, though, belies the claim to necessity. And when we then survey those countries that continue to kill its citizens, we begin to see what might be something more like a pathology than a necessity. Those nations are almost uniformly dysfunctional--oppressive and authoritarian--and it does indeed tell us something about ours.

Posted by: DK | Jul 27, 2008 6:39:37 PM

Capital punishment is NOT an absolute necessity. It's a desirable social policy designed to deter murder.

DK's post is yet another example of the distorting effects of capital punishment on debate. By no means is capital punishment, even if it is wrong, anywhere close to the biggest moral issue facing the country. I guess, maybe, capital punishment to DK is the canary in the coal mine--but if that's the case, what about the carnage inflicted by violent criminals loosed upon our society? Does that tell us something about society or the people responsible for that state of affairs? If executing Couey is such a horrible thing, what about the bureaucratic arrogance that plopped Jesse Timendequas smack dab in a neighborhood full of kids without so much as a warning to parents? What about the idiotic policies that let Lawrence Singleton out after his awful crime? Or Kenneth Macduff?

The problem for DK is that there really is no way to answer these points. When compared to these cases, which are repeated time and time again, capital punishment really is not that big of a deal. Yes, it's a solemn occasion, and yes a life is being taken, but the decision that one must pay for a horrible crime with one's life is just not that hard. Deciding whether to execute someone certainly isn't as hard as making a parole decision with a violent offender, or at least it shouldn't be. In my view, worrying about whether to execute someone for murder is simply squeamishness masquerading as morality. Couey should die for his crimes. That's not a hard one.

Posted by: federalist | Jul 27, 2008 8:01:17 PM


If the taking of human life "is not that big of a deal," then I fail to see why "Couey should die" for doing it. I do not understand how you can be so offended when people do things that you don't consider offensive. This is why supporters of the death penalty like you--i.e., anti-social people--lack all credibility. You're not really in it because you value human life and seek to preserve it. You're in it for sadistic kicks.

Much like war, minimally credibly moral and ethical people must at least view the death penalty as a necessary evil to even attempt to justify it. Because you don't, your opinion doesn't count.

Posted by: DK | Jul 27, 2008 9:11:02 PM

Wow, I must have struck a nerve. It never ceases to amaze me how abolitionists who are willing to stoop to ad hominems etc., but can never answer the fundamental question--if capital punishment is so horrible and is a stain upon our society, then why don't the horrible and foreseeable results of overly lenient sentencing policies which have allowed violent criminals to be released in our society to do their bloodwork cause the same shame? Certainly, the death of Megan Kanka is by far a worse event than the deaths of each and every murderer executed this year, is it not?

But you cannot answer that, so you call me sadistic. If you're going to do that, at least quote me in context. Moreover, I do find the murder of innocent people offensive. I just don't find capital punishment to be offensive.

You lack credibility because you cannot respond to basic points, and instead launch into tirades about sadism.

Posted by: federalist | Jul 27, 2008 10:14:04 PM

Mr. Otis said, “the legal process for imposing and carrying out the death penalty in this country is the most painstaking, rigorous and heavily scutinized legal process IN THE WORLD....The idea that our country's legal system bears any realistic resemblance to the theocratic and primitive system of Sharia law is preposterous.”

While I generally agree that the American form of justice probably is more open than other places (although there are a number of non-transparent parts), it is virtually impossible to compare American killing-sentencing to legal process in other developed democracies, since developed democracies simply don’t include killing as a criminal punishment.

The comments about the exclusionary rule don’t make sense. The exclusionary rule is a means to enforce the constitution against police departments that don’t follow it, or don’t understand it. It is not a free-standing legal right (though people sometimes can sue under 1983).

So, what does the US have in common with Iran?
1. Both have and use the death penalty. The US executes in private, whereas Iran is a bit more open about its methods of killing people. So, in this regard Iran is more open than the US.
2. Both counties can be questioned about the process by which they condemn people to death. While Iran might be killing people out of the Iranian’s bias against gays or whatever, American prosecutors have, from time to time prosecuted innocent people or tried to strike people for racist reasons off juries.

Federalist, While by no means am I am abolitionist (in fact, I am willing to tolerate people being killed for based on false convictions, so long as the error rate is known), I really don’t see any personal insulting being used against you.

Posted by: S.cotus | Jul 28, 2008 12:57:19 PM


"...developed democracies simply don’t include killing as a criminal punishment."

I had not previously been aware that South Korea and Japan are not developed democracies.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jul 28, 2008 1:05:29 PM

Federalist wrote: Certainly, the death of Megan Kanka is by far a worse event than the deaths of each and every murderer executed this year, is it not?

If I tell you that I believe that the Nazi death camps were by far a worse event than the enslavement of Africans in America, is the enslavement of Africans then "not that big of a deal"? Is this not the twisted logic you ask me to employ in defense of how blithely you decide to kill?

I call you sadistic because you are sadistic. It's not an argument; it's the reason why your opinions are irrelevant.

Posted by: DK | Jul 28, 2008 8:09:56 PM

The NY Times article on the exclusionary rule was interesting, but is only one small difference between western European justice systems and our own. I have no idea why they reported on this without pointing out any other differences that impact defendants.

They could just have easily written an article about the United States indicting and prosecuting people who are set up by law enforcement. This is an increasing large % of our criminal prosecutions and is not permitted in Western European countries. They also do not use paid informants.

Posted by: beth curtis | Jul 28, 2008 8:24:32 PM

DK, the flaw in your response is that the death penalty objectively speaking is far worse than Megan Kanka's death. But you (and most abolitionists) seem to think that only the death penalty is what makes our society barbaric. What I am saying is that if the death penalty does so, then such crimes, aided by government do so as well. And if that's the case, since it's plain as day that Kanka's death is far worse than executing murderers, then you guys need to be more vocal about that kind of state sponsored killing. But you're not. Why?

Putting aside that you guys typically support these lenient sentences, I think the answer lies in the sexiness of feeling morally superior. My mother is anti-death penalty. She has it pretty low on her issues of what's wrong with the world. I'd suggest that you get some perspective.

Posted by: federalist | Jul 28, 2008 8:51:53 PM


You must not have been paying attention, because I have consistently rooted my arguments against the death penalty in broader arguments about your privileged class's refusal to treat seriously the problems of extreme poverty and inequality in this country, problems that actually cause the violent crime you make claims to caring about. By failing to do what we know is necessary to reduce violent crime (i.e., guarantee stable housing, sufficient food, and adequate mental and physical health care to all people), our government--and advocates of the policies that deny these basic things to large segments of Americans--condemn many innocent people to die violent deaths by the hands of those so deprived. In other words, I most certainly am "more vocal about that kind of state sponsored killing."

We both care about Megan Kanka. The difference is that I propose solutions that would save future Megan Kankas (while preserving our collective dignity) while you condemn more Megan Kankas to die by foolishly believing that the death penalty will magically stop people from killing others. But you know damn well that as long as our society continues to manufacture materially deprived people who lack access to basic resources like stable housing and adequate mental health care, we will continue to generate murderers (and thus murder victims), with or without a death penalty. The death penalty is not a solution to crime. It borders on delusional to believe it is.

In short, you're barking up the wrong damn tree. And what an odious tree it is at that.

Posted by: DK | Jul 28, 2008 11:14:45 PM

The "privileged class"--translation, those who work for a living.

And I don't think that the death penalty will stop killing--only a damned fool would think that.

And how do you propose to "guarantee" all the things you want to guarantee. You must never have heard of a free rider.

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Posted by: lisa | Sep 5, 2008 12:10:10 AM

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