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April 25, 2014

"How America can — and will — abolish the death penalty"

20140426_LDC944The title of this post is the subheadline of this new commentary from The Economist with the main headline "Dismantling the machinery of death." Here are excerpts:

America is unusual among rich countries in that it still executes people. It does so because its politicians are highly responsive to voters, who mostly favour the death penalty. However, that majority is shrinking, from 80% in 1994 to 60% last year.  Young Americans are less likely to support it than their elders.  Non-whites, who will one day be a majority, are solidly opposed.  Six states have abolished it since 2007, bringing the total to 18 out of 50.  The number of executions each year has fallen from a peak of 98 in 1999 to 39 last year.

Many people regret this.  Some feel that death is the only fitting punishment for murderers: that it satisfies society’s need for retribution. Some find a religious justification, such as the line in Exodus that calls for: “life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth”.  Such appeals to emotion or faith are hard to answer, although the Bible also has passages about not casting the first stone, and many conservative evangelicals have ended up in the odd position of prizing life when it comes to abortion, but not when it comes to prisoners (the Catholic church is pro-life on both counts).  However, in a secular democracy a law of such gravity must have some compelling rational justification, which the death penalty does not.

Its advocates insist that it deters murderers, thereby saving lives.  If this were true, it would be a powerful argument, but there is scant evidence that it is.  The murder rate is far higher in America than in the European Union, which has no death penalty.  It is also higher in American states that carry out executions than in states that do not.  Granted, some studies have found that, if you control for other factors that also influence crime rates, you can make the case that each execution prevents three murders, or five, or even 18. But such studies are based on thin data and questionable assumptions.  There were nearly 15,000 murders in America in 2012. The chance of any individual killer being executed is thus microscopic — and distant, since the appeals process can grind on for decades.

Against the death penalty’s uncertain benefits must be set its certain defects. Juries, being human, are fallible.  If they jail an innocent man he can be freed and compensated, but he cannot be brought back to life.  Since the Supreme Court lifted its suspension of the death penalty in 1976, there are no proven cases where America has executed an innocent.  But there are at least ten that look horribly like it.  Cameron Todd Willingham, for example, was put to death for starting a deadly fire, although experts blamed faulty wiring.

To avoid miscarriages of justice, America has erected elaborate safeguards.  Capital cases are subject to multiple appeals; teams of lawyers haggle over them for years.  An unintended consequence of this is that executing a murderer is now perhaps three times more expensive than locking him up for life.  The money spent on the machinery of death would probably do more to improve public safety if it were spent on better policing, to catch the ones who currently get away.  Put simply, the death penalty looks like a colossal waste of taxpayers’ money, which conservative politicians would normally denounce.

Of late, abolitionists have put a lot of effort into lawsuits to make it harder for states to get hold of the drugs used in lethal injections.  This is more likely to delay executions than to end them.  A more democratic approach would be to persuade voters that capital punishment is not just barbaric but also costly, ineffective and prey to human error, and that they should therefore back politicians who oppose it.  That is how New Mexico, Oregon, Illinois, Connecticut, Maryland, Colorado and Washington stopped or suspended it. New Hampshire will try again.  State by state, abolitionists will prevail.  America is a nation founded on the principle that governments should not be trusted with too much power; that should include the power to strap people to a gurney and poison them.

The Economist also has this companion article about execution trends headlined "The slow death of the death penalty; America is falling out of love with the needle."

April 25, 2014 at 08:58 AM | Permalink


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| America is unusual among rich countries in that it still executes people. It does so because its politicians are highly responsive to voters, who mostly favour the death penalty.|
-- Responsible democracy was once viewed favourably as well.

In Canada, the UK, and doubtless elsewhere, voters "mostly favour the death penalty," but their superiors in government
began thwarting their collective will in the late 20th century, as power became more centralised and formidable.

"The will of the people... is the only legitimate foundation of any government …--T. Jefferson to Benjamin Waring, 1801.

And Haman told them of the glory of his riches, and the multitude of his children, and all the things wherein the king had promoted him, and how he had advanced him above
the princes and servants of the king.—Esther 5:11

Posted by: Adamakis | Apr 25, 2014 9:57:26 AM

| Cameron Todd Willingham, for example, was put to death for starting a deadly fire, although experts blamed faulty wiring. … Vengeance is mine, says the Lord. |

--- Ah, the lie is made manifest,
the mental midgets are revealed, and the Economist editors are established as condescending chumps.

Perhaps the reflective authority on which their dubious posturing rests is none less than Anders Breivik, kept alive and contemplative by “secular democr[ats]” in Scandinavia.

/ Police in Norway have rejected a complaint by mass murderer Anders Breivik that his treatment in jail amounted to 'serious torture'./
Sarah Michael/DailyMail on Facebook/24 February 2014

• The far-right terrorist who killed 77 people in a bombing and mass shooting on July 22, 2011, filed a formal complaint against the Norwegian Minister of Justice …
outdated video games were equal to 'aggravated torture'.

• Anders Breivik's complaints over daily body searches and lack of activities dismissed by police …
• • Mass murderer who killed 77 in Norway in 2011 wanted better video games and unmonitored contact with the outside world ...
• • •‘On this basis we have concluded that neither the prison in Ila nor the people mentioned in the complaint are guilty of any wrongdoing,’ Ms Wirum told AFP.
• • • • Lawyer Tord Jordet told AFP his client Breivik ‘was not surprised’ by the decision, The Local reported.

Posted by: Adamakis | Apr 25, 2014 10:42:34 AM

"However, that majority is shrinking, from 80% in 1994 to 60% last year."

More idiocy of twisting statistics to support your opinion rather than letting statistics help you form your opinion.

If you look at the gallup trends, the support for the DP roughly coincides with crime rates. As it rises, support for the DP rises. We are in a decrease in the crime rates, so there will be a relative drop in DP support.

" Young Americans are less likely to support it than their elders. Non-whites, who will one day be a majority, are solidly opposed."

Again, it ignores reality in order to propose "doom" because of demographics.

This is the same error we see whenever there is an article about future electoral prospects. It incorrectly assumes that people are static machines, incapable or unwilling to change when circumstances change. As people get older, they become more conservative. As crime rates go up again after all of the "non violent" offenders are released and they get back to their lifes' work, the pendulum will sweep back up to bring support back up to the 70's.

It is the epitome of wishful thinking that a 60-35 split is good news for abolitionists.

Posted by: TarlsQtr | Apr 25, 2014 11:33:17 AM

I think that we should reject the Christian values and that Sixth Commandment: Thou Shalt Not Kill. We need some secular pillar. I think that mankind is well served if a heinous killer is tried fairly and quickly and then killed with dignity but quickly. Firing squads. Governor must be on the squad. If he is blind then the Lt. Governor. Hand signals if the Lt. Governor is deaf. Burn the bodies. Do it on television.

Posted by: Liberty1st | Apr 25, 2014 4:24:15 PM

"It does so because its politicians are highly responsive to voters, who mostly favour the death penalty."

They weakly favor the death penalty "mostly" -- this is shown by the tiny number of people actually sentenced to die and even tinier numbers who actually are executed, in part because of a range of bottlenecks furthered by democratically based means (e.g., appeals to state courts where judges are often elected, elected officials delaying or commuting sentences, etc.). Outside of states that more or less can be counted on one hand, we are talking single digits at most.

The people mostly think the death penalty in principle is okay at least in some cases, but are wary about it. This helps the delays, commutations etc. alluded in part by the article. This part of what "the people" want is at times ignored by those who speak against "abolitionists." Regardless, it does work in ways particular to our system and society in general.

I think the wider question, not just "voters," is important though. It is a matter of how our society as a whole works and feels that is necessary to remember to get a full sense of the question. As to the final judgment, the optimism is questionable. The "distrust of power" was always mixed. The U.S. Constitution expanded federal power in certain respects. As seen in drone strikes and other areas, trusting the government with the power of life and death, even when there is room of mistake and misjudgment, is strong enough.

Posted by: Joe | Apr 26, 2014 12:25:30 PM

Fair enough that death is irreversible, but the author does not mention that LWOP cases do not often get the same kind of appeals and attention so the argument makes less sense in a way or needs to be constructed in a way that allows LWOP cases to get the same kind of appeals.

In addition while prisons should be humane and have medical care, prison can effect a person permanently, prison rape, hepatitis, infections, cancer, disease resulting in amputation, etc. In other words, it may not be enough to just ensure that justice is not served wrongly by just keeping a LWOP prisoner who is innocent and subject to other conditions.

One un thought of argument, would advocates and abolitionists agree that amputation of the limbs instead of the death penalty could be an option if all parties agree, I don't think one would go as far as amputation of the eyes, but in this case justice is served permanently but the person isn't dead, but not giving an option to be blind would mean its somewhere in the middle. The victims families could be happy, and the convict is still alive, or what if the convict would rather be free with no limbs, then to be locked away without parole, maybe one limb?

This allows for a chance of permanent justice without death just in case and the person could be free, in extreme cases maybe by referendum or hard to tell if guilty or innocent cases. So what's the moral argument here, our western history never really considered amputation to be punishment but did the death penalty as opposed to islamic law.

Of course its barbaric , but is death any less so, especially if said punishment could only be administered if parties agree?

I would love for readers to reply to this argument,

Posted by: alex | Apr 27, 2014 5:41:21 AM

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