Wednesday, May 03, 2006

The smoking gun...

So to speak. For a long time now, and for many people, the death penalty issue has hinged on the question of whether an innocent person could be or has been executed under our system of justice. If the answer is "no", then for many people the death penalty is basically OK, if a bit distasteful (unless someone they care about is affected). But some of us have said for a long time that the answer has to have been "yes" and would be "yes" again, given the slippages and errors which are quite normal even in "capital" cases. Kierkegaard Lives reports that there is exceedingly strong evidence that Texas -- big surprise there, eh? -- in fact has recently executed someone who would have been exonerated and released had he but lived a few months longer.

Worse, we can't even kill competently.

It's true that we, though action and inaction, directly or through our elected or corporate representatives, collectively and individually, cause or hasten death to many people. Death happens. But this is different: this is deliberate, cold-blooded, collective, unnecessary. We are the irresponsible parties in this death, and we should mourn, and we should repent, and we must, as part of that repentance, change.


ArticulateDad said...

Morally, I believe it is wrong to execute a person who is captive, and disgusting to do it publicly, regardless of the heinousness of the original crime. From today's decision, one would suppose the jurists at Moussaoui's trial agree.

On the other hand, I've found two related areas to be more difficult from an ethical standpoint.

First, while it may be reprehensible to kill someone who has been subdued, what about someone who remains a threat? Surely, there have been numerous occasions when the ethically right thing to do has been to murder someone who is in the act, has just completed such, or threatens to cause great harm or death to others. An individual acting in self-defense or defending others would fall under this category, as would the acts of an individual soldier fighting against, say the Nazi war machine, or the atrocities of Cambodia's Khmer Rouge. On this first count, I have personally worked to avoid the opportunity to make such a decision, though I don't know how I would behave under the circumstances.

The second is how I might behave if asked to serve on a jury, in a locale where the death penalty is permissible under the law. In the past, I have believed that I would recuse myself from the trial on the basis that I could not in good conscience consider the death penalty an option. But would such recusal be best serving ethical concerns? Would I be capable, under those circumstances of considering the option of the death penalty, of honoring the law of the land, even if it conflicted with my personal choices? This is not a question of whether I would support such a decision as a jurist, but whether it would be proper to put myself into such a circumstance.

Ahistoricality said...

I have a slightly different set of moral conundra (conundri?): I'm no pacifist, and firmly believe in the moral rightness of using force in self-defense or in the defense of others (see my post below for a discussion of that).

In theory I believe that the death penalty is appropriate in cases where guilt is absolutely certain -- Jewish Talmudic law requires unimpeachable witnesses to the event, for example; heads of genocidal states would qualify -- and the chance and value of rehabilitation is basically zero. In practice, though I think our system of justice is one of the best ever created, it is still subject to error. Given that, I'm very uncomfortable with applying the death penalty in most cases, and would probably not be comfortable applying standard legal definitions of "death-worthy"... though I haven't lived in a death penalty state in a long time, so it's been moot.