The Death Penalty: Changing My View

Electric ChairFor most of my life I have supported the idea of the death penalty.

If you had to assign a label (please don’t) to my political views, they would tend to fall in the conservative range. But I try to avoid having a team mentality. This is where you support something without giving it rational thought or continual reanalysis, simply because it’s on the agenda of the side you picked or were born into.

I believed that some heinous crimes warranted the ultimate punishment. There is a lot that feels right about this belief. The eye-for-an-eye philosophy is morally satisfying. And on the practical side, if someone’s dies for a crime, it seems apparent that this would deter others from committing the same crimes.

But then the real world comes in, as it so often does, and messes up this pure ideology.

Our legal system gets things wrong. A lot.

I’ve recently personally experienced the ineptitude of the court system. Don’t worry. It was for an adoption, not a crime. I haven’t done anything illegal. Yet.

In that experience, I saw how distorted the truth can become, even when the legal system tries its hardest to find it. We have an adversarial system. Basically, the same-team mentality that I mentioned was so dangerous in political views. Like a game, in our legal system there are two sides fighting to win.

How often does a prosecutor intentionally present evidence that weakens the case against the defendant simply because it is true? That wouldn’t be supporting the team. You might lose the game.

Like many that shared my belief on the rightness of the death penalty, I of course realized that our system wasn’t flawless. I thought there could be an obscure case every once in while that got the verdict wrong. Maybe a fraction of a percent. And that would be a case where the doubt was clear and the death penalty wouldn’t be used. But with the way our system works, or doesn’t work, the numbers are terrifyingly higher.

Recognizing that our system has a margin of error and that the margin could be significant changed my perspective. What is the acceptable percentage of people wrongly sent to prison? It’s not zero. It can’t be. Otherwise we would never convict anyone and criminals would act without consequence. We try hard to minimize the number, but have to realize that in any system handled by humans there will be error. As long as someone is still alive, the error has the possibility of being corrected.

What is the acceptable percentage of people wrongly put to death? That is zero. With no decimal point behind it.

Maybe you think there is an acceptable percentage (I hope you at least think it’s a very small number). The reasoning could be that the death penalty prevents crime and therefore balances things out. We execute a few innocents, but also prevent some innocent deaths. If we tweak things just right, the scale will tip toward saving lives and our morality will be intact.

But this again fails on the incompetence of our legal system. The average length of stay on death row (from conviction to execution) is around 16 years (http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/time-death-row). Our system is simply too slow to be effective.

For deterrence to be real we would have to execute people soon after the crime (and in much greater numbers). When they used to stick criminal’s heads on a pike in the middle of town, they sent a very effective message. Your child misbehaved. You took them downtown to see the rotting heads. They never committed a crime. It worked.

But can you imagine the margin of error in a system where we didn’t allow time for people to appeal convictions? With new technology (like DNA testing) to reexamine evidence, exonerating people in prison is becoming a regular thing (http://www.innocenceproject.org ).

Am I saying that executing a person for committing a horrible crime is morally wrong? No. If I personally witnessed a person kill multiple children, I would want that person to die for their crimes. But in a fair system, the person who witnessed a crime can never be the person who judges it. And that introduces uncertainty.

Our adversarial system that motivates people to win at the expense of the truth only magnifies the uncertainty.

If you support the death penalty, I respect that. I also avoid the team mentality of hating the other side. This isn’t a simple question.

But don’t believe something simply because that what the people on your team (Republicans or Democrats, Conservatives or Liberals) believe. Examine it yourself. Be willing to change your mind.

Is this death penalty morally justifiable in cases where the truth is known absolutely? Yes.

Does our system give confidence that the truth has been found? No.

Updated: January 19, 2016 — 7:45 pm

Books by Travis Norwood

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