Why shouldn’t we kill?

After our discussion in class on the death penalty, I happened upon an AlaskaDispatch.com opinion piece on the issue in Alaska and the complexities that this author identifies, “Alaska death penalty debate far more complex than meets the eye.” The first portion of Wev Shea’s article outlines an horrendous case where he tried and attempted (but failed) to get the death sentence here in Alaska.

The second bit is much more interesting to me. He outlines the systemic factors that we should take into account when considering the death penalty for Alaska. These include factors such as:

  • an underfunded criminal justice system and law enforcement system
  • inexperienced practitioners in the legal system
  • overly politicized Attorney General and opinionated District Attorneys

Basically, Shea points to these systemic and structural failings as “reason” to reconsider. Similarly to our discussion in class, the morality of the issue is pushed to side in favor of debating the pragmatic battle of costs and equity. I found a great resource that discusses the flaws in this approach hosted at the University of Alaska Anchorage Justice Center site.

The answer, I think, lies not in that we are discussing capital punishment, but in how we are discussing it. We have, in our country, an obsession with efficiency, one that easily transcends our concern with less-pragmatic values. Different people have come up with different names and reasons for this phenomenon, but almost all agree that it exists, and it is fair to say that this obsession has successfully constricted the parameters of our discussion on capital punishment. The debate that rages today is an appeal to our practical sense, with supporters arguing that the death penalty works and opponents rushing to prove them wrong. The opponents are right, of course, but they are winning the argument on the wrong terms. They have won in the language of the death penalty, and legitimized it in the process. They have said we’re spending too much money, possibly killing the wrong people, and not deterring crime. Underlying this is a tacit acceptance: if we can spend less money, deter crime, make sure we kill the right people, this thing might just be okay. Such is the culture of efficiency: so concerned have we become about whether it works that we have forgotten to ask whether it should exist at all.

Made perfect sense to me. Ruffle anyone’s feathers?

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3 Responses

  1. I ran across that article the other day while prepping for class — the argument turned out differently than I’d expected at first when I began reading it, but he raises some useful points. Reminds me of a book I read years ago (forgot the author, forgot the title) written by the former warden of the Missouri facility where executions were carried out. He decided after years of watching the system in action that it was not worth continuing…

    I wonder about the Justice Center argument, though — seems to me that on any policy issue, there’s no reason to limit the scope of the debate to one set of questions. If you can win the debate on the grounds of efficiency, why not win it there? But I think the efficiency and morality arguments are linked — opponents of capital punishment would argue, I think, that an inexpensive system would inevitably lead to errors that would ultimately produce immoral outcomes…

  2. I agree in winning your arguments where you can…sounds like lawyer reasoning to me.

    But what got me is this idea that we would use a technicality and not the guts of an issue to be “right”. What I imagine is if the proponents were able to eventually create the system or structure in which capital punishment occurred only when it was supposed to, without sway from economic/racial/political factors, (this is an idealized imagining, of course) what do opponents fall back on then? Our argument would then become null without the efficiency aspect, even though the REAL reason many opponents are against the death penalty is largely due to their morality judgement being different than proponents’.

  3. Here’s a historical example that might help explain what I mean. It’s a legal example, so I guess lawyer-reasoning is at work here…

    When the Supreme Court validated “separate but equal” laws in 1896, opponents argued that the government was permitting an immoral system to take root. When the NAACP began mounting legal challenges to the laws during the 1920s, however, they attacked those laws on practical grounds. Rather than argue that “separate but equal” was inherently unconstitutional, they tried to force states the live up to the “equal” part of the equation — they agreed that segregation was inherently wrong, but their hope was to make segregation so expensive that states would give it up. They didn’t lose sight of their larger moral objection to segregation, but they used a strategy of chipping away at the law until the law was no longer viable.

    Anyhow, by 1954, the NAACP had won a lot of cases along these lines. Rather than build separate law schools for blacks, for example, states like Oklahoma and Texas just gave up and allowed black students to enroll at OU and UT. In the meantime, the court came around on the basic constitutional/moral question and ruled in Brown that segregated schools were inherently unjust…

    I don’t know if that’s the best analogy, but look at it this way — public opinion still supports capital punishment in the abstract. But when people understand that the death penalty tends to be applied only to the poorest defendants; when they hear about the inadequate representation that defendants receive; and so on — when they are aware of these problems with procedure and application of the law, they support it less enthusiastically…

    Maybe at the end of it all, this approach does nothing other than whittle the application of the death penalty down to a small number of cases where there’s no evidence of racial or economic bias, no evidence of inadequate representation, and so on. But I tend to think that capital punishment — like segregation — is not only wrong but that it can’t be applied in a just way. So I don’t see the practical and moral arguments as being in competition with each other — I’d hope at some point they’d converge…

    I don’t know if that makes any sense. Stop making me think so hard on a Sunday… 🙂

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