Suppose you see a man with a gun chasing another man down the street. You are armed and decide to intervene. You yell at the pursuer to stop or you’ll shoot him. He pays you no heed and continues his pursuit. You shoot the pursuer in the back and he drops dead. The pursued man continues his flight and soon disappears from your view.
You call the police to report the incident, and an investigative team soon arrives on the scene. The crime-scene investigator turns the dead man over and sees that he is a fellow police officer. The investigator calls the officer’s unit to determine the officer’s assignment at the time of the shooting.
The investigator learns that the officer had been about to make an arrest in a drug sting. The man he was chasing was probably a mid-level drug dealer who was in charge of a drug-dealing operation that spanned one-fourth of the large city in which you live. On further investigation, these facts are confirmed. You are charged with manslaughter.
But if the person you shot had been a criminal intent on killing the fleeing man, you would have been hailed as a hero.
This hypothetical situation can be thought of as a metaphor for the possibility that a jury will convict an innocent person for a crime that carries the death penalty.
There is almost always some degree of uncertainty about the guilt of a person who is convicted of murder. Most murder convictions are based on “circumstantial” evidence, though it should be compelling evidence to secure a conviction. But a murderer is seldom caught at the scene of the crime in a manner that points unambiguously to (a) his culpability and (b) lack of mitigating circumstances (e.g., self-defense). Rock-solid, 100-percent certainty of guilt is hard to come by.
There are many who argue that such considerations — wrongful conviction, less-than-certainty — call for abolition of the death penalty.
There are two ancillary arguments against the death penalty. The first is that the execution of a person is an irrevocable act which can’t be reversed if evidence surfaces to prove the person’s innocence or, at least, cast reasonable doubt on his guilt. But imprisonment can’t be reversed, either. Awards of monetary damages in cases of wrongful conviction aren’t truly compensatory; time can’t be rewound.
Thus I am unpersuaded that the death penalty is wrong because it is irreversible. All penalties except strictly monetary ones, repaid with interest, are irreversible. And even those have some costs attached to them (e.g., time lost, shame) that can’t be erased.
The second ancillary argument — which isn’t really an argument — is that the death penalty is barbaric. I am unpersuaded that the death penalty is barbaric. It is a penalty for the commission of a barbaric act. To call it barbaric is to stoop to the kind of emotionalism that typifies the left, whence flows most opposition to the death penalty. (If it’s not barbaric, it’s racist; if it’s not racist, it’s primitive; and on into the night.)
Lost in all the noise are the the essential purposes of punishment: vengeance, deterrence, and security. Restitution and rehabilitation are pipe dreams.
Capital punishment is the capstone of a system of justice that used to work quite well in this country because it was swift, certain, and harsh. But the erosion of the capstone has led to the erosion the edifice beneath it. When the worst crimes merit less than death, the next worse crimes merit lesser punishments than before, and so on down the line. At the end of the line, there are increasing numbers of police officers who refrain from intervening in criminal activity lest they themselves be charged with brutality. It’s little wonder that the rate of violent crime has risen for the past two years.
There must be a hierarchy of penalties for crime, and that hierarchy must culminate in the ultimate penalty if criminals and potential criminals are to believe that crime will be punished. When punishment is made less severe and less certain, crime flourishes and law-abiding citizens become less secure. (Some of the related posts listed below provide relevant statistical evidence.)
There are those who argue that the deterrent effect of capital punishment isn’t what it used to be. But that is because the death penalty is rarer and less certain than it used to be. The deterrent effect would be greater if there were a strict limit on the number of appeals and the time available for such appeals.
In any event, even if capital punishment had no deterrent effect, the execution of a murderer eliminates the possibility that he will murder again.
What about the possibility of a mistaken conviction? That possibility argues not for the abolition of the death penalty, but for strict scrutiny of the evidence against an accused to ensure that it is completely and timely divulged to the defense. It also calls for a special class of defense counsel: lawyers who specialize in and are knowledgeable of the kinds of evidence that are (and should be) presented and examined in capital cases (e.g., evidence about DNA, ballistics, poisons, etc.).
As a taxpayer, I would rather subsidize the training, testing, and monitoring of such lawyers than put up with the seemingly endless rounds of death-sentence appeals and the costs associated with them. The tradeoff would be enshrined in law: a definite limit as to the number of appeals and the length of time allowed for them, on the one hand, and a greater assurance of robust defense for the accused, on the other hand.
Justice delayed is justice denied.
Related reading: John Paul Wright and Matt DeLisi, “What Criminologists Don’t Say, and Why“, City Journal, Summer 2017
I’ll Never Understand the Insanity Defense
Does Capital Punishment Deter Homicide?
Libertarian Twaddle about the Death Penalty
Crime and Punishment
Saving the Innocent?
Saving the Innocent?: Part II
More Punishment Means Less Crime
More About Crime and Punishment
More Punishment Means Less Crime: A Footnote
Clear Thinking about the Death Penalty
Let the Punishment Fit the Crime
A Precedent for the Demise of the Insanity Defense?
Another Argument for the Death Penalty
Less Punishment Means More Crime
Clear Thinking about the Death Penalty
What Is Justice?
Why Stop at the Death Penalty?
In Defense of Capital Punishment
Lock ‘Em Up
Free Will, Crime, and Punishment
Stop, Frisk, and Save Lives
Poverty, Crime, and Big Government