Home / In The Middle: The Death Penalty

In The Middle: The Death Penalty

Please Share...Print this pageTweet about this on TwitterShare on Facebook0Share on Google+0Pin on Pinterest0Share on Tumblr0Share on StumbleUpon0Share on Reddit0Email this to someone
From: Phillip Winn @ Center-Right
To: Eric Berlin @ Center-Left
Subject: The Death Penalty

This week, the state of California executed Stanley “Tookie” Williams. He was convicted in 1981 of murdering Albert Owens, Yen-I Yang, Tsai-Shai Yang, and Yee-Chen Lin. It is also widely reported that he was the founder of the Crips gang, although that fact apparently is not related to the two robberies during which the four murders took place.

I mention this only to introduce this week’s topic: the death penalty.

Since I’m telling stories, I’ll tell mine too. As a young conservative, I was ardently pro-death penalty. I believed that it served as a deterrent and that the punishment ought to fit the crime. It fit with my sense of “justice.” But over time, I became less convinced. As a deterrent, the death penalty seemed to be poor. Perhaps, as some of my friends claimed, that was because there was generally too long between the initial conviction and the actual execution — 24 years in the case of Stanley Williams. Or perhaps it happened so rarely that it didn’t even enter the mind of someone about to commit murder. I wasn’t sure, but I softened in my support of the death penalty. Fast-forward a number of years to 1995 and I found that I was moved by a Papal document, which surprised me. I’m not a Roman Catholic and was raised in a church environment that taught horrible things about Roman Catholics, but the Pope’s
Evangelium Vitae, which called for a pro-life emphasis, shook me.

Since then I’ve also read reports demonstrating that the death penalty is unevenly applied, with the wealthy able to avoid execution, while the poor cannot. Black people are sent to death row far more often than white people for similar crimes, and men more often than women. Statistically, I don’t think that these disparities can be explained by any other combination of factors. For crimes of equal severity and horror and premeditation, a poor black man is far more likely to be sentenced to die than even a poor white man, let alone a rich white man. Shouldn’t justice be blind?

And then there are the mistakes. The state of Illinois reinstated the death penalty in 1977, and between 1977 and 2000, 25 cases were investigated. Twelve of those people were executed while 13 were found, using modern investigative techniques, to be innocent of the crimes. Worse, other stories indicate that innocent people were put to death for crimes they didn’t commit. How many innocent people have been killed in the name of justice? We likely will never know. No system that condemns innocent people to death deserves my support.

I supported, in theory, a system based on what I read in the Bible. According to that standard, nobody could be sentenced to death without at least two eyewitnesses. Updated to modern standards, I would say that includes video evidence only when it is essentially undisputed, and even then should be joined by one more “witness,” for which DNA evidence certainly could substitute. But that wasn’t the standard being used in courtrooms across America, and I eventually announced to my friends and family that I could not support the death penalty in America.

I could still support a death penalty theoretically under extremely limited circumstances, but I don’t expect those circumstances to ever come about in the United States. And even then, I wouldn’t demand it; I could only accept it reluctantly.

What about you, Eric?

From: Eric Berlin @ Center-Left
To: Phillip Winn @ Center-Right

Interestingly, I had a similar evolution on the death penalty, Phillip, but from a different perspective and for a few differing reasons.

Like you, I believed that the death penalty was “just” for those who had committed heinous and unredeemable crimes, first-degree murder obviously being the most frequent example. This was somewhat incompatible, however, with my relatively liberal position on most other issues (more liberal than I am currently, probably!). This caused a degree of tension within my overall political framework, but I took comfort at times with the thought that I couldn’t be pigeonholed on one of the major issues.

Somewhere along the way, I shifted into a lengthy era of uneasy ambivalence on the topic. State-sanctioned executions somehow felt wrong to me, but the idea of an eye-for-an-eye was still strong within my heart. Arguments for one side of the other would sway me for a time.

Strangely, I recall being influenced by In the Name of the Father, a 1993 film starring Daniel Day Lewis as an imprisoned man desperate to prove he wasn’t involved in an Irish Republican Army bombing. I think it was the dawn of a realization that most other “civilized” nations had long ago outlawed the death penalty. Here we live, I thought, in the United States, a place that purports to be the moral leader of the world, and we execute criminals? Would the Galactic Federation or whatever they call it on Star Trek ever execute a prisoner? So maybe “liberal” influence from the media (with plenty of other filmic fare thrown in, from Dead Man Walking to Stephen King-centric prison films like The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile thrown in for good measure) had an influence.

I suppose I started to realize that justice need not come at the end of a needle, that civilized peoples could and perhaps should strive for something better than that. Not necessarily for the prisoner’s sake of course – though you make a fine argument about wrongful convictions, Phillip – but for the sake of the rest of us.

Other factors later helped to confirm and solidify this newfound conviction, such as a well-circulated sentiment that executing prisoners actually ends up costing far more than feeding and housing over the course of a lifetime imprisonment, thus defusing an economic argument.

But it’s the notion of what we strive to be as a society that stuck. I’m realizing just now that that very philosophy now informs my feelings on torturing prisoners as well as a host of human rights issues.

Since we’re in rough agreement on the yes-or-no of the death-penalty issue, Phillip, I’ll ask:

Why do you think that the death penalty is legal in the United States when so many other countries have outlawed the practice? What does that say about us?

From: Phillip Winn @ Center-Right
To: Eric Berlin @ Center-Left

That is a fascinating question, Eric. I’m not sure I have any answer for which there isn’t a counterexample somewhere, but I think there are a few things that combine in some way to keep the death penalty laws on the books.

One factor is the popular notion of the United States as a sort of barely settled Wild West. Although Australia might serve as a counterexample here, given its relatively similar history and national identity, it is also worth noting that Australia is not as firmly against the death penalty as most of Europe! Still, I think the US is uniquely inked with the idea of cowboy John Wayne and the Shootout at the OK Corral and so on. We grow up, or many of us do, with the idea that there are some criminals — cattle rustlers, say — about whom we can say, “hangin’s too good for ’em!”

In fact, I would suggest that many Americans see Europe and deliberately seek to avoid settling into the “stagnation” found there. We relish our image as the brash young leaders of the world, breaking or bending the rules and refusing to settle into cultural torpor as so many other nations have. We’re the inventors of the world, the source of the best music, the most popular fashion, all the good movies, and so on. We won’t be like Wells’ Eloi, stagnant to the point of death!

Of course, I doubt anyone would state expressly that the existence of the death penalty is part of what has made the United States a great nation. I do think, however, that capital punishment is considered to be part and parcel of our rugged past.

So another factor for our continued support is a certain amount of anti-Europeanism. We’re not (yet) those who refuse to recognize evil when it confronts us, we think, or make excuses for even the worst behavior. As I write this, riots are engulfing Sydney nightly in a pattern reminiscent of the riots around Paris last month. The rioting is complicated, with no easy answers, but most Americans would, I think, not rush to say that the rioters should be excused because of an inequity in the social structure. We’ve too many Horatio Alger stories in our history, stories of people who started with less than nothing and the whole world set against them and managed to overcome it all. That’s one of the things I love about the United States, but at the same time it may make us less quick to recognize that there really are inequities in our system that tend to hold people back.

All of this said, I believe that we will see the end of the practice of the death penalty in the United States within 10-15 years, though I suspect a law will remain on the books for unusual events and unusual crimes, such as the crimes that led Australian Prime Minister John Howard to entertain the idea of execution despite his country’s opposition to capital punishment.

Here’s another thought: The death penalty would be a much more effective deterrent if it were carried out far more quickly (within weeks or months, not years and years) and perhaps even not quite as painlessly. But I wouldn’t want to live in the type of country we would be if we went in that direction.

As an alternative to the death penalty, I wonder how many people would seriously entertain the idea of re-introducing “hard time” for those sentenced to life in prison, by which I mean long hours of manual labor, like digging a natural gas pipeline from Alaska. Many people have an idea (not accurate in most cases) that prison is not so hard, and is in fact a step up for many people in the most desperate situations on the lowest rung of America’s socio-economic ladder.

From: Eric Berlin @ Center-Left
To: Phillip Winn @ Center-Right

What’s very interesting and what occurred to me while reading through our conversation is that we’re treading on territory — at least in part — covered by Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine. That documentary focused on guns, gun control, and violence in America, but it did dare (and some of course condemn the controversial filmmaker for daring whereas I give it a standing ovation even as I withhold the right to disagree with some of his conclusions) to raise some fundamental questions, as we have here, about the nature of America and why our society is imbued with certain particular and peculiar characteristics.

While I agree that acceptance and support for the death penalty likely stems in part from America’s association with the notion of rugged individualism. I see it as more cause and less effect than you do, if I’m reading you correctly, Mr. Winn. In other words, I think the rugged individualism (or the whole “shoot first, ask questions never ’cause there ain’t no cavalry in these here parts” type thing) in our national backbone causes many to accept the death penalty in 2005, but I don’t think we accept it as a reaction to European stagnation or cultural torpor. In fact, I would contend that cultural and even informational provincialism (did I coin a new phrase just there? Quick, to the Lexis-Nexis, Robin!) prevents most Americans from having any real notion of what’s going on in Europe or elsewhere one way or the other (above and beyond bumper-sticker slogans such as “Eat Freedom Fries,” of course). In fact, Americans tend to assume that American culture, as predominant culture, is the only culture.

I’ll take a similar position with regard to your Horatio Alger story (and if you’re getting bored with the somewhat intellectual tone of the discussion this week, kids, I’ll give you a topic to toss about: Blogcritics.org is the Horatio Alger of the blogosphere… discuss!). Again, I think you’re right-on in saying that another root cause for support of the death penalty is the American exuberance for nearly pure capitalism and the great risk and great reward that accompany it. You shot someone while robbing a bank and managed to get yourself collared? Off to Old Sparky with you! But again, I can’t associate this in any way with the contention of anti-Europeanism. I once again fail to see the connection there.

I agree that the death penalty likely will become increasingly rare in the United States over the course of the next generation or so. In fact, despite the fact that social conservatives currently have a firm grip on the levers of power in the US, there has been a general trend toward liberalism, tolerance, and social acceptance over the past 50 years. Indeed, I grew up during the 1980s, an era when a term like “gay marriage” would never even be uttered in polite company, let alone be discussed in any kind of serious way! It’s this liberal trend, in fact, that has helped to whip a reaction on the right into such a frenzy. It will be interesting when and if this reaction crests and begins to falter.

The last of your remarks on this go-round points us toward public policy with regard to prisons and potential reforms. The idea of reintroducing “hard labor” into prison life is an interesting one. It segues quite snugly to my next Big Question (I’m going Big Question instead of Big Picture this week):

Is the overall purpose of incarceration to punish or to educate and rehabilitate?

I suppose that the very fact that the death penalty is still around forces the answer toward the punishment side of the scale for the US.

From: Phillip Winn @ Center-Right
To: Eric Berlin @ Center-Left

Growing up in a conservative family and surrounded by mostly conservative friends, I can assure you that — at least among “my crowd” — there was definitely awareness of European views on issues like capital punishment, and the general opinion was not positive. You might underestimate the power of someone like Rush Limbaugh to put these issues in front of a large number of people. His radio audience has never been equaled, and is still quite large, while other diehard conservatives have risen through the ranks to spread similar messages far and wide. Me, I’m still with National Public Radio!

I do think, and this is based entirely on anecdotal evidence, that even hard-core conservatives do not see capital punishment as a core conservative value to be defended. Just as you once supported it while holding liberal views on many other subjects, and I generally rejected it while still holding conservative views on many other subjects, so too do many conservatives with whom I’ve spoken allow for variation on this issue above many others. Nobody, I think, wants to be seen as a bloodthirsty hangman!

You’ve got the last word this week, so I’ll content myself with trying to answer your question. I think that the overall purpose of the justice system varies. The execution of Williams this week has ensured the topic comes up quite a bit, and I spoke to a moderate (he voted for Clinton and Bush) this week who said that anytime someone goes to prison, he wants to feel safer. So Martha Stewart should have been fined but not imprisoned, while premeditated murder ought to result in an automatic life sentence.

Certainly victims, or the families of victims, tend to expect a certain amount of punishment. The idea that a killer could quickly rehabilitate and end up on the street, while my loved one lies dead at that killer’s hand, is repugnant on its face to most people, but most of all to the family of the murdered person. And yet there is a fine line between the punishment aspect of justice, and revenge. Even the state-orchestrated death of Stanley Williams didn’t bring back Albert Owens, Yen-I Yang, Tsai-Shai Yang, or Yee-Chen Lin. Those who were lost can never be restored in this life. Did the execution of Williams bring comfort to the survivors of those four people? I don’t know, but statements I’ve read from past victims’ families indicate that the hoped-for closure is usually bittersweet at best.

In the Big Picture sense, I’ll tell you: I think that certain crimes intrinsically involve giving up the right to live in American society. Premeditated murder, rape, and child molestation make that short list for me. Some people say that child molesters, for example, can not be rehabilitated. I’m uncomfortable with a system that makes such broad statements and would prefer to see a bit more human involvement in such decisions. Even if most child molesters can not be rehabilitated, there are probably exceptions. Will someone who has raped once necessarily rape again? I don’t know the rate of recidivism among convicted rapists, but again, I suspect there are varying degrees. A college student who rapes someone he knows after a party at which he has had too much to drink should spend a stretch of “hard time” in prison, but is he really likely to rape again after his release? Probably not as likely as an older man who prowls a college campus.

I’m trying to avoid introducing Christian theology into a discussion of politics, and it is turning out to be very difficult for me on this topic, because so much of my softening on this issue is tied up in my growing understanding of the place of mercy in Christianity. I can summarize a complex explanation in this way, I think: When someone commits one of those certain crimes, I believe that they give up the right to live in society, and should expect to spend the rest of their days breaking rocks and having a generally unpleasant life. But those of us on the outside should strive to exercise mercy, looking for opportunities to integrate people back into society if we can determine with reasonable confidence that they are not a continuing threat to society.

That would involve inequity, I think; perhaps more than the American public is willing to bear. One person goes free after only a few years while another dies on the chain gang? Why?

And yet that’s what I would like to see in my American utopia.

From: Eric Berlin @ Center-Left
To: Phillip Winn @ Center-Right

I certainly see your point with regard to Rush Limbaugh and other pervasive media sources in advancing all manner of ideas and opinions. Of course, that doesn’t make them accurate, but I can appreciate how a strand of thinking (European-style incarceration = bad; fryin’ ’em = good!) can make its way into a subset or even across a wide swath of the American public. This brings up a related point that we could certainly do several columns on in the future: the importance of obtaining news and information from the widest possible spectrum of sources! Couple that with Mainstream Media Bias: Yea or Nay and I think we’re talking a few months worth of ideas to play around with.

I also agree that there is some vacillation on this issue within party ranks. It’s certainly not a “fatal flaw” for a Republican to be against the death penalty, for instance, whereas being pro-choice on abortion would not fly in many areas of the country (Rudy Giuliani’s probable quest for the Republican nomination for president in 2008 will give this thesis a good test).

Reading through the comments from your moderately minded friend, it struck me that the keyword with regard to public sentiment toward the prison system is security. If people generally feel safe, I don’t think most really care what goes on behind prison walls: education, prisoner-on-prisoner shiv fests, country club-style HBO marathons, etc. When people don’t feel safe, that’s when politicians ratchet up the law-and-order stuff and up minimum sentencing standards and so on. It’s often ignored that the best law-and-order program any society can ever have is a strong economy and opportunity and education for the masses!

It also struck me that the idea of revenge is most often sweeter than the actual feeling of carrying it out. Therefore, I would agree with you with regard to victim’s families and the witnessing of state-sponsored executions. I also like your ideas concerning a philosophy underlying the point at which adults “give up the right” to be free to move and circulate within society. Certain crimes extinguish that right forevermore by their very nature, while others require subjective reasoning and may call on a certain amount of self-motivated education and redemption on the part of the criminal in order to literally earn his or her way back into free society. And I would argue that the very notion of having a free and “just” society allows for that second scenario to be upheld by our legal and justice system. Finally, I’ll be the first to admit it’s all in the details, for which thousands of people get paid millions of dollars everyday to wrestle with these things in an attempt to sort it all out!

Let me wrap up this week’s topic before we let our esteemed commenting masses have at it. The death penalty is an expensive, time-consuming, and unethical response to heinous crimes. It’s also very unlikely to deter anyone from plotting a murder, for example, and in any event lifetime imprisonment surely must be an equal or nearly equal deterrent.

Most of all, I believe that legally sanctioned executions send a poor message to ourselves and to the world about what we strive to be as a civilized people. This ties in quite snugly with other hot issues currently in the news, such as treatment of “enemy combatants” and torture of suspected terrorist conspirators.

Phillip Winn is a registered Republican, but considers himself independent. He lives in Dallas, Texas, and didn’t vote for President Bush in 2000, but did in 2004. He is a co-owner, designer, and technical administrator for Blogcritics.org.

Eric Berlin is a registered Democrat who currently lives in Pasadena, California. Pretty predictable voting record: Gore ’00, Kerry ’04. He is a co-owner and Executive Producer of Blogcritics.org.

In The Middle is an attempt to focus more on what unites us than what divides us. Can two reasonable people from opposite ends of the political spectrum put aside partisanship and meet in the middle? We think so. A topic is picked, e-mails are exchanged, and the results are published here.

In The Middle is a Blogcritics experiment. We’re trying to talk about things civilly, and we strongly request that all commenters do the same. We seek polite comments and questions, not ideological rhetoric or personal attacks.

Be passionate, think before you write, respect others, and have fun!

Previous articles from the In The Middle crew have addressed Bill Bennett, Harriet Miers, Iraq as a “Media War,” the CIA Leak Case, Samuel Alito, Jr, Vice President Cheney, John Murtha, and Joe Conason’s Iraq War Plan.

Powered by

About pwinn

  • #90 (Loren) — I’m confused. Are you talking to me? I ask, because I don’t use the name “Phil,” and I’m not sure why you would address me that way, since you don’t know me.

    Beyond that, assuming that your comment is (rudely) directed at me, it still makes very little sense. The pope isn’t infallible in everything he says, and his encyclicals don’t always qualify. He made no claims of infallibility with regard to Evangelium Vitae, so even if one believed in papal infallibility (which I don’t), it wouldn’t apply.

    You seem to be hung up on picking sides and attacking folks, which just isn’t the purpose of this article. Note the title — “In The Middle.” That’s an indicator that the two authors attempt to find what we have in common, even when we disagree on details. You’re simply in the wrong place, trying to pick a fight with someone who doesn’t care. Perhaps you should go ask the pope whether that argumentative approach of yours is a good thing!

    As far as whether or not I’m against the death penalty, I think you’ll find that you’ve substantially misunderstood my position in a way that indicates you didn’t actually bother reading the article.

    But thanks for your comment. I guess.

  • Clavos


    Actually, the Church teaches that the Pope is only infallible about Dogma, i.e., on matters of Faith and Morals:

    “Today, the Roman Catholic Church teaches its members that their pope is infallible “…in matters of faith and morals.” To be more specific, the pope exercises an infallible teaching office only when:

    1. he speaks ex cathedra, that is, in his official capacity as pastor and teacher
    2. he speaks with the manifest intention of binding the entire church to acceptance
    3. the matter pertains to faith or morals taught as a part of divine revelation handed down from apostolic times.”

    And the Church’s Dogma on Capital Punishment is:

    “The bottom line is, there is no “official teaching” stating unequivocally that the death penalty is Always Wrong, just as there was never an “official teaching” that it was Always Right. There is room in the Catholic tradition for endorsement of the death penalty. There is also room for opposition to it. Prudence seems to indicate increasingly that it is, in almost all circumstances, a greater evil than the evil it seeks to avoid. So the Pope counsels against it. But he makes no dogma.”

    In other words, the current Pope’s stand on the death penalty is only his personal opinion, and not that of the Church. Nor is his personal opinion held to be infallible, or in any way binding on the Church.

  • Loren

    The Pope is infallible.
    You, Phil, are not.
    The Pope is against the Death Penalty.
    You, Phil, are not.
    My money is on the Pope, the infallible one.
    You, Phil, are wrong.

  • Dudley Sharp

    Consider the possibility that Pope John Paul II was in error in his death penalty position and that the Church neglected 2000 years of rational, biblical, theological and traditonal foundations when it adopted its new position (since 1997).

    Pope John Paul II: His death penalty errors by Dudley Sharp, Justice Matters October 1997, with subsequent updates thru 5/07


    The new Roman Catholic position on the death penalty, introduced in 1997, is based upon the thoughts of Pope John Paul II, whose position conflicts with reason, as well as biblical, theological and traditional Catholic teachings spanning nearly 2000 years.

    Pope John Paul II’s death penalty writings in Evangelium Vitae were flawed and their adoption into the Catechism was improper.

    In 1997, the Roman Catholic Church decided to amend the 1992 Universal Catechism to reflect Pope John Paul II’s comments within his 1995 encyclical, The Gospel of Life (Evangelium Vitae). Therein, the Pope finds that the only time executions can be justified is when they are required “to defend society” and that “as a result of steady improvements… in the penal system that such cases are very rare if not practically non existent.” This is, simply, not true. Murderers, tragically, harm and murder, again, way too often.

    Three issues, inexplicably, escaped the Pope’s consideration.

    First, in the Pope’s context, “to defend society” means that the execution of the murderer must save future lives or, otherwise, prevent future harm.

    When looking at the history of criminal justice practices in probations, paroles and incarcerations, we observe countless examples of when judgements and procedures failed and, because of that, murderers harmed and/or murdered, again. History details that murderers murder and otherwise harm again, time and time again — in prison, after escape, after improper release, and, of course, after we fail to capture or incarcerate them.

    Reason dictates that living murderers are infinitely more likely to harm and/or murder again than are executed murderers.

    Therefore, the Pope could err, by calling for a reduction or end to execution, and thus sacrifice more innocents, or he could “err” on the side of protecting more innocents by calling for an expansion of executions.

    History, reason and the facts support an increase in executions based upon a defending society foundation.

    Secondly, if social science concludes that executions provide enhanced deterrence for murders, then the Pope’s position should call for increased executions.

    If we decide that the deterrent effect of executions does not exist and we, therefore, choose not to execute, and we are wrong, this will sacrifice more innocent lives and also give those murderers the opportunity to harm and murder again.

    If we choose to execute, believing in the deterrent effect, and we are wrong, we are executing our worst human rights violators and preventing such murderers from ever harming or murdering again – again, saving more innocent lives.

    No responsible social scientist has or will say that the death penalty deters no one. Quite a few studies, including 10 recent ones, find that executions do deter.

    As all prospects for negative consequence deter some, it is a mystery why the Pope chose the option which spares murderers and sacrifices more innocent lives.

    If the Pope’s defending society position has merit, then, again, the Church must actively support executions, as it offers an enhanced defense of society and greater protection for innocent life.

    Thirdly, we know that some criminals don’t murder because of their fear of execution. This is known as the individual deterrent effect. Unquestionably, the incapacitation effect (execution) and the individual deterrent effect both exist and they both defend society by protecting innocent life and offer enhanced protections over imprisonment. Furthermore, individual deterrence assures us that general deterrence must exist, because individual deterrence could not exist without it.

    Executions save more innocent lives.

    Therefore, the Pope’s defending society standard should be a call for increasing executions. Instead, the Pope and other Church leadership has chosen a position that spares the lives of known murderers, resulting in more innocents put at risk and more innocents harmed and murdered — a position which, quite clearly, contradicts the Pope’s, and other’s, conclusions.

    Contrary to the Church’s belief, that the Pope’s opinion represents a tougher stance against the death penalty, the opposite is true. When properly evaluated, the defending society position supports more executions.

    Had these issues been properly assessed, the Catechism would never have been amended — unless the Church endorses a position knowing that it would spare the lives of guilty murderers, at the cost of sacrificing more innocent victims.

    When the choice is between

    1) sparing murderers, resulting in more harmed and murdered innocents, who suffer through endless moments of incredible horror, with no additional time to prepare for their salvation, or
    2) executing murderers, who are given many years on death row to prepare for their salvation, and saving more innocents from being murdered,

    the Pope and the Catholic Church have an obligation to spare the innocent, as Church tradition, the Doctors of the Church and many Saints have concluded. (see reference, below)

    Pope John Paul II’s death penalty stance was his own, personal prudential judgement and does not bind any other Catholic to share his position. Any Catholic can choose to support more executions, based upon their own prudential judgement, and remain a Catholic in good standing.

    Furthermore, prudential judgement requires a foundation of reasoned and thorough review. The Pope either improperly evaluated the risk to innocents or he did not evaluate it at all.

    A defending society position supports more executions, not less. Therefore, his prudential judgement was in error on this important fact.

    Furthermore, defending society is an outcome of the death penalty, but is secondary to the foundation of justice and biblical instruction.

    Even though Romans and additional writings do reveal a “defending society” consideration, such references pale in comparison to the mandate that execution is the proper punishment for murder, regardless of any consideration “to defend society.” Both the Noahic covenant, in Genesis 9:6 (“Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed.”), and the Mosaic covenant, throughout the Pentateuch (Ex.: “He that smiteth a man so that he may die, shall be surely put to death.” Exodus 21:12), provide execution as the punishment for unjustifiable/intentional homicide, otherwise known as murder.

    These texts, and others, offer specific rebuttal to the Pope’s position that if “bloodless means” for punishment are available then such should be used, to the exclusion of execution. Pope John Paul II’s prudential judgement does not trump biblical instruction.

    Most telling is the fact that Roman Catholic tradition instructs four elements to be considered with criminal sanction.
    1. Defense of society against the criminal.
    2. Rehabilitation of the criminal (including spiritual rehabilitation).
    3. Retribution, which is the reparation of the disorder caused by the criminal’s transgression.
    4. Deterrence

    It is a mystery why and how the Pope could have excluded three of these important elements and wrongly evaluated the fourth. In doing so, though, we can confirm that his review was incomplete and improper.

    At least two Saints, Paul and Dismas, faced execution and stated that it was appropriate. They were both executed.

    The Holy Ghost decided that death was the proper punishment for two devoted, early Christians, Ananias and his wife, Saphira, for the crime/sin of lying. Neither was given a moment to consider their earthly punishment or to ask for forgiveness. The Holy Ghost struck them dead.

    For those who erroneously contend that Jesus abandoned the Law of the Hebrew Testament, He states that He has come not “to abolish the law and the prophets . . . but to fulfill them.” Matthew 5:17-22. While there is honest debate regarding the interpretation of Mosaic Law within a Christian context, there seems little dispute that the Noahic Covenant is still in effect and that Genesis 9:6 deals directly with the sanctity of life issue in its support of execution.

    (read “A Seamless Garment In a Sinful World” by John R. Connery, S. J., America, 7/14/84, p 5-8).

    “In his debates with the Pharisees, Jesus cites with approval the apparently harsh commandment, He who speaks evil of father or mother, let him surely die (Mt 15:4; Mk 7:10, referring to Ex 21:17; cf. Lev 20:9). (Cardinal Avery Dulles, SJ, 10/7/2000)

    Saint Pius V reaffirms this mandate, in the Roman Catechism of the Council of Trent (1566), stating that executions are acts of “paramount obedience to this [Fifth] Commandment.” (“Thou shalt not murder,” sometimes improperly translated as “kill” instead of “murder”). And, not only do the teachings of Saints Thomas Aquinas and Augustine concur, but both saints also find that such punishment actually reflects charity and mercy by preventing the wrongdoer from sinning further. The Saints position is that execution offers undeniable defense of society as well as defense of the wrongdoer.

    Such prevention also expresses the fact that execution is an enhanced defense of society, over and above all other punishments.

    The relevant question is “What biblical and theological teachings, developed from 1566 through 1997, provide that the standard for executions should evolve from ‘paramount obedience’ to God’s eternal law to a civil standard reflecting ‘steady improvements’ . . . in the penal system?”. Such teachings hadn’t changed. The Pope’s position is social and contrary to biblical, theological and traditional teachings.

    If Saint Pius V was correct, that executions represent “paramount obedience to the [Fifth] Commandments, then is it not disobedient to reduce or stop executions?

    The Church’s position on the use of the death penalty has been consistent from 300 AD through 1995 AD. The Church has always supported the use of executions, based upon biblical and theological principles.

    Until 1995, says John Grabowski, associate professor of Moral Theology at Catholic University, ” . . . Church teachings were supportive of the death penalty. You can find example after example of Pope’s, of theologians and others, who have supported the right of the state to inflict capital punishment for certain crimes and certain cases.” Grabowski continues: “What he (the Pope now) says, in fact, in his encyclical, is that given the fact that we now have the ability, you know, technology and facilities to lock up someone up for the rest of their lives so they pose no future threat to society — given that question has been answered or removed, there is no longer justification for the death penalty.” (All Things Considered, NATIONAL PUBLIC RADIO, 9/9/97.)

    The Pope’s position is now based upon the state of the corrections system — a position neither biblical nor theological in nature. Furthermore, it is a position which conflicts with the history of prisons. Long term incarceration of lawbreakers in Europe began in the 1500s. Of course, long term incarceration of slaves had begun thousands of years before — meaning that all were aware that criminal wrongdoers could also be subject to bondage, if necessary – something that all historians and biblical scholars — now and then — were and are well aware of.

    Since it’s inception, the Church has issued numerous pronouncements, encyclicals and previous Universal Catechisms. Had any biblical or theological principle called for a replacement of the death penalty by life imprisonment, it would have been revealed long before 1995.

    There is, finally, a disturbing reality regarding the Pope’s new standard. The Pope’s defending society standard requires that the moral concept of justice becomes irrelevant. The Pope’s standard finds that capital punishment can be used only as a vehicle to prevent future crimes. Therefore, using the Pope’s standard, the moral/biblical rational — that capital punishment is the just or required punishment for murder — is no longer relevant to the sin/crime of murder.

    If defending society is the new standard, the Pope has decided that the biblical standards of atonement, expiation, justice and required punishments have all, necessarily, been discarded, with regard to execution.

    The Pope’s new position establishes that capital punishment no longer has any connection to the harm done or to the imbalance to be addressed. Yet, such connection had always been, until now, the Church’s historical, biblically based perspective on this sanction. Under a defending society standard, the injury suffered by the murder victim is no longer relevant to their punishment. Executions can be justified solely upon that punishments ability to prevent future harm by the murderer.

    Therefore, when considering executions in regard to capital murder cases, a defending society standard renders justice irrelevant. Yet, execution defends society to a degree unapproachable by any other punishment and, therefore, should have been fully supported by the Pope.

    “Some enlightened people would like to banish all conception of retribution or desert from our theory of punishment and place its value wholly in the deterrence of others or the reform of the criminal himself. They do not see that by doing so they render all punishment unjust. What can be more immoral than to inflict suffering on me for the sake of deterring others if I do not deserve it?” (quote attributed to the distinguished Christian writer C. S. Lewis)

    Again, with regard to the Pope’s prudential judgement, his neglect of justice was most imprudent.

    Some Catholic scholars, properly, have questioned the appropriateness of including prudential judgement within a Catechism. Personal opinion does not belong within a Catechism and, likely, will never be allowed, again. I do not believe it had ever been allowed before.

    In fact, neither the Church nor the Pope would accept a defending society standard for use of the death penalty, unless the Church and the Pope believed that such punishment was just and deserved, as well. The Church has never questioned the authority of the government to execute in “cases of extreme gravity,” nor does it do so with these recent changes.

    Certainly, the Church and the Pope John Paul II believe that the prevention of any and all violent crimes fulfills a defending society position. There is no doubt that executions defend society at a level higher than incarceration. Why has the Pope and many within Church leadership chosen a path that spares murderers at the cost of sacrificing more innocent lives, when they could have chosen a stronger defense of society which spares more innocents?

    Properly, the Pope did not challenge the Catholic biblical and theological support for capital punishment. The Pope has voiced his own, personal belief as to the appropriate application of that penalty.

    So why has the Pope come out against executions, when his own position — a defense of society — which, both rationally and factually, has a foundation supportive of more executions?

    It is unfortunate that the Pope, along with some other leaders in the Church, have decided to, improperly, use a defending society position to speak against the death penalty.

    The Pope’s position against the death penalty condemns more innocents and neglects justice.


    These references provide a thorough rebuke of the current Roman Catholic Church teachings against the death penalty and, particularly, deconstruct the many improper pronouncements made by the US Bishops.

    (1)”The Death Penalty”, Chapter XXVI, 187. The death penalty, from the book Iota Unum, by Romano Amerio,

    in a blog
    titled “Amerio on capital punishment” Friday, May 25, 2007

    NOTE: Thoughtful deconstruction of current Roman Catholic teaching on capital punishment by a faithful Catholic Vatican insider.

    (2) Catholic and other Christian References: Support for the Death Penalty

    (3) Capital Punishment: A Catholic Perspective

    (4) The Purpose of Punishment in the Catholic tradition by R. Michael Dunningan, J.D., J.C.L., CHRISTIFIDELIS, Vol.21,No.4, sept 14, 2003



    (7) Forgotten Truths: Is The Church Against Abortion and The Death Penalty, by Luiz Sergio Solimeo, Crusade Magazine, p14-16, May/June 2007

    (8) God’s Justice and Ours by Antonin Scalia, First Things, 5/2002

    (9) The Death Penalty, by Solange Strong Hertz

    (10) “Capital Punishment: What the Bible Says”, Dr. Lloyd R. Bailey, Abingdon Press, 1987. The definitive biblical review of the death penalty.

    [Personal contact info deleted]

  • troll

    Andy – in my heart of hearts I knew but couldn’t resist…forgive me


  • Thanks for that troll…you do know I was being facetious…or attempting to be anyway…

  • Brie

    you are sooo NOT funny

  • troll

    and for you misogynists out therethere’s thishighlighting #81-82

  • Justin Berry

    There is am man in Texas who was on Death Row, his sentence was commuted with everyone elses back in the 70’s. He became the first formr condemnd to be paroled. He is back on death row and the key witnsses in his original trial ar in their graves.

    Research that.

  • troll

    you two kinky kids need to get together


  • Actually, I kinda like the idea of legalized torture…but that’s just me.

  • Brie

    i think that the death penalty is wrong. i think that the guilty person should be put through hell in jail. i think that way because when a person dies, they are conscience of nothing at all. but when a person is alive, they can experience the punishment they deserve. and the punishment they recieve will be given to them in jail.

    do ya feel me?

  • gonzo marx

    Andy sez…
    *With the advances in science today, there’s no reason an innocent person should be put to death…*

    i have ta differ with ya here, bro

    you are completely correct if there is DNA evidence that can be utilized to conclusively Prove guilt in the crime

    however, i put it to you that a good percentage of capital crimes do NOT involve such evidence, much is done with circumstantial and testimonial evidence

    and it is there that the Mistakes creep into the system

    how many folks have been released since the usage of DNA evidence from death row? from prison entirely?

    those folks were convicted on purely non-scientific evidence…and the scientific evidence proved it…my concern is for cases where no scientific evidence is available

    far, far better to just lock the bastards up…if they are later proven innocent…ok…compensate them and turn them loose…if not…a far worse Fate than a quick death…IMO

    just my one sixth billionths of the world’s Opinion…

    your mileage may vary


  • Dan

    On Phillip’s other point- about women getting favorable treatment in the justice system- that’s true of course.

    Women get away with everything. If not everything, then, a lot of things. Child sex crimes are a good example. The few women who do commit capital crimes, we generally think of as mentally unstable.

    Which is another facet of the topic. What about crazy people?

    Some would argue that anyone who commits horrendous crimes is a “mental”. But if you can prove it with legal expert help, you’re off. Maybe that gives an edge to the well connected. For fairness, maybe that loop-hole should be closed. Sound ugly? Probably does.

    There was a man in Ohio who, on Thanksgiving day, murdered 11 of his family members. He shot the adults first, then chased down all the children one by one. There was a lot of talk about different murdering methods, but, you get the picture.

    No doubt he was seriously psychologically impaired, but it was a very calculated feat to kill all the family members.

    In a case like that, I would think that- if he suddenly became sane- he would reflect on the sheer vileness of the act, and seek his own death. That is surely what I would want for myself. It would be impossible to live as a colossal abomination to humanity.

    That’s an often over-looked question. Why would a truly repentent offender of some savage barbarity choose to live? You can’t pay back. It’s only human decency that you should want to die. That’s why there are no truly repentent death row inmates seeking appeals.

  • Dan

    My opinion is that the ‘innocent person put to death’ myth is hysterically overblown.

    And this: “We have to remember that it is better for 10 guilty men to go free than for one innocent man to be put to death.”

    How many innocents will be put to death by those ten who go free? I imagine the recidivisum rate to be fairly high. I know, I’m just having fun here. You meant that they are incarcerated for life, not literally set “free”. Didn’t you?

    Also, I believe Phillip to be off the mark about “Black people are sent to death row far more often than white people for similar crimes,…”

    Case in point: Between 1995 and 2000, ” U. S. Attorneys faced the decision of whether or not to seek the death penalty for 682 defendants. The racial makeup of this group was 20% white and 80% minority. This is not surprising. Sadly, minorities are almost always over-represented in crime statistics — both as defendants and as victims.” (Something Bill Bennett knows about.)

    “After a three-stage process, including a final review by Attorney General Janet Reno, the death penalty was sought for just 159 of those defendants, and this group was 28% white and 72% minority. You read that correctly — the probability of federal prosecutors seeking the death penalty was lower for minority defendants (80% of defendants, but just 72% of those for whom a death sentence was sought).

    Stated a different way, the death penalty was sought for 33% of the white defendants and 21% of the minority defendants — federal prosecutors were actually one-third less likely to seek the death penalty for minority defendants. ”

    This is a fairly large sample size. It’s likely that many of the crimes were “similar”.

  • Guess you missed this comment of mine in #70…

    With the advances in science today, there’s no reason an innocent person should be put to death…

    But hey…it’s your lie…tell it any way you want!

  • Bliffle

    It’s amazing to me that people would think vengeance is so important that it is worthwhile to kill the innocent in it’s pursuit.

  • works for me

  • Bliffle

    Perhaps we should gun ’em down in the streets. After all, they wouldn’t be suspects if the police didn’t have Good reason to suspect them, right? Besides, if we eliminate them right away there’s no chance they’ll get an acquittal later based on dumb things like DNA evidence and retrial and cause embarrassment to our Hallowed Vengeance System.

  • The DP only costs more than life in prison because of all the BS appeals that these miserable wastes of human flesh get before the needle is used on them. Cut down the number of appeals…the cost of robbing, cheating lawyers and then the death penalty will be more economically viable for you.

  • BLIFFLE: I need to ask you something. Please email me at editoratlarge [at] gmail [tod] com.


  • Bliffle

    The DP costs more than life imprisonment.

  • A lot of words that didn’t really say anything to me…you read a study that said the death penalty was not a deterrent…how many people put to death have committed a crime afterward…works as a deterrent to me. and somehow you believe that the death penalty is an incentive???to what???

    All that money that “satisfactorily confines” people as you put it could be put to much better use than feeding and housing a waste of human flesh.

    With the advances in science today, there’s no reason an innocent person should be put to death…

    and I believe your alarming rate statement is BS…although, some would claim, one wrongly convicted and punished person would be alarming, so maybe you need to quantify your statements.

    And lastly, if the crime was against someone in my family, then your damn right, I want justice, or vengeance, call it what ever makes you happy…an eye for an eye…what ever…

    Happy New Year!

  • Bliffle

    I find it hard to accept that anyone still believes in the DP. Even aside from the simple logical syllogism that if even one person could incorrectly be executed that would have to make the DP untenable. Especially astonishing is that self-proclaimed religious folk, often citing a god as their inspiration, would assume for themselves the right to kill a reputed miscreant.

    The innocent are executed at an alarming rate, and their conviction is often secured in the most appalling way. How can we abide the execution of the innocent? It is not necessary: we are able to satisfactorily confine dangerous people, there is no need to kill them.

    Do you really suppose that we can justify the killing of innocents on the basis of “deterrence”? It doesn’t work: the deterrence theory is bogus. 30 years ago when I was ambiguous about the DP I read a study in Science Magazine (AAAS) that summarized 18 statistical studies that were extant, and showed very clearly that the DP has the opposite effect: it increases propensity to murder. So we commit 2 crimes: kill a human, perhaps innocent, and incentivize more killing. I leave it to those philosophers interested in speculating on human nature to explain a result which seems contrary, but I will say that it seems obvious to me that we are very poor judges of other people, and controlled psychological tests prove that.

    The idea of ‘personal responsibility’ is appealing but also founders on some simple counter examples. Not many years ago people thought that epileptics were responsible for their seizures and all that was required was to find the correct set of punishments to correct their behaviour. Of course, the theory was wrong, but many people suffered and died, and a lot of the suffering was on the part of parents convinced that they themselves were failures because they couldn’t find the right curative punishment. Now we know that neurological deficiencies can cause sociopathic behaviour. It’s beyond a persons responsibility. how can we kill them? It’s not war: it’s not kill or be killed.

    So if the DP can be greviously wrong, and if the DP is not a deterrent, what rationale is left? Vengeance is the only one I can think of, and it’s apparent that this is widely popular, often masquerading as ‘justice’. But you don’t have to look far to see that vengeance is counter-productive, especially in it’s deleterious effects on the vengeance-seeker.

  • I’m not sure if I agree with that ten guilty men going free thing…of course, I haven’t looked at it from the angle that I may be the one innocent man…

    are we chatting about death? Or are we chatting about life? Half empty or half full?

  • We have, in this round of killings by the state, passed 1000. How many were innocent? How can we make restitution to them?

    Do some criminals deserve to die? Without a doubt; but is it the right and privilege and responsibility of the state to act as murderer?

    How much do we, can we, trust police (great evidence gathering and handling history they have), DA’s, witnesses, jurors, defense attorneys (like court appointed PD’s) to have not made any errors or have prejudices they acted on?

    Life without parole, hard time, long sentences and a reform of the often ridiculous parole system are surely appropriate or needed. But the ethical question of the state’s right to put to death coupled with both passing stages (racism against…Irish, Blacks, Jews; economic inequalities) and the ineptitude and prejudice of police and courts compel us to maintain a way to right any wrongs that have been done. And death is rather definitive. “Oops”, just won’t do it.

    We have to remember that it is better for 10 guilty men to go free than for one innocent man to be put to death.

    Good conversation. Good company. Just chatting about death during the Christmas season.

  • Jennifer

    I agree with the death penalty. If a person is guilty no question, then he/she should be put to death. All murderers should be punished. Especially the ones who murder children. Everywhere in the news, you read about young kids being abducted, raped and murdered. Where is the justice in letting their killer live out the rest of their lives? People are concerned that death row cost more money than life in prison. So, speed it up

  • and you say every case has the same chain of appeal…then why do they seem to put people to death a whole lot faster in TX than anywhere else…oh wait…I know why…it’s GW’s fault! At least someone around here will say it is!

  • I agree that we do need to be thorough in ensuring that people who receive the most final punishment are in fact guilty of the crime they commit. I also agree that it sometimes seems like the folks with the most money get away with their crimes more often than those with little or no money. That’s the fault of lawyers again, not our courts system. And why does it take 12 to 15 years to go through the appeals process? Does the constitution say fair and impartial…or does it say something about a jury of your peers?

    And lastly, it would be much more of a deterrent if it was done the old fashioned way…in public!

  • Nobody is talking about Stanley Williams particularly, except you. The question is about the death penalty in general practice, not Williams specifically.

    There is no such thing as “a cut-and-dried thing” when we’re talking about a human life. That is the attitude that killers like Stanley Williams have, not the attitude I believe we should have.

    The U.S. Constitution promises us all a fair and impartial day in court. When the death penalty is on the table, it should be then that we are at our most scrupulous in ensuring that the process is without error.

    Incidentally, every case has the same chain of appeal, though most don’t take advantage of it all. In life or death situations, one must expect every option to be tried.

  • Me too Phillip, but I’d say that the death penalty is just a little more of a deterrent. Just the other day a convicted felon was accidentally released from a prison here in VA. If he’d been put to death, that “accident” would never have happened.

    And the only reason it costs more to put a person to death is because lawyers cost to much freaking money. There should be an express line for some of them as well. Appeal after appeal after appeal. They pretty much end up with life in prison anyway!

    I understand that in some instances the appeal process may be a necessary thing, but when it’s a cut and dried thing I say hang ’em!

    Why are we whining for the founder of one of the biggest criminal enterprises in this country? I never heard anyone stick up for an italian mobster like this, except maybe his mother!

  • G.Oren, I’ve actually read God in the Dock. As I stated above, I have no hard-and-fast rule against capital punishment in theory. I just cannot in good conscience support the current U.S. application of it.

    I honestly don’t think anyone who sits down and reads through the stats and the stories really could. Governor Ryan of Illinois was a very strong supporter of the death penalty when he convened a panel to investigate the practice in Illinois. When more than 50% of the people on death row were exonerated using DNA evidence, and when the report came in, he commuted the sentences of everyone on Illinois’ death row.

    When I heard about it, I was furious at what seemed to be an abrogation of justice. Then I read an interview with Scott Turow, who participated in the panel, and read the reports they produced, and became convinced.

    Theory vs practice!

  • Andy Marsh:
    1. The death penalty is no more effective a deterrent to future criminal acts from an individual than life in prison. When “deterrent” is discussed with regard to the death penalty, the general question is whether the existence of the death penalty deters those on the street from committing crimes that might make them subject to the same. It doesn’t.

    2. You’re actually factually incorrect, as it turns out to be cheaper to keep someone in prison for life than to execute him, as multiple government investigations have found, including a relatively recent one by the state of Illionois.

    3. Nobody is arguing that Stanley Williams was civilized when he killed Albert Owens, Yen-I Yang, Tsai-Shai Yang, and Yee-Chen Lin. The question at hand is whether we as a society are civilized when we kill Stanley Williams. Are we basing our standard of conduct on the lifestyle of a murdering thug? Really?

    4. If we could determine with any real degree of certainty that the people we execute have actually committed the crimes of which they’ve been convicted, I think a lot of people would feel quite differently about the issue, but you’ve failed to address one of my primary concerns with the death penalty, which is that we have killed, and continue to kill, innocent people. It’s not all The Fugitive, but a non-zero percentage of the people on death row are not guilty of the crimes of which they are convicted. Do you want them off of “your” planet, too?

    Is it enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, or have the wrong color of skin, or not enough dead presidents as friends? I pray you’re never convicted of a capital crime you didn’t commit, Andy!

  • G. Oren

    Mike – What is the value of a human life? If the murderer took mine, his is forfeit as well. And, I think restitution should be a goal of punishment for crime against property, but retribution should also be included.

    Phillip – I’ve been rereading Lewis about capital punishment – I’m tempted to quote lengthy sections, but will point you to an essay titled “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment”. My copy appears in a collection of essays and other writings titled “God in the Dock” (edited by Walter Hooper) – when I get a chance, I’ll post the original publication date etc.. of the essay.

  • Nancy

    Nothing wrong with a little good old fashioned vengence. Not everybody abjures it for religious reasons.

  • Tookie

    The death penalty gives a feeling of vengance for the victims families. They have a hole in their heart that they think will be filled by revenge. They really need Jesus.

  • Tookie

    I’m not dead. I’m writing a new children’s book now. Its all about a boy named andy. He’s a little high strung and needs a friend.

  • I started reading all these comments and I just had to stop…

    First it’s the states fault, old tookie there seemd to have a fine enough education to write childrens books.

    Then I read it’s not a deterrent…I bet ole’ tookie there doesn’t kill again! He has successfully been deterred. And a little cyanide is a lot cheaper than 25 years of 3 hots and a cot.

    Then I read it’s not civilized…I guess gunning down an old lady for a $100 is civilized? Did ole tookie ever show any remorse for his acts? How civilized is that?

    If you commit one of the few crimes that can get you the gas chamber or the chair then you deserve what you get. And I’m all for getting rid of the death penalty as long as you change the punishment to… no longer allowed to live among civilized people…as in…get off my planet!

  • Mike Valdman


    I’m not suggesting that there’s a necessary connection between incarceration rates and the death penalty. I’m claiming only that, since our society has become substantially more punitive over the last 25 years, it’s implausible to predict that the death penalty will soon be abolished.

    G. Oren,

    I’m puzzled by your view. Why would the premeditated destruction of property require only restitution while the premeditated destruction of life and limb require punishment?

  • Nancy 1

    I’m afraid my motives for maintaining & streamlining the death penalty are a lot more mundane: I resent having to pay to support some scumbag in relative luxury (food, shelter, medical care – sometimes to a ludicrous & obscene level, education, physical fitness, etc. etc. ad nauseam) for the rest of their scummy lives. These are benefits honest & law-abiding people can’t get, yet felons are guaranteed them at the expense of the same taxpayers who can’t afford them for themselves.

    IMO, there are some crimes that should merit automatic death sentences, and I agree completely with the original listing of murder, rape, & pederasty (there goes a good deal of the Catholic clergy, I guess). It goes without saying that anyone accused of these crimes should be convicted only on the strongest possible evidence, and where applicable (such as in a murder), should be entitled to DNA evidence analysis automatically. But after that, endless appellate venues should be closed. I think the main reason the death penalty (or any penalty, for that matter) is not deterrant is the extensive & unreasonable delay in applying it, as it currently exists in the US. I suspect strongly from reports on criminal justice, etc. from other places that carry out swift & certain justice for various crimes (such as Singapore) that the crime rates are pretty much nil compared to ours, just because most persons are well aware that if they do transgress, they will pay the price, in full, and quickly. No appeals, no years of state-supported, state-paid dawdling, no passing Go.

    As for being concerned or aware of adverse opinions by Europeans or anyone else elsewhere, I don’t care one shred. They don’t live here, therefore it isn’t their business, any more than their “justice” is mine, except insofar as it may perhaps impinge on me (such as sentencing a notorious terrorist to a ludicrous nominal term of imprisonment before setting him loose again).

    Again, my basis is that honest people shouldn’t have to support criminals, and certainly not those guilty of a certain level & type of crime.

    I might be tempted to support an alternative in the form of hard labor – and I do mean “HARD labor” – but only if it IS hard labor & the subject is not given time off for good behavior, let off by idiot review boards, negotiations by slick lawyers, etc. However, I am also well aware that given the nature of US criminal law, this is a pipe dream, and it’s only a matter of time before standards start slipping, until the sentence is (as it is at present) only nominal & negotiable.

    As far as the wealthy getting preferential treatment, this is not confined to US law, and has been a problem for as long as there have been wealthy people. I frankly don’t know what the solution for this would be, as it usually rests entirely with the prosecutors as to how much effort they want to put into convicting someone. A lazy prosecutor is willing to plea-bargain, cut deals, etc., and thus give the criminal with a more argumentative lawyer a lesser charge & therefore a better “deal”. And, as pointed out above, there are myriad other conditions that also go into this kind of inequity, however, as far as capital crimes such as multiple murder, I’m not aware that Ted Bundy, the Hillside Stranglers, or Jeffrey Dahmen got any better treatment for being white, nor have any pedophiles I’ve read about (most of whom seem to be white males), than blacks.

    All that said, I really, Really, REALLY love this “In the Middle” forum. Well done, Phillip & Eric!

  • Glen

    Points well made! Yes indeed,points well made!
    Consider this if you will. Should the present conditions change on the legallity of marijuana or other so called recreational drugs? What in the world would our fine, upstanding,hardworking ,
    city and state courts do? Child, they would go so broke! That’s like asking a doctor to cure what ails you! What’s in it for them! Come on now, would you want to deprive these poor folks of their livlihood?
    No, let’s just keep taxing them cigarettes!
    Leave them beer drinkers alone! Why all they are doing is causing accidents thereby helping out the insurance companies with their rate hikes, and the medical field with their long term care
    Oh, sorry. Got carried away there. Topic: To kill or not to kill. Not me! He says, Thou shalt not kill. I take that thou to mean me.
    Although I certainly don’t want murderers or child molesters out on the streets. Solution? I don’t have a good one. That wise old saying that says every journey starts with the first step, sometimes means THOU take the first step.
    Maybe that is dialogue (Uh, Blogging?) Perhaps when the common man, or woman can put in their two cents worth, change is begun. You think?
    Blogcritics-Democracy in action! Go, go go.

  • G. Oren

    Phillip #50 – Your points are well taken – to take them in reverse order.

    If the system finds a 20 year old black guilty of killing a shop clerk and also finds a 20 year old white guilty of the same crime and the black kid gets death and the white kid gets life in prison, something is wrong. My lawyer friends tell me that plea-bargaining etc.., state-paid defense attorneys, attitudes of judges and jury, all these go into the mix of a trial and sentencing.

    I also agree that socio-economic status of the accused may have something to do with conviction rates, and this appears on the face of it to be an inequity. As I said above, the penchant of the police and the prosecutors to “find someone to pin it on” is a weakness of the system. Maybe our standard for applying the death penalty should be something approaching absolute certainty, not just beyond a reaonable doubt.

  • G. Oren (#31), you said “we cannot say that justice is not served by continuing to execute those who are truly guilty of heinous premeditated murder.”

    I don’t disagree with that statement, but I think there is an assumption behind it with which I can’t agree any more: that we can ever truly determine guilt consistently.

    As I’ve mentioned, rich people who commit violent crimes seem to be able to avoid guilty verdicts as easily as poor people (especially poor young black men) receive them whether they’ve committed the crime or not. Could our justice system be reformed enough to erase this inequity? I have my doubts, but until I see major reform, I’m not willing to trust the state to execute anyone.

    I’m a big fan of Lewis, generally, but I think he was operating from a mistaken assumption about the effectiveness of the state.

    If we assume that the state can determine with 100% effectiveness that someone is truly guilty, or limit the application of the death penalty to those for whom guilt can be determined with 100% certainty, is that enough? Perhaps.

    There still remains the question of whether we want to be a society in which a dozen people can all commit exactly the same acts, and only the poor black people get put to death for it. There the question isn’t whether those people are guilty, but whether factors other than their guilt have entered into the process.

  • Mike V (#34 and others), I don’t necessarily see that the prison population has much to do with the death penalty in the sense that you do. That is, our tendency to imprison people doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re more disposed to stern punishment all up and down the scale. As others have pointed out, a pretty good percentage of those in prison right now are there for non-violent drug and alcohol offenses, and I suggest that most people don’t consider the death penalty when forming an opinion on “the drug war.”

    They just don’t relate.

    The idea of ending the death penalty can be simply stated as “this far, but no farther.” That statement doesn’t give any indication of how the person making it feels about “this far,” it just tells us “no farther.” Does that make sense?

    Someone can easily decide that a parking violation necessitates a three-month prison sentence but still refuse to consider the death penalty for even mass murder. It’s not inconsistent at all, and maybe — just maybe — a case could be made that a society that so freely imprisons people would be less likely to dish out the one punishment you can never take back.

  • Congrats to Chantal Stone!

  • Comment #14 above was chosen as Comment of the Day for Thursday 15th December 2005. Congratulations Ms Stone, you are now the third person to have been awarded two of this major honour!


    I’d agree with the releasing of minor drug users, and with decriminalizing marijuana use. THe whole “war on drugs” piece never seemed to be fought properly, we forgot every lesson that Prohibition taught us.

    Really, it should be only the violent (including sexual assualt) criminals who should be locked up for the duration.
    Theft of any type should also be punished, of course.

    To reitetrate, I have no problem with the state executing multiple murderers or child killers. I’d only want to be sure that the eveidence was absolutley solid against them before they were executed, but if the case is solid, make it quick. A lot of these murderers get far too much attention during their lengthy wait, with resulting sympathy, than their victims ever will. If everytime you say a picture of Mr. Williams you also saw pictures of his victims as they looked after he had killed them, bloody and torn, not the clean high school yearbook picture that usually represent the victim to the public, maybe MR. Williams and his supporters would have been less sympathetic.

    This goes for all killers waiting on death row.

  • Excellent questions, and I absolutely agree with regard to our approach to marijuana. It’s simply silly that we treat alcohol and marijuana as differently as we do. That’s not even to mention both the medical and potential economic benefits of marijuana legalization (not just in terms of taxation but in terms of hemp usage and products).

  • G. Oren

    Mike #35 – I agree that restitution should be a goal for crimes against property. I say premeditated murder deserves the death penalty, we may choose to be “merciful”, although it remains to be seen whether life imprisonment is truly more merciful.

    As to the growth in incarcerated inividuals, I think we could reduce those numbers somewhat if we didn’t lock up recreational drug users, indeed I think we could legalize marijuana and tax it like tobacco; but that’s another topic. The whole issue of the drug war is a morass of civil liberties impinged and federal dollars wasted.

    Another question involves whether violent criminals can be rehabilitated etc…

  • Excellent thoughts, Wright. I fully agree that the death penalty should be looked at under the scope of our current justice system… a system I think most would agree needs some degree of reform.

  • Wright

    Like Philip and Eric, I believe that there are some crimes where the perpetrators forfit their right to freedom, at a minimum. I also agree that the death penalty is no deterrant, and to make it an effective one, society as a whole would have to become horrifically draconian.

    I’m liberal on most issues. I cannot rule out capital punishment absolutely: however bitter compensation it may be to those close to murder victims, it still offers more justice (this is strictly a personal reaction) than any alternative. Currently.

    Having said that, I also believe no innocent should be executed. I sure would like to see a real overhaul of our justice system. Surely that would go a long way to providing an example to the world. The number of those shown to be wrongfully convicted of crimes, sometimes after their deaths, is staggering.

    Modern techniques in forensics, applied with skill and consistency, can greatly aid justice. I guess the real trick is pulling that “consistency” rabbit out of the bureaucratic hat… no easy task.

  • Anthony Grande

    I would also like to move that the minimium sentence rape and child molestation be life in prison.

  • Perhaps I’m being optimistic, but I’d like to think that some of the more extreme aspects will be scaled back over time, such as mandatory minimum sentencing (which basically means we don’t trust our judges). I’d like to believe, I suppose, that the eventual abolition of the death penalty will be part of a long-term wave of progressive behavior.

  • Mike Valdman


    I didn’t mean to suggest that we’d use the death penalty to empty out our prisons! I’m just pointing out that, over the last 25 years, our society has become much more punitive. We have more people in prison, serving longer sentences, than ever before. Abolishing or even curtailing the death penalty would go against this trend, so I’m not at all confident in your prediction that the death penalty is on its way out.

    Regarding your second question, there’s no way to fully compensate someone whose, say, husband was murdered (short of ressurecting the dead). But that doesn’t mean that some kind of compensation is impossible. Life insurance companies, for instance, are very much in the business of putting a price on human life. And after 9/11, the victim’s compensation fund worked out a long and complicated formula by which to compensate the widows of the dead firemen. Of course all of this is imprecise, but I still maintain that justice is better served through compensation than punishment.

  • Anthony Grande

    I do not believe that the death penalty is going out of style. I heard somewhere that 2/3 of Americans support capital punishment. That is a scary thought.

    . “I believed that it served as a deterrent and that the punishment ought to fit the crime. It fit with my sense of “justice.” But over time, I became less convinced. As a deterrent, the death penalty seemed to be poor. Perhaps, as some of my friends claimed, that was because there was generally too long between the initial conviction and the actual execution ” by Phillip

    Exactly. If they moved the gap from conviction to punishment to 2 years then it would work and crime would dramatically go down. But that is even more barbaric.

    As a pro-lifer I am 100% anti-death for unborn babies to brutal murderers. If it was up to me I would abolish the death penalty and make the ultimate punishment life in prison. No human has the right to end a life early in my book.

  • Mike — In your view, what would restitution consist of in the case of a murder victim’s loved ones, let’s say?

  • Mike — You seem to imply that the stress on our overburdened prison system will lead us to use the death penalty as an escape valve! I don’t see that happening. I agree that the number of people we have behind bars is disturbing, to say the least. But man, that’s a huge topic in of itself, isn’t it?

    What are your thoughts on this issue?

  • Mike Valdman

    G. Oren,

    You say that justice demands that murderers be executed, but I’m not so sure. If you are harmed by another, it seems that justice requires that you be compensated for the harm you’ve suffered and not necessarily that the criminal be made to suffer the same harm. One could argue that the victim of a crime has suffered a loss, and justice consists in a kind of restitution or compensation — i.e. justice consists in returning the victim to his prior level of well-being. This doesn’t necessarily require punishment. Of course, in the case of murder, the victim cannot be compensated. But perhaps this shows only that, in the case of murder, justice cannot be achieved.

    You might be right that justice requires retribution and punishment, but I find the alternative view — that justice requires only restitution — at least as compelling.

  • Mike Valdman

    Eric and Phillip,

    You both agree that the death penalty is going out of style and may soon disappear entirely, but notice that our society has become substantially more punitive over the last 25 years. In 1980, there were roughly 400,000 people behind bars. Now there are over 2 million. If present trends continue, it’s quite likely that we’ll see an expansion in the use of the death penalty — especially as improved forensic techniques make convicting the innocent less likely.

  • G. Oren

    Thanks Eric – as usual, you and Phillip did a great job of hashing this one out.

  • G. Oren, always wonderful to have you to the party!

    You make a compelling argument, and I’m very glad to have someone check in who supports the death penalty and does it with fine reasoning and logic.

  • G. Oren

    Coming a little late to this party. Yes, the Europeans see our use of the death penalty as uncivilized, partly because of their history of using the death penalty to eradicate political enemies. The spectre of the guillotine is not far from the minds of the French.

    Defending the death penalty requires that we put ourselves in the shoes of the victims and note that justice requires that we sometimes allow the state to bear the sword of justice and take the life of those who have done violence and committed murder. That the state does not bear the sword in vain is an axiom as old as Christendom. In a civil society, we may disagree that it is necessary or utilitarian to permit state sanctioned execution, or we may desire to come up short of full retribution, but we cannot say that justice is not served by continuing to execute those who are truly guilty of heinous premeditated murder.

    Christian writers as diverse as C.S. Lewis and Deitrich Bonhoeffer supported capital punishment, both for its perogative of justice and from the spiritual perspective that life in prison may well be less humane to the guilty.

    Whether or not the death penalty acts to dissuade crime is not really the issue. Such a utilitarian argument ignores what the murderer deserves. Now, I’m all for commuting sentences of those later proved innocent through DNA evidence etc… That too many innocent people are convicted is an indictment of our criminal justice system and police forces that seek to gain convictions in spite of evidence. This weakness in the system demonstrates the lack of intellectual rigour and integrity among those who should be mindful of justice above all. Nevertheless, this weakness is itself not reason enough to ban the death penalty, it is reason to overhaul the criminal justice system so that truth and justice are the unyielding standard.

  • I wanted to pick up on something Phillip said above:

    Failure on either part doesn’t justify the other, but they do seem to correlate in some ways.

    I think that’s the balance. People/groups/government agencies need to be held accountable when things go wrong but if we don’t have the curiosity and compassion as a nation to dig deeper than heaping out consequences then we deserve the society that results.

    I voted for President Bush twice. I agree with him more often than I don’t. I think one of my disappointments with him is that he does not seem a very curious man. I respect his decisiveness and resolve. I appreciate that about him. I think sometimes he doesn’t ask enough questions before makes that decision and employs that resolve. That’s my perception, anyway.

    Bringing it back to the discussion of the death penalty… executing murderers is about the easiest thing in the world to do. It does not take much courage or thought to act on those raw and understandable emotions. Does it truly solve anything? Does it really make us a safer or better society? I don’t think it does.

  • I think it’s probable that media and political pressure over the past several weeks has pushed this announcement up.

  • By the way, EB, it appears that Bush hasn’t forgotten his pledge to New Orleans. Unless — and this is possible — he just came up with this plan in the last day or two.

  • Thanks SFC. I realize that I’m talking about a lot of these things in economic terms. There’s a moral/ethical component as well — that Phillip touches on in talking about the death penalty — but I think in terms of the use of tax revenue an economic argument can be more forcefully made to the American public.


    Eric, your comment #20 has a lot of merit.

  • Hmm… I think it’s too easy to place blame on the media in the case of Katrina and its aftermath. It’s the government which has lost focus on New Orleans and the Gulf — the media is starting to pick up on that very important story!

  • I also think media outlets do a piss poor job of follow-through reporting because they assume our attention span

    Do you think the Red Sox will trade Manny Ramirez? What were we talking about?

  • I think some of the shift in focus away from Katrina victims is due to a little bit of embarrassment on the part of most media outlets, who are now realizing that much of their reporting was, um, overblown.

    Which is a shame, because it’s a story I would like to see followed. I live in Dallas, and know people who are now living here because they’ve no place to go home to in New Orleans.

    But now that statistics are revealing that black people are statistically under-represented among the Katrina dead, rather than over-represented as many media outlets initially reported, and the overall deaths are much lower than initially feared, I think media outlets like CNN and FNC that tend to want the latest flashy story aren’t going to revisit that one.

  • To be fair, I think conservatives and moderates and liberals all have good ideas to bring to the table to deal with the question of poverty. It’s a matter of priorities, like everything else.

    What’s very telling is where the focus lands and stays. For example, there are stories surfacing — and particularly a heartfelt and fiery editorial by the Ed-in-Chief of the New Orleans Time-Picayune (I believe it’s called) — about how the Bush administration has basically shifted completely away from the victims of Katrina as soon as the lights went dark on his moonlit press conference several months back.

  • I think if we don’t focus on educating folks and getting economic opportunity expanded we will continue to have to deal with the results in the form of crime and incarceration. It’s a pay now or pay later. That’s not to suggest all crime is a result of educational and economic failure but I think there is a definite link.

    Unfortunately, we don’t always know how effective we have been until years later but every day we waste is a missed opportunity.

  • I think that DJR makes a very interesting point in looking Big Picture about funding and society: do we want to focus money and resources on education and training or wait until people with no opportunity turn to crime and end up in jail where they can uselessly soak up resources.

    Now, how to specifically spend money and resources is the trick and I won’t even try to get into that here. But I do think that these broad issues are very much interconnected.

  • RedTard, I think that — on an In The Middle article especially — you might make more progress with specific examples and fewer broad labels.

  • Ski, I agree with you. At the same time, I do think that there are factors in American society — and many other societies, clearly, that increase the odds of people irresponsibly committing crimes.

    Every person is responsible for his or her own actions. In addition, I think we’re responsible to create a society that is as colorblind and provides as equal as possible access to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

    Failure on either part doesn’t justify the other, but they do seem to correlate in some ways.

  • RedTard

    “From your standpoint, is it the “liberals” who are trying to control everything?”

    Yes, I think it is generally accepted that liberals believe in an expanded role for government. Certainly this administration has a very poor record with respect to the growth of government but at least conservatives pay lip service to the concept.


    I don’t accept the points made in comment #3. While poverty surely does lead some to a life of crime, it doesn’t lead all impoverished people to a life of crime, so poverty can’t be the sole cause of crime. People who have money and a good education commit crimes as well, both financially and violently at times, they just don’t run in packs or do drive-by shootings.

    Mr. Williams and the rest of the gangers found that being in gangs brought them respect, security, and money, and it beat working for a living.

  • I agree, Chantal. At the risk of self-promotion, I dedicated an entire podcast to this issue and tried to express that same sentiment about the message being sent. Eric did so more artfully than I.

  • Chantal Stone

    I think Eric made the best point when he said:

    “I believe that legally sanctioned executions send a poor message to ourselves and to the world about what we strive to be as a civilized people.”

    That’s it right there. There is no room for the death penalty in a so-called civilized society. How far have we really come if we still kill criminals? There are better solutions (hard-labor, alternative ways of rehabilitation) out there, we just need the courage to execute (no pun intended) them.

  • RedTard, your comments are interesting with regard to government control. From your standpoint, is it the “liberals” who are trying to control everything? That’s a leading question, because many would argue that this administration’s policies advocate less personal rights and greater rights for the corporation and the state.

    Scott — It was nice this week to take a break from Iraq and some of the contentious up-to-the-minute issues we’ve talking about for the last month or so!

  • The death penalty isn’t quite the hot button issue it once was. I’m not so sure it’s really a deterrent to committing crimes. Personally, for me anyway, the thought of spending the rest of my natural life in jail with no chance of parole is much more terrifying than being put to death. I do believe the death penalty should be in place for the most heinous of crimes for some reason, but if it went away, I’m sure I wouldn’t miss it.

    Look at the elections last month in Virginia for governor. Jerry Kilgore, the Republican, ran almost exclusively on a platform that Democrat Tim Kaine was against the death penalty and wouldn’t carry them out if elected. Well, we all know how that turned out. Kaine was elected, partly because of the popularity of Mark Warner but also because of softening of support for the death penalty, even in a red state like Virginia. Calling a political opponent anti-death penalty just doesn’t rally the troops.

  • Temple Stark

    “Should capital puninshment be put to death? Are there reasons on both the Right and the … ”

    death to bad spellers.

    No, seriously. Bad typists – we gotta let em go tho’.

    Tookie deserved to die is my 0.000001 cents worth of input.

  • RedTard


    My point was about more than the death penalty. I’m really ambivalent about it myself. If the death penalty remains I know what crimes trigger it and feel personally responsible not to commit those crimes. I don’t feel like it is an infringement on anyones rights anymore than throwing them in a cell for 23 hours a day.

    Your life can’t be returned to you after the death penalty and neither can the 20 years you spent in jail because you were wrongly convicted.

    I stand by my statement that the major reason the death penalty will be overturned, and I am predicting it will, is because of those growing number of people in this country that don’t believe that individuals are truly responsible for their actions.

    It is not the person, it is the educational system, video games, their socio-economic status, or if no other reason can be determined it must be a psychological disorder that is beyond their control. I do believe those things can have an influence on people but the ultimate responsiblity lies with the individual, and if that means paying the ultimate price then so be it.

  • RedTard

    “The criminal justice system is very often a tax on the failures in our educational system”

    DJ, Thank you for demonstrating my point.

  • RedTard, I think that’s an overly simplistic analysis. Eric and I come from opposite ends of the political spectrum, and yet stand united against the death penalty, though for different reasons. I strongly believe in individual responsibility, and yet still do not condone capital punishment in the United States.

    I actually see it as antithetical to personal responsibility, since too many factors well outside the scope of a person’s responsibility go into the decision to execute a person.

  • I reject the notion the only way for America to demonstrate its belief in the concept of right and wrong is for it to execute people.

    As to the idea of individualism… doing right and being right are of far more value. Following the crowd or rebelling against the crowd are empty gestures and of no real value in and of themselves.

  • RedTard

    Very interesting discussion. Of all the reasoning for the death penalty, the one I see that has the most merit is that of American individualism.

    Some Conservative Americans still believe in right and wrong and that people are responsible for their own actions. The modern liberal views people only as a product of the system. Any anomaly must be handled by adjusting the system, not punishing the individuals responsible.

    I agree that the death penalty will be gone within the next decade or so. The concept of individualism, one of the foundations of our society, is being chipped away slowly by those who believe in total government control.

    I realize I am a dinosaur from another age. Perhaps I should have been born in the old wild west. I would rather be responsible for myself and have the right to do as I please. The modern American is too eager to trade away their rights and freedoms as long as big daddy government will take care of all their problems.

  • Sorry… what I meant by it without going through a littany of other shit is that this is a topic that has seriously been on my mind a lot lately (as EB and perhaps even you might have already known, Phillip).

    In closing… jealousy is a terrible thing. =)

  • … whatever that means.

    What does that mean?

  • the best law-and-order program any society can ever have is a strong economy and opportunity and education for the masses!

    Wholly agree with that. The criminal justice system is very often a tax on the failures in our educational system as well as within our economy.

  • This one is so in my wheelhouse…

  • It’s alive!