Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Death Penalty

John Allen Muhammad, also known as the D.C. Sniper, was executed yesterday. I have to say that I don't particularly care.

On the one hand, there are certainly some good arguments against the death penalty. Most notably, there is the disturbing possibility that it results in the execution of the innocent. Given the number of innocent people convicted of crimes, it seems likely that at least some innocent people get executed. Execution is also very expensive -- the death penalty can add hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars to the cost of a case, and it could be difficult to reduce that amount substantially without increasing the risk of an incorrect result. (There's an argument that should appeal to conservatives -- instead of arguing the injustice or immorality of the death penalty, its opponents should try to portray the death penalty as just another big, expensive, mistake-filled government program.) I wouldn't have been bothered to learn that Muhammed got a life sentence; I don't feel some strong need to have him die.

On the other hand, I have always felt that the amount of attention and opposition the dealth penalty receives is excessive, particularly in relation to the number of people it affects. In the entire period from 1976 to 2005, 1000 people were executed in the United States. That's about 33 people per year. Meanwhile, car accidents kill over 40,000 people per year, and tobacco kills over 400,000 people per year -- in the United States. Yes, death penalty deaths are different in character, but in the grand scheme of things, I think activists might do better to devote their time and energies to a cause that affects more people.

And in any event, if we are going to have the death penalty, it seems that Muhammed is the kind of person who should get it. There didn't seem to be any doubt about his guilt, and his crime involved terrorizing society and killing multiple people for monetary reasons. So while I wasn't feeling a strong need for him to die, neither do I find it especially disturbing.


Peter said...

Interesting post. And timely, too.

I am reading a book titled And the Dead Shall Rise about the 1913 murder of Mary Phagan and the subsequent wrongful conviction and lynching of Leo Frank.

The standard of conviction in criminal cases is "beyond a reasonable doubt" not "beyond all doubt." In other words, the system itself acknowledges and accepts that there will be occasions when innocent men are convicted.

If we have a system that allows for conviction when the fact finders are less than absolutely certain of the accused's guilt, it is immoral to have a penalty (death) that does not allow for correction in those admittedly inevitable instances when an innocent person is convicted.

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