I don’t support the death penalty. I think it’s immoral, but I also do not believe that any government process is capable of 100% certainty in its justice system. The possibility of executing one innocent individual more than outweighs any alleged benefit from using capital punishment. I’m uninterested in utilitarian claims about the value of individual rights.
It’s clear that many death penalty advocates value it for its ability to achieve retribution. People we execute are barbarians who deserve it. When made honestly, I can appreciate that sentiment even though I’m not willing to be a barbarian myself. I’m only bothered when advocates pretend that state-sanctioned murder is not barbaric.
The current case before the Supreme Court, Baze v. Rees, is the perfect example of this. From the New York Times:
When the Supreme Court hears arguments on Monday in Baze v. Rees, the Kentucky case that has led to a de facto national moratorium on executions, it will mostly be concerned with the question of what standard courts must use to assess the constitutionality of execution methods under the Eighth Amendment, which bars cruel and unusual punishment.
But beyond that is the more practical question of why all 36 states that use lethal injections to execute condemned inmates are wedded to a cumbersome combination of three chemicals.
The answer, experts say, seems to be that no state wants to make the first move. Having proceeded in lock step to adopt the current method, which was chosen in part because it differed from the one used on animals and masked the involuntary movements associated with death, state governments would prefer that someone else, possibly the courts, change the formula first.
Self-denial is very powerful. As long as we appear to treat people better – by treating them differently – than animals, nothing terrible is happening. As long as we don’t see involuntary movements, nothing terrible is happening. We’re being compassionate for barbarians who deserve nothing good from us. I can’t be excited by this because it’s dishonest.
I like this better:
“The departments of correction are dug in,” said Deborah W. Denno, an authority on methods of execution at the Fordham University Law School. “There’s safety in numbers. But if one state breaks from that, the safety in numbers starts to crumble.”
“If you change,” Professor Denno continued, “you’re admitting there was something wrong with the prior method. All those people you were executing, you could have been doing it in a better, more humane way.”
Some experts on executions say the debate over which chemicals to use is the wrong one. States have adopted a process that appears humane because it looks like medical treatment, Professor Denno said. But looks can be deceiving, she added.
“To me,” Professor Denno said, “the firing squad is the most humane and perceived to be the most brutal.”
If we’re going to have capital punishment, we need to remember that the Constitutional protection against cruel and unusual punishment protects the individual right of the accused/convicted. It does not protect the accuser from having to feel bad. And as long as innocents may be condemned, which they will, we must follow principles, not fantasies of that vengeance can achieve for the victims of heinous crimes.
On a tangent, to what else might we reasonably apply Professor Denno’s logic? If you change, you admit there was something wrong with what was done in the past? A process that appears humane because it looks like medical treatment? The human mind is very good at self-denial, but apparently quite unimaginative at wrapping it in unique packages.