Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Death of the death penalty

I think Texas Gov. Perry's antics to avoid moral accountability for the execution of a probably innocent man will do little to save his reputation and may in the long run prove to be as important to the eventual abolition of the death penalty in the United States as the Illinois moratorium was.

I think that, in the abstract, the state does have the right to execute certain individuals whose crimes are so heinous or who represent such a danger to society that they simply can't be allowed to live. This is why I am hesitant to condemn earlier societies that resorted to the measure, modern societies still undergoing development and groups that may have to resort to the measure in extremis such as military forces locked in mortal combat.

This theoretical acceptance does not, however, lead to acceptance of the death penalty in America. America is a society rich enough and robust enough to incarcerate people indefinitely and shows no compunction about doing so in shocking numbers, so there's no emergency need to do it. And the system has been demonstrated to be riddled with bias and outright errors.

As a matter of fact, the errors which have come to light have, frankly, shaken my confidence in the criminal justice system to the core. One doesn't expect perfection in any human system, but the error rate that is being revealed is unacceptable. It is, absolutely, a horrific thing when innocent people are deprived of their liberty (often for decades) let alone their lives. But law-and-order types should consider the collateral damage of wrongful convictions. Every innocent man rotting in jail means that a real criminal is free to keep preying on the community. And if errors are substantial and common enough it will destroy the public's confidence in the system. There are already substantial communities who do not trust the police and the courts and their distrust is provably rational.

Perry's actions, however, point to the corrupt nature of the system and its inability to police itself. Allowing the commission to finish its work would have been evidence that the system could recognize error and begin reforms to reduce error. Instead it provides evidence that the state cannot be trusted with this power. It not only makes mistakes, but it refuses to identify and correct those mistakes, therefore ensuring that more mistakes will inevitably occur.

Perry has provided opponents with a powerful example of why the death penalty should go.

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