December 05, 2005

Beyond the Death Penalty

Eugene Robinson wrote a column a few days ago saying that he's against the death penalty, but doesn't see why Stanley "Tookie" Williams—the founder of the Crips who has since turned his life around on death row—should get special attention from the anti-death penalty crowd. "For me," he writes, "this case just reinforces my belief that there is no way the death penalty can be fairly applied," since unless you have Snoop Dogg on your side, no one cares about your fate. It's a reasonable point, though I partly disagree. If you believe that Williams really has turned into a peacemaker and anti-gang spokesman these days, then his story helps illustrate some of the problems with letting the state decide when a person's life is no longer worth living.

Still, Robinson has a point. One could expand his point even further, though, and say that it's not always clear why death penalty cases should get extra-special attention. Many of the pragmatic arguments against the death penalty apply to the criminal justice system as a whole. Yes, defendants in capital cases, especially minorities, are often convicted after shoddy trials with poor representation and biased juries—but mistakes and unfair trials happen all the time, in all sorts of cases for all sorts of crimes. (The only difference I can think of is that juries that are "death qualified," i.e., qualified to sit on capital cases, have been shown to be more likely to convict.)

It's true that the death penalty is "irreversible," so mistakes in capital cases are especially glaring, but sending an innocent person to prison for 30 years is irreversible as well, happens more often, and in many cases isn't exactly a "nicer" fate than death. About 25 years ago the New Republic ran an article arguing that the old Islamic code of justice—cutting off the hand of a thief, etc.—was barbaric, but perhaps not more barbaric than the American criminal justice system. If anything, it's more equitable, since a severed hand is an equal punishment for all (sort of), but the horribleness of a prison sentence depends on how well you can survive prison.

So yes, it's arbitrary that of 20,000 homicide convictions each year, the state chooses a 100 or so to kill. But it's equally arbitrary that, say, a man convicted of armed robbery can also be, in effect, killed by the state because his prison guards think it's "funny" to stick him in a cell with a known rapist. I'm certainly against the death penalty, but it's useful to remember from time to time that it's only a relatively small awful aspect of a larger awful system.
-- Brad Plumer 12:57 PM || ||