Tuesday, December 13, 2005

The death penalty

The death penalty is in the local (and global) news today because of the execution of "Tookie" Williams, one of the founders of the infamous Crips gang in Los Ángeles. The execution took place just after midnight at San Quentin Prison in Marin County, just north of San Francisco.

This specific case was clouded by a number of unresolved issues. The convict maintained his innocence to the very end. For that reason, he refused to show any remorse for the specific crime for which he was convicted. The key prosecution witness was an associate who the appellate courts agreed may have had ample motive to lie. Tookie's supporters made much of his claims of redemption in prison, since he spoke out against gangs and wrote children's stories, but opponents insisted that redemption would have to begin with confession and remorse.

I'm far more interested in the general question of the death penalty, though. What is its function in a civilized society? Why does America stand in such questionable company in continuing to apply the death penalty?

About half the countries in Africa have the death penalty, along with most of Asia and several major Pacific countries. (Malaysia has the death penalty for simple possession of 100 grams of hashish. Singapore hanged a man earlier this year for simple possession of just over a kilogram of marijuana. The law in Singapore not only allows the death penalty in such cases, it is mandatory.) Only one country in Europe — Belarus (the former Byelorussian S.S.R.) — has it. In the Western Hemisphere, Cuba, Jamaica, Belize, Guatemala, Guyana, the United States, and several smaller island countries have it. On the flip side, San Marino [a micro-republic surrounded by Italy], Venezuela, Portugal, the Netherlands, Costa Rica, Panama, and Norway all outlawed the death penalty at least a century ago, with three more South American countries marking a centennial in the next four years. Mexico outlawed the death penalty earlier this year, joining a half dozen countries from Serbia to Senegal in the 21st century. Eleven countries allow the death penalty only for exceptional crimes. [source: infoplease®]

The death penalty does not deter crime. Jurisdictions that have the death penalty, do not have lower crime rates. Jurisdictions that end the death penalty, do not see an increase in crime. Evidently, possible execution does not feature prominently in the thought process of most criminals. "Gosh, I really want to brutally murder you, and I'm standing here with a gun pointed at your head, but maybe I should hop on the Internet and find out whether or not this state has the death penalty before I blast your brains into next week." Too implausible even for Hollywood.

The death penalty does not make restitution to the victims of crime. It does no better than life imprisonment without parole at protecting society from repeat offenders. But most of all, the death penalty sends a mixed message to society.

I, as an individual, have the right to use deadly force against someone who is posing an immediate threat of death or grievous bodily harm. That is a bedrock principle of law, in both secular and religious contexts. Most religions don't even consider killing in self-defense to be a sin, provided there was no reasonable alternative. I would apply a similar standard to state-sanctioned killing. There are a very few cases where a criminal poses such a threat to society as a whole that the threat cannot be contained by prison walls. The obvious example is a dictator with a fanatical following devoted to his reinstatement. For example, had Hitler not committed suicide, it might well have been necessary for the self-defense of society to sentence him to death, given the number of people who would have stopped at nothing to return him to power. Likewise, the death sentence for Nicolae Ceauşescu, the deposed Communist dictator of Romania, may have been necessary.

However, there are many more death penalty cases that fall far short of that standard. For example, Timothy McVeigh was executed in 2001 for federal crimes in the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995. Not only did McVeigh have nothing like the fanatical following of a Hitler or a Ceauşescu, his execution served only to increase the threat he posed to society. McVeigh believed that he was on the vanguard of a revolution against what he saw as the illegitimate government of the United States. He expected the people of the United States to rise up and join the armed revolution he tried to set in motion.

Personally, I think it would have been a much worse punishment to leave McVeigh to rot in a jail cell, seeing day after day after day that the revolution never took hold. His imprisonment would also have deprived his extremist allies of a potent symbolic martyr for their cause. Watching the revulsion of the American public for the terrorist attacks of 2001-09-11 (the three-month anniversary of McVeigh's execution — is it really just a coïncidence?) would have underlined the hopelessness of McVeigh's cause, leaving him to stew in his guilt for the murder of 168 innocent men, women, and children.

The only consistent position with respect to the death penalty is that it is justifiable only in societal self-defense when no other reasonable means exist to contain the threat posed by a criminal.