April 24, 2006

Death row injections and whether we have our priorities right

A New Scientist article from early last month discussed the ethics behind the US method of execution: lethal injection. At the end of February Californian officials delayed the execution of Michael Morales, sentenced to death for a murder he committed in 1981:

His lawyers argued that a lethal injection would constitute cruel and unusual punishment, prohibited under the US constitution. Their case was based on a study published last year in The Lancet (vol 365, p 1412) that suggested some inmates were given too little anaesthetic before receiving fatal doses of other drugs, and might therefore experience unnecessary pain. At a hearing set for May, the state of California must show that it has a lethal injection that does not kill in a cruel and unusual way. Several other states, including Florida, Maryland, Missouri and Texas, have similar cases pending. Medical opinion is not on their side.

I have blogged before about the possible objections to the treatment of inmates in prisons in this country. Many have expressed the view that prisoners should be punished for their crimes and that the current prison system is far too comfortable to be a proper deterrent or to reform anyone. Often inmates gain access to far more readily available medical treatment, health and exercise facilities than they would when free. Far more is spent on a meal for a prisoner than on one for a child in a state school.

A recent survey, I forget where I read it, considered the sensitive subject of the care of people dying naturally in the UK. I think the respondants indicated that approximately a third of deaths were not satisfactory: they didn't think that homes, hospitals or other organisations provided sufficient care to make the death of their loved ones as peaceful as possible. A recent survey of health workers (from a BBC news article) indicated that '69% admitted that many conditions suffered by the elderly, such as dementia, arthritis and sensory impairment, were overlooked… some 57% said they lacked training and support, and a quarter said they struggled to cope with dying patients.'

I know that these examples come from different countries controlled by different systems of law, but are we getting the balance right by worrying too much about some, who have indeed subverted our laws, when we're neglecting other law-abiding citizens?


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  1. are we getting the balance right by worrying too much about some, who have indeed subverted our laws, when we're neglecting other law-abiding citizens?

    A somewhat longer comment got neatly summarised down to: I suppose it's easier to legislate to stop things happening than to permit them.

    24 Apr 2006, 14:41

  2. The American case is a disgrace (I won't comment on the British penal system). The point is, that they made the decision for the death penalty as a way for removing people from society, and then a lot of effort is putting into doing this painlessly. Giving them good living conditions while they are on Death Row is a good thing (while they're waiting for their appeal to be processed and for the bourreau to get round to him, etc.), but if you've already decided to execute someone then surely their feelings during those few minutes are the least of your ethical worries.

    Together with the fact that execution in the US is an expensive process, with the cost of some methods being more expensive to the state than a life sentence, you have to question whether there are any convievable benefits of the death penalty as it currently stands.

    They should either abolish the death penalty completely, and find other methods of punishment, or they should do it properly, and show the rest of the world that execution is an efficient way of reducing the strain on prisons by removing unreformable criminals at the minimum of cost.

    25 Apr 2006, 18:57

  3. A. Non

    When we British had the death penalty last it was carried out by hanging. By comparison the Americains have it easy: which one would you choose?

    25 Apr 2006, 22:59

  4. James

    Never mind criminals: the regulations for the transportation by rail of livestock to be slaughtered are quite specific about crowded conditions, and the upshot is that they are entitled to more space than communters on the London underground. (It's disgracefully un-PC to say so, but the herding of people onto the Waterloo & City line at peak hour reminds me of the film Schindler's List.)

    It is wrong to give criminals a better deal than others, such as better food than the schoolchildren; but the solution is to up the standards for others, rather than drive criminals back to Victorian conditions. I understand of course that prison has to be a deterrent, not a holiday, but I don't think a civilised society should resort to barbarity (not that I'm inferring that that's what you're advocating).

    So in short I agree that we haven't got the balance right, but we need to be careful about how to go about redressing it.

    As to the death penalty, it isn't an option as long as we remain signatories to the European Convention on Human Rights, and in my view it should never be brought back in any event. I'd prefer the likes of terrorists and child murderers to rot in jail. And there's the irreversibility of it all – remember Timothy Evans, for one, who was hanged for a murder he didn't commit.

    26 Apr 2006, 12:59

  5. James, I agree wholeheartedly that we should up the standards for everyone else, but where will the money come from? In a world where budgets are limited I'm afraid it's a case of prioritising, though obviously on a sensible scale. It just seems unfair to me that kids are getting the raw end of the deal in comparison with convicted criminals.

    Hmmm… I can't decide whether it's worse to be killed or to serve a life sentence. Kinda depends on your take on death and what lies after it.

    I do start such cheery discussions…

    26 Apr 2006, 14:22

  6. James

    Sarah,

    Yes, that's the tricky bit I left out. There probably is a case for re-jigging some of the public finances so that children get more and criminals less. You could of course also find many other aspects of public expenditure that could do with trimming so as to fund more schools and hospitals. Not building idiotic theme park style attractions to mark the fact that a year happened to begin with a two rather than a one would have been a good start a few years ago.

    I enjoy gallows humour. If you were serving the life sentence, you could I suppose if sufficiently creative top yourself. Or indeed if you were due to be executed – Herman Goering killed himself just before he was due to be hanged at Nuremberg. If he thought he was being defiant, it wasn't much of a stand ("I'll kill myself – that'll show 'em!").

    A chap by the name of Bill English, the one-time leader of the New Zealand National (conservative) party once said that while he, as a Catholic, believed in the hereafter, he supported road safety legislation "because I don't want to find out too soon that I'm right". My father had a letter published asking how he would find out if he was wrong.

    In this year's Wisden, there is an obituary of Kerry Packer, the Australian tycoon who revolutionised cricket in the late C20. He was clinically dead for 8 minutes following a heart attack in the early 1990s. When coming round, he was asked what was on the other side, and responded with a somewhat charmless "F***ing nothing", but maybe that just proves there's nothing for him …

    26 Apr 2006, 16:13

  7. In response to 'A. non'

    March 10, 1992. Oklahoma. Robyn Lee Parks. Lethal Injection. Parks had a violent reaction to the drugs used in the lethal injection. Two minutes after the drugs were dispensed, the muscles in his jaw, neck, and abdomen began to react spasmodically for approximately 45 seconds. Parks continued to gasp and violently gag until death came, some eleven minutes after the drugs were first administered. Tulsa World reporter Wayne Greene wrote that the execution looked "painful and ugly," and "scary."

    May 3, 1995. Missouri. Emmitt Foster. Lethal Injection. Seven minutes after the lethal chemicals began to flow into Foster's arm, the execution was halted when the chemicals stopped circulating. With Foster gasping and convulsing, the blinds were drawn so the witnesses could not view the scene. Death was pronounced thirty minutes after the execution began, and three minutes later the blinds were reopened so the witnesses could view the corpse.33 According to William "Mal" Gum, the Washington County Coroner who pronounced death, the problem was caused by the tightness of the leather straps that bound Foster to the execution gurney; it was so tight that the flow of chemicals into the veins was restricted. Foster did not die until several minutes after a prison worker finally loosened the straps. The coroner entered the death chamber twenty minutes after the execution began, diagnosed the problem, and told the officials to loosen the strap so the execution could proceed

    July 18, 1996. Indiana. Tommie J. Smith. Lethal Injection. Because of unusually small veins, it took one hour and nine minutes for Smith to be pronounced dead after the execution team began sticking needles into his body. For sixteen minutes, the execution team failed to find adequate veins, and then a physician was called.37 Smith was given a local anesthetic and the physician twice attempted to insert the tube in Smith's neck. When that failed, an angio-catheter was inserted in Smith's foot. Only then were witnesses permitted to view the process. The lethal drugs were finally injected into Smith 49 minutes after the first attempts, and it took another 20 minutes before death was pronounced

    www.deathpenaltyinfo.org

    These aren't even the worst ones. I believe the lethal injection is one of the worst methods of killing prisoners because they are paralysed so that the witnesses cannot see the extreme pain that's going on inside their bodies, then they pronounce it as "humane" or "too easy".

    26 Apr 2006, 16:36

  8. Legitimate point there Maxine. Compared to these examples, hanging is relatively humane. The great skill of the hangman was to adjust his knot and alter the way it was put round the neck to ensure an instant death. The same comments go for the Guillotine. I'm inclined to believe, however, that these examples point not to the cruelty of the lethal injection method, but to the incompetence of the executioners.

    On a lighter note, hanging must be quite nice. All your friends there in the crowd; the promise of "three strikes and you're pardoned" there just to tease you. It sounds like a good day out for all the family, and reminds me of the bullfights. Sigh.

    26 Apr 2006, 18:12

  9. What what I remember lethal injection consists of 3 drugs. The first is a general anaestehitic that should send them unconcious for the duration. The second paralysises the lungs so they stop breathing, while the final one induces cardiac arrest.

    The problem?

    Figuring out the dosage for the first anaesthetic is not an exact science, and there have been a large number of cases (in one study 43 out of 49 had lower levels than required for surgery, 21 had low enough levels they were probably still awake.) where the amount of anesthetic used is insufficient. The problem of course, is that the second drug paralyses you so you can't give any indication of the pain that you're in. Hence the killing appears to be humane.

    26 Apr 2006, 20:32

  10. James

    It is a strange debate, the most 'humane' way to carry out an execution. It puts me in mind of the stoning scene from Monty Python's Life of Brian ("You're only making it worse for yourself!!" "Worse? How could it be worse …?") Why not the firing squad, if we want it to be over quickly?

    I remember the case of John Wayne Gacy, then the leading American serial killer (maybe still, for all I know). There was apparently a 'problem' with his execution which lead to a prolonged period of agony. No one was terribly bothered. This is the key – execution in my view is really just an outlet of an urge for revenge. Vengance, or retribution if you prefer, is an important component in justice, I believe, but can be served adequately if not perfectly by slinging the offenders in jail rather than stooping to their level. As I mentioned in a much earlier blog, some believe that just retribution requires that people be killed in the same fashion that they killed their victims (which would make the job of the executioners somewhat more colourful!) …

    27 Apr 2006, 11:28

  11. People don't want to talk about normal deaths. Their own or people close to them.
    They would much rather spend hours talking about a tiny proportion of deaths (executions and murders) in another country.

    27 Apr 2006, 12:44

  12. Thus illustrating the point…

    27 Apr 2006, 13:37

  13. "It is a strange debate, the most 'humane' way to carry out an execution."

    In many ways it's also about making it more humane for the executer, not the executee. There's a big mental difference between picking up a gun, shooting, and killing a man, than there is administering a simple injection. I'd rather not do either but I know which one I'd rather do, given no other option.

    28 Apr 2006, 00:05

  14. I would have no qualms about bringing back the death penalty as an option for juries for certain indictable offences such as aggravated or mass murders. Holding such an opinion I am probably isolated from most law students.

    28 Apr 2006, 04:34

  15. Personally, If I was the executor, I'd rather beat the fucker to death with a small blunt instrument, mashing his head into pulp.

    29 Apr 2006, 18:07

  16. I think it's important to bear in mind that the people being executed are serial killers, rapists, child murderers etc. Maxine, I take your point that these stories are inhumane and if there are better ways of carrying out executions we really should try to use them, but their actions have been deeply inhumane and this is why they are being punished in the most emphatic way possible. I'm not suggesting that they should be deliberately punished with pain, and I'm not even sure I completely agree with the point I'm making here, but I find it difficult to have a huge amount of sympathy when bearing in mind the suffering they will have inflicted on others.

    I think it's very interesting that still no–one has addressed the part of the original post that will actually affect us and our loved ones…

    29 Apr 2006, 20:49

  17. James

    Vincent – in view of the way you usually react to my blogs, I'm not surprised that's what you'd prefer!

    30 Apr 2006, 12:53

  18. Sarah– well I am anti–death penalty full stop, so I don't believe people should be killed by the state at all. My problem is the lies that are perpetrated by pro–death penalty campaigners, such as the lethal injection being humane, and the sheer amount of people (primarily black, mostly young and unemployed, sometimes with severe mental disabilities) that have been put to death and found innocent afterwards. There are so many cases of these to read about. Sympathy is not the issue here, it's what kind of justice is appropriate for people found guilty of serious crimes. Recently, a man was released in this country after 25 years in prison, wrongly found guilty of murder. After the development of forensics, it was possible to determine his innocence. If we'd had the death penalty in this country, he would have been killed years ago.

    01 May 2006, 14:57

  19. Maxine, I completely agree. I misinterpreted your intentions. One of the major problems I have with the death penalty is that it is so final. If we admit that there is a chance of convictions being wrong (of which, of course, there are many examples) we are accepting that some will be executed in error, and I don't think I can accept that. I would say that if the American public can accept it then I don't object hugely to the lethal injection as opposed to any other method, provided that the realities of the procedure are known. Also, as Phil said:

    I'm inclined to believe, however, that these examples point not to the cruelty of the lethal injection method, but to the incompetence of the executioners.

    Just as any surgical procedure sometimes goes wrong, so will an execution procedure.

    01 May 2006, 15:54

  20. 'Sympathy is not the issue here. It is what type of justice is appropriate for people found guilty of serious crimes.' I think you meant 'sanction' rather than 'justice' but I agree entirely. I would argue that the development of DNA testing in recent years and the technological advances in forensics is an argument for the re–introducing the death penalty. I am not a scientist but I know, from legal studies that the old presumptions of paternity are effectively obsolete now since DNA can be prove with 99.9 reoccuring % degree of certainty that a man is or is not the father of his child. As far as I am concerned there are far more pressing matters that must be addressed: people suffer imense cruelty as a result of globalisation and free market capitalism: starvation, helplessness etc – but of course its harder to point the finger when the complex web of international political and monetary organisations, impersonal (yet legally personal!) transnational corporations conspire to circulate responsibility. Frankly, I am fed up with all the law students, judges and politicians etc. who write pretentious articles in journals criticising the US just to get their names in the limelight for being concerned with 'humanity.' It makes me feel physically sick. If they really had a drop of decency they would launch articles against the subsidisation of agriculture in the developed world which has caused countless farmers to commit suicide in India. But of course they don't, they attack the easy targets because they are cushioning their own backsides – they look to the EU, World Bank etc. as potential employers. Personally I don't give a hoot that a man who has raped 10 women might suffer in agony for 5 minutes. Serves him bloody right.

    01 May 2006, 19:25

  21. Just to put things in context

    01 May 2006, 19:27

  22. Alex: It's always interesting when people with different points of view are equally passionate in disclosing them. I totally respect your point on the wider issues of the world, but I believe that placing one problem in the world as a priority over another will always reap consequences (to address the original point. This is what happens when people care so much about certain issues, they only talk about their priorites! Surely, though, there are enough people writing different journals to cover everything?).

    By ignoring the reasons why people end up commiting rape or murder and just killing instead or rehibilitating, we will never understand why people do such things, and society will continue on this path. I can't defend the law students you talk about, but I can only assume you know more than me on that front. The US is, as you say 'an easy target', because I think people somehow feel closer to injustice happening there than elsewhere. Irritating, but true, the only thing I have truly felt for since the death penalty is Sudan, but nothing else comes to mind.

    I care about particularly about the death penalty because it captured my imagination when I was younger and hasn't waned since. One reason why 'humanity' is such an important word to anti–death penalty campaigners is that most nations that execute people claim to be 'civilised' (i.e. America), and I can see nothing civilised in killing someone in order to deter others from killing, or to preach that it is wrong. That's also hypocritical, and I hate hypocrisy (though you could argue that I am being hypocritical by just focusing on this one thing and ignoring all the other atrocities going on in the world. In my defence, I only have so much room in my brain).

    Forensics–wise, this makes no difference in my point of view. In a society such as America that advocates the death penalty, when something terrible happens,the public demand that someone be caught and punished swiftly. Police, to meet this demand, have been known to pull anyone off the side of the road (again, most often black, young and male– someone that matches their ideal profile as a 'criminal') and threaten and force them to sign confessions. When I read accounts of this happening to innocent people that were executed (I really wish I could remember the one particular guy that was executed…Jesse something) I couldn't believe it, but it is true and it will continue to happen.
    If they ever introduce the death penalty here, I'm campaigning and later I'm emigrating!

    01 May 2006, 21:11

  23. Maxime, you are absolutely right in saying namely that globalisation is a mutually exclusive issue (so I can't even play the utilitarianist card) though I suspect that if the US is an easy target because people 'somehow feel closer to injustice happening there than elsewhere', as you say, it is precisely because the span of the economic bridge between the UK and the US is far shorter than between the UK and Sudan. We don't have flea ridden children dying of aids on our doorsteps and thus our entire outlook on life is different. But, getting to the point, I would argue that the problems created by the media creating news (why is Iraq always in the headlines, why should we care that John Prescott had an affair with his secretary etc.) institutionalised racism in the police (or indeed defence counsel failing to present key evidence at trial) are also mutually exclusive from the morality death penalty itself. And personally I think the death penalty is, for certain offences, intrinsically just. I don't agree that it makes the state that imposes it uncivilised or hypocritical, perhaps because my political views are communitarianist and I hold conservative views about state intervention. I see the death penalty as precisely that: a penalty. The state does not commit an act of an 'eye for an eye' as would be the case if two individuals were engaged in a vendetta. It sets an example to deter others, for the good of society as a whole. I think there is an argument for taking a hardline approach to certain crimes. As for understnding the criminal mind – criminology – I totally agree that this is fundementally important for the purpose of putting in place preventive strategies: providing employment targeted training, to provide people with work and purpose to curb violent behaviour at home, for example. However, we are all individuals with personalities, that does not mean that we should have excuses for certain behaviour. For similar reasons I think that life inside prisons should never be better than life outside.

    You will be happy to hear, however, that since protocol 13 of the European Convention on Human Rights, the abolition of the death penalty in all circumstances came into force in 2003 and the Convention is legally binding on the UK by the Human Rights Act that brought it into force, there is little chance of the death penalty being introduced.

    01 May 2006, 23:53

  24. James

    Alex's post raises a couple of interesting points. Protocol 13 hasn't been signed by all parties to the Convention – notably Turkey. Article 2, which provides for the right to life and is binding on all signatories, specifically allows an exception in the case of the death penalty authorised by law. The European Court of Human Rights has nevertheless taken it upon itself to state that 'circumstances have changed' and that the death penalty is inconsistent with art 2 anyway.

    Given that the UK never imposed the death penalty anyway by the time of passing the Human Rights Act, and given the alarming propensity of the European Courts to ignore what is black and white in constitutional documents (I had a letter in the Times about this, though don't have the link to hand you'll be relieved to see), I wonder how much our liberties are really protected by the ECHR. The Convention was based on – or strongly reflected – English common law anyway. Then again, I think it is a good thing in the case of Turkey, as a curb to its brutal treatment of Kurds, among other things. The trouble for Britain's membership is that the British constitution has evolved over time in a fashion that does not neatly fit theories about the separation of powers and thus invites the court's interference on a lot of procedural matters that change very little but cost a deal.

    As there have been several blogs recently about prisoner's rights, I am sure readers will be interested in a very recent case in the European Court of HR. It held that the Home Office is entitled to hold that a serving life prisoner may not – even at his own expense – have a child by IVF (conjugal visits being out for this chap apparently) with his ex–prisoner wife. David Pannick QC has an article in the Law Section of today's Times about it. I have to say I disagree with Pannick – I think punishment can extend beyond mere deprivation of physical liberty – but others may think otherwise …

    02 May 2006, 09:59

  25. Joe Hughes

    The social formalisation of putting offenders to death is an exaggeration of the original deathly act by the offender. To reason for socially acceptable exceution is, therefore, to plan – in a cold and premeditated manner – to seek revenge. This approach is contradictory to our stance as understanding human beings who have a responsibility to try to understand, treat or contain and help those who offend. Nothing is resolved, in sociological terms, by killing the killer.

    02 May 2006, 21:05

  26. I'm sorry but I disagree with you. As far as I am concerned the offence merits the penalty, and a democratically elected State is entitled to impose it. You assume that the State and the individual are equals whereas they are not. To try and cleverly twist words: 'in a cold and premeditated manner' so that the reader is tricked into associating the death penalty with the offence of murder is a poor argumentative technique. I agree that human beings have a responsibility to understand the mentality of offenders but this does not justify allowing people to get away with murder – in this case literally – because they know the State will tick them off lightly.

    03 May 2006, 12:21

  27. James

    There's a second rhetorical device in that post – "Nothing is resolved, in sociological terms …". Well perhaps not in "sociological terms", whatever that might be, but something is resolved, namely a crime is punished and you also won't get any reoffending.

    Also the statement "This approach is contradictory to our stance as understanding human beings who have a responsibility to try to understand, treat or contain and help those who offend" ignores the fact that retribution, or straight out punishment, or whatever you choose to call it, is a component of justice. I just don't think it's necessary to employ the death penalty to satisfy that component, although as Sarah pointed out earlier, it rather depends on what you think comes after death!

    03 May 2006, 13:34

  28. I find it quite difficult to intellectualise something that is so emotive. I can only objectify myself and try not to take it personally when people are pro–death penalty through reassuring myself by listing the facts of it in my head.

    People agree with the death penalty because:

    1. They have been personally affected by murder, rape, etc. and want a form of punishment for the perpetrator that reflects what they feel has been done to them or their family.
    2. They are politicians and they use it as a political tool because they know it is popular. It is a fact that no presidential candidate that was anti–death penalty would stand a chance of being elected.
    3. They are ordinary people that have no time in criminals and see no reason not to dispose of the so–called 'trash' in society permanently.
    4. He is the govenor of California and was elected as a joke, certainly not qualified to have people's lives in his hands.

    The death penalty is an ineffective and morally wrong form of punishment because:

    1. There are no statistics that prove it is, in any form, a direct detterant.
    2. No human being has the right to take any other human being's life. We are imperfect, jealous, vengeful, greedy creatures that should never be allowed to make such a final decision. By all means, if a person is a danger to society, lock them up, but don't kill them.
    3. It cost on average over one million dollars to kill a person. It's cheaper to keep them in prison for life.
    4. YOU CAN GET IT WRONG. And people frequently have. This is by far the best argument against it.

    03 May 2006, 16:03

  29. James

    Maxine –

    Re your 'agree' point 2– was Jimmy Carter pro–death penalty? And as for 4– is your opinion on Arnie as Governor based on the fact his films are generally quite crap, or at least his acting doesn't suggest he's some sort of political genius, or have you actually looked at his policies and performance? I haven't, so I'd be interested to hear from someone who has. It would be easy to dismiss him out of hand, but I doubt you achieve as much as he has in terms of material wealth given his background (poor post–war Austrian) without a certain cunning, to say the least. And of course another B–grade actor who became Governor of California went on to be President. Apologies to the others as this is rather off–topic; I have already set out my views on the death penalty at post 4 above

    03 May 2006, 16:24

  30. It was more of a joke than an actual point, but I'm sure I'm not the only one that finds it chilling and absurd that a Hollywood actor has the ability to give or take away life. He has not granted clemency to a single appeal so far, so that kind of gives me an idea of what his leanings are.
    Jimmy Carter: American contined to use the death penalty while he was in office, so he can't have been that against it.
    I think I'm going to sign off the debate at this point– I know where I stand morally, but I don't think i can compete with the Law students on the legal aspect of it. Thanks guys, it's been fun and suitably distracting!

    03 May 2006, 20:52

  31. "I agree that human beings have a responsibility to understand the mentality of offenders but this does not justify allowing people to get away with murder – in this case literally – because they know the State will tick them off lightly."
    Except it's not lightly: it's prison for the rest of thier lives. There's three main catagories of murder:

    The 'passion' killing: being driven to do something in the heat of the moment – ie. catching your spouse in bed with someone else and snapping. There's no consideration to the consequences here, it's not even considered until the event is over. So detterents don't work.

    The killing of compulsion: where a person is mentally ill and is somehow compelled to commit a killing and unable to stop themselves. They may be aware of the consequences but it's irrelevent – they don't have the willpower to stop themselves. So detterents don't work here either.

    The 'proffesional' killing: this is the cold, calculated killing of someone in order to benefit the killer – be it in terms of money, satisfaction, or something else. Now this is where the arguement for the death penalty as a deterrent is applied. The theory being the killer will weigh up the pros and cons and decide that the death penalty is too big a risk. The problem is such killers never go into it expecting to get caught. They plan carefully and intend to get away with it. Even if they do consider the consequence of getting caught, if they're willing to risk life imprisonment, they're likely to risk death aswell: either method is the end of thier life as they know it. So the detterent has at most a miniscule effect.

    "As far as I am concerned the offence merits the penalty, and a democratically elected State is entitled to impose it."
    At the core of the death penalty there's a rather tricky paradox though. Consider: A state democratically imposes the death penalty for murder. Eventually it is inevitable that a mistake will be made, that they'll execute the wrong person. It might be the 100th person, it might be the millionth person. But some innocent person is killed. At this point, everyone in the state that democratically chose to impose the penalty, become murderers themselves by defintion. And by thier law they should all be put to death.

    04 May 2006, 00:54

  32. Dismissing the death penalty on the basis that it lacks a deterrent effect would require us to eliminate all prisons as well because they do not seem to be any more effective in the deterrence of crime. You may argue that criminals do not fear death because they do not take time to think about the concequences of their acts. If that were true, then I wonder how police officers manage to arrest criminals without killing them. When a policeman holds a criminal at gunpoint and tells him to get on the ground, the criminal will comply fully in the vast majority cases. Why would they do that unless they were afraid of the lethal power of the gun? Even if the perpetrator is totally ignorant of the sentence for murder (which I imagine is in the minority of cases) the adequate punishment is necessary, because, to quote the UK's most famous judge, Lord Justice Denning (who passed away in 2001) 'the wrong doer deserves it, irrespective of whether it is a deterrent or not.' The death penalty was temporarily suspended in the US between 1972 and 1976 during which period the number of murders rose by about 60%. South Africa, which has become one of the most violent places on earth has a murder rate is six times that in the United States and five times that in Russia; it has the highest incidence of reported rape in the world: 120.6 rapes for every 100,000 women in 1997 and there private security guards for every policeman, yet South African officials still insist that the death penalty won't do a thing to reduce the murder rate.

    The death penalty is not just popular in the US; it has backing from significant proportions of Europeans. In 1997 an official poll showed that 49% of Swedes wanted the death penalty reinstated in their country.

    'At some point, everyone in the state that democratically chose to impose the penalty, became murderers themselves by definition.' I've already explained that we are not equals of the state – by providing a mandate for governance we relinquish certain freedoms for the good of the majority, to ensure that justice and order is preserved effectively. While there may very well be a Rousseauian social contract it contains boilerplate clauses and as Rousseau in fact wrote in his treatese: 'in killing the criminal, we destroy not so much a citizen as an enemy. The trial and judgements are proofs that he has broken the Social Contract, and so is no longer a member of the State.' Your use of 'murder' is deceptively liberal. Look up 'murder' in the dictionary and you'll find the definition is 'UNLAWFULLY killing a person with malice aforethought.' Of course mistakes occur, but provided that the police and prosecution lawyers have abided with all the relevant regulations and guidelines they cannot then be held acountable at law. Moreover – as I pointed out earlier – though of course this argument is excusary rather than justificatory, methods of obtaining are forensic evidence are far more conclusive than they once were.

    As Edward Koch, former Democrat mayor of New York once said once said: 'it is by exacting the highest penalty for the taking of human life that we affirm the highest value of human life.'

    Think outside the box.

    04 May 2006, 03:10

  33. James

    What of the 9/11 individual just convicted? The prosecution wanted the death penalty, but the jury declined. I suspect that that was because, if he was of one mind with the hijackers, he would have welcomed it (who wouldn't if you thought 72 virgins were on offer). So no deterrent there.

    Maxine, not being a lawyer would make your contributions more interesting, in all likelihood. The technical legal issues are not what the blog is about, anyway (apologies Sarah for the presumption). Although it's a while since I studied the American system, if memory serves whether or not to impose the death penalty is a matter for the individual states, and I'm not sure the President could have any say on the matter save for packing the Supreme Court with those he considered opposed to it, or pardoning anyone facing the death penalty. The Supreme Court could decide that the Constitution forbids the death penalty, though it is very unlikely they would.

    I have said all along I oppose it. But do those who share my view agree with the present UK legal position regarding this: no–one can be deported, even terrorists, to a country if it is likely they will face the death penalty. We then have to add such people to the list of foreign criminals who are presently causing the Home Secretary a few headaches.

    04 May 2006, 12:16

  34. "Dismissing the death penalty on the basis that it lacks a deterrent effect would require us to eliminate all prisons as well because they do not seem to be any more effective in the deterrence of crime. You may argue that criminals do not fear death because they do not take time to think about the concequences of their acts. If that were true, then I wonder how police officers manage to arrest criminals without killing them. When a policeman holds a criminal at gunpoint and tells him to get on the ground, the criminal will comply fully in the vast majority cases. Why would they do that unless they were afraid of the lethal power of the gun?"
    You've sort of ignored my point there. In two of the three causes of murder, detterents have no relelevence, as the criminals do not think about the consequences. In the third case it is a consideration but no greater a deterrent than prison.
    In terms of being held up at gunpoint: if this occurs after the crime has been commited then in the case of crimes of passion, the criminal will be more clear minded, in terms of crimes of compulsion, the criminal is not currently in the process of being compelled to kill, so is more clear minded. In terms of clear, though–through killings the killer is aware that he will be sentenced to the death penalty if he is caught and convicted. At that point in time he has no clue what evidence they have on him – he could still get away with it scot–free.

    You can throw out figures all you want but you know equally well this arguement cannot be won this way. The state in the US that executed the most people (Texas I think) has the highest rate of violent crime. There's lots more like that on both sides of the arguement.

    "methods of obtaining are forensic evidence are far more conclusive than they once were"
    Frankly I see that as an arguement against the death penalty. Look at how far technology has come in such fields in ten years. Imagine what it will be like in another ten years. Advanced enough that it could probably exonerate people we've by then put to death by mistake.

    If we had a 100% perfect legal system you might have a shot at convincing me that there was some moral justification for this. I don't belive it works as a deterent but as a punishment for killing, it makes sense in an 'eye for an eye' sort of way. You might also have a shot at convincing me if we ever develop the technology to reverse the sentence should a mistake be discovered.

    But the legal system is not 100% perfect. Innocent people have been killed by the state – The number is scarily high, but if it were just one person, that would be enough.

    04 May 2006, 16:22

  35. James

    Yes, implicit in that is the point I have made before – for the percentage of criminals who might be said to be acting 'rationally', in that they have taken time over planning their actions (not so for a good deal of murders), the chances of getting caught are far more signficant than the specifics of the punishment afterwards.

    04 May 2006, 16:32

  36. Dean, you expend a lot of words in telling me that you don't agree with my opinion and are not convinced by any of the arguments I put forward. Fair enough, but I already knew that. Here are some fresh points: whether or not there is a high degree of violent crime in the jurisdiction where the death penalty is imposed is immaterial to the argument for or against the death penalty. 'Innocent people have been killed by the state.' I am not suggesting that mistakes leading to miscarriages of justice are morally neutral consequences. Nevertheless I am taking a utilitarianist standpoint not a Kantian one. By that I do not mean that the deterrant objectives of the death penalty might be attained by a more humane sanction to the criminal, though of course that is not my concern, precisely because you are already covering that story. My concern is with political vectors, attitudes, public opinion and questioning one's beliefs, and, in this particular thread, deterrence (you have failed and the victims of heinous crimes whose fundamental rights have been tragically broken not defence lawyers who get rich quick or prisoners on death row who consider that they are the ones hard done by. As far as I am concerned deterrance and the knowledge that justice has been carried out are goods in themsleves that counterbalance the lesser evil of and it would be inviduous of me to tell a citizenry that their views are wrong and they are backward. What is freedom and imprisonment, in actual terms? And does reality even matter so long as people believe reality is reality? What is the glue that holds US society together? The death penalty? Is a crematorium an industry? (In a English case in the 1960s a judge decided it wasn't even though it met the legal definition) What is brainwashing? Is brainwashing not simply the preserve of the victor who persuades us he is telling the truth (to speak in less abstract terms, before you accuse me of going off on a tangent – many would argue that the British government is not a victor at the moment, though probably because it has been in power so long.) The media is the victor. Anyway getting back on track, you write: 'in terms of clear, though–through killings the killer is aware that he will be sentenced to the death penalty if he is caught and convicted. At that point in time he has no clue what evidence they have on him – he could still get away with it scot–free.' I don't understand your point here because whether or not he thinks he can get away with it scot–free is immaterial to your argument. Speaking subjectively, I know that I would much rather play Russian roulette with life imprisonment than with my life. I'm interested to know – do you distrust the government and its interests? Are you sceptical as to whose interests it really serves? You write of the number of judicial errors is that it is 'scarily high'. Interesting choice of adjective. What are you scared of?

    04 May 2006, 20:22

  37. I'm afraid a lot of your earlier stuff went a little over my head but I'll try to address some points:

    'in terms of clear, though–through killings the killer is aware that he will be sentenced to the death penalty if he is caught and convicted. At that point in time he has no clue what evidence they have on him – he could still get away with it scot–free.'
    I said that in direct response to your question on why a criminal will turn himself in when held up at gun point by a police officer. It works as a detterent in that case as it is clear cut: don't submit and you will die, submit and you might die. In pre–meditated acts of murder it is not, rather it is get caught, get convicted and you die. As I previously stated, very few calculated killings are done on the assumption that one will be caught, but if one is then that redefines the situation.

    "Speaking subjectively, I know that I would much rather play Russian roulette with life imprisonment than with my life."
    Yes, but would you ever play Russian roulette in the first place? Do you know of anyone that would play Russian Roulette with life imprisonment but would balk at the idea of playing it with thier life? Like you, given no other choice I'd go with the life imprisonment game – but I don't know of any situation where I'd have no other choice.

    "do you distrust the government and its interests? Are you sceptical as to whose interests it really serves? You write of the number of judicial errors is that it is 'scarily high'. Interesting choice of adjective. What are you scared of?"
    I don't think there's some sort of conspiracy going on if that's what you mean. I don't distrust the goverment's motives here, I think they're doing what they think is right and I don't think they want to kill innocents. Rather I distrust the competency of those responsible within the governmental and legal system – and I do distrust the motives of some of the prosecutors.
    What am I afraid of? I'm afraid of more innocent people being killed due to mistakes.

    05 May 2006, 19:52

  38. A criminal will give himself up because he is afraid of death but, assuming he knows he is guilty, and going to face the death penalty this decision may be taken simply to prolong his life. Moreoever, I don't believe perpetrators of calculated killings who believe they will actually get away with it are in the majority. They may delude themselves but inside they feel petrified.

    In answer to your question, I don't personally know anyone who has committed a crime which, in the US would warrant the death penalty but I believe that criminals would much rather play Russian roulette with life imprisonment than with their lives. Of course what causes a high rate of violent crime are largely cultural factors. Accordingly I fundamentally disagree with the 2nd amendment of the US Constitution. However, there is no correlation between the death penalty and the amount of violent crime in a country.

    I'm apoloise if the first half of my arguments were incomprehensible and I will clarify them now:

    1. As far as I am concerned deterrance (which I have argued is applicable) and the knowledge that justice has been carried out are goods in themsleves that counterbalance the lesser evil of the offender being put to death. This is a utilitarianist approach – i.e. the greatest good for the greatest number, as opposed to the sanctity of life approach (I erronously wrote the Kantian approach)
    2. I think there is too much emphasis in scholarly debate about the rights of the perpetrators of crime rather than their victims.
    3. I am interested in what you have to say because I find debate to be an educational process.
    4. I believe, generally that a paternalistic state can exert greater freedoms than a liberal one provided that its foundation is democratic. (Even more generally I think that 'choice' and certainly a libertarian free market economy is a form of enslavement).
    5. I think that we should question our beliefs and assumptions as much as possible.
    6. I may be playing devil's advocate with you. But then again, I may not be.

    05 May 2006, 21:44


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