A bit of good news

The only legal organization that provided any colorable, intellectual support of the death penalty has abandoned its own cause, because the capital punishment system in the United States is so thoroughly broken that it is beyond salvaging.

The institute’s recent decision to abandon the field was a compromise. Some members had asked the institute to take a stand against the death penalty as such. That effort failed.

Instead, the institute voted in October to disavow the structure it had created “in light of the current intractable institutional and structural obstacles to ensuring a minimally adequate system for administering capital punishment.”

That last sentence contains some pretty dense lawyer talk, but it can be untangled. What the institute was saying is that the capital justice system in the United States is irretrievably broken.

A study commissioned by the institute said that decades of experience have proved that the system cannot reconcile the twin goals of individualized decisions about who should be executed and systemic fairness. It added that capital punishment is plagued by racial disparities; is enormously expensive even as many defense lawyers are underpaid and some are incompetent; risks executing innocent people; and is undermined by the politics that come with judicial elections.

When the one group who tried to make an intellectual argument for the dealth penalty admits defeat, we are headed in the right direction. Of course, a lot of death penalty supporters don’t premise their arguments on anything rational or analytical, and don’t care to; the United States is very culturally invested in the death penalty, and we see it as a cornerstone of a retributive criminal justice system. I sadly don’t see it going away any time soon, even if we are one of the only countries in the world that still kills convicted criminals. But at least now we’ve removed any veneer of intellectualism from the pro-death-penalty side.

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10 comments for “A bit of good news

  1. Bitter Scribe
    January 4, 2010 at 4:39 pm

    Of course, a lot of death penalty supporters don’t premise their arguments on anything rational or analytical, and don’t care to…

    Boy howdy. When a scandalous number of innocent men were released from Death Row in Illinois, death-penalty advocates touted this as evidence that the system works! Their “reasoning,” as far as I can determine, was that since the state didn’t actually go ahead and kill these poor guys, they had nothing to complain about.

    I’m sorry to say I agree with Jill’s pessimism about abolition of capital punishment. There’s too much blood lust in this country.

  2. January 4, 2010 at 4:58 pm

    Along with New Mexico banning the death penalty last year, we’re seeing a powerful shift in momentum– the 16th US government to do so (including DC). All justifications are crumbling, and proponents of the death penalty are left only with arguing that vengeance is worth it.

    I will say one thing: Michigan may be slow on the ball on a lot of things, but I’m pleased as a punch that my home state was the very first to ban capital punishment back in 1846, less than ten years after it was granted statehood, and hasn’t looked back since. Michigan was the first English-speaking government in the world to oppose capital punishment.

  3. Nicholas
    January 4, 2010 at 5:25 pm

    That’s good news from my vantage point as highly educated and relatively wealthy guy who actually debates these things. The only crime for which I can morally justify capital punishment is treason (on the grounds that it is self-defense for the State), but any State with any real confidence would refuse to carry out such a penalty and would voluntarily choose to abolish it in that instance.

    You’re spot on with the polity’s emotional investment in capital punishment angle. It won’t ever go away unless we have civics curriculum take students through an average criminal prosecution from the perspective of the indigent accused (or something like it). It will persist along with other such myths as all welfare recipients being “queens driving their Cadillacs” and that prison is, itself, a fantastic place where I get to lift weights and play pool all day, rather than a place where I am raped and live an awful existence.

    But of course, there is racism and disdain for the poors underlying all of this.

  4. January 4, 2010 at 5:28 pm

    Good news indeed.

    I keep meaning trying to get a meme I’ve invented repeated regarding this subject: The death penalty is un-American.

    The argument: America’s origins, as it was formed, were literally revolutionary. Many of the signers either died, were imprisoned, were tortured, or lost fortune or family for doing so. We were a nation forged in an ideal that liberty is more valuable than life. One of the most remembered calls to arms was of course uttered by Patrick Henry. We all know the phrase. Liberty. Or death.

    How can a country espouse that it cherishes liberty more than life and simultaneously view death as the ultimate punishment? It can’t. It’s impossible. An America that tolerates state-sponsored killing as justice just isn’t living up to itself.

    There are many good reasons to oppose the death penalty, practical, sound, and moral reasons. I like one you can play a drum and fife around.

    Just a thought.

  5. Evrybdy44
    January 4, 2010 at 9:22 pm

    I absolutely have never believed in the Death Penalty as valid. Coming from a VERY conservative background it was the first stop on my journey to political independence. This is an important one to me. Close to my heart. It was the first issue I ever took and made my own and cared about one way or the other. It sounds silly, but it helped shape me.
    As soon as I read this I can’t help but hope California will see the error quickly and reverse the death penalty.

  6. Tlönista
    January 4, 2010 at 10:00 pm

    Fingers crossed that this is a sign of the culture shifting. I’d like to see the States ban the death penalty in my lifetime!

  7. William
    January 5, 2010 at 11:29 am

    I have to admit, on a base level I’m a big fan of the death penalty. I like the idea of removing from the general population certain persons who have so gravely violated the basic liberties of others. Part of me thinks that it should extend well beyond murder and treason into a variety of other serious crimes against persons. Part of me wants the visceral satisfaction of seeing bad people simply ended. Full stop.

    The problem, of course, comes from the fact that the death penalty is a good idea in the same way communism or a radical free market are good ideas. It works well on paper, but its virtually impossible to actually get it to work in the wild. Our justice system is too flawed, the threat of executing an innocent person too great, the number of false positives too high for execution to be a viable option. You’ve got medical examiners like Steven Hayne working for racists who try cases in front of other racists too stupid to get out of jury duty. You’ve got police who torture. You’ve got so many problems at so many levels that you simply can’t have confidence in the system.

    I’m glad ALI finally worked that out. I’m disappointed that it took them this long to do so.

  8. January 5, 2010 at 2:02 pm

    I think we’re too invested with the idea of “the other” and scapegoating to rid ourselves of capital punishment. If we were a more homogenous sort of country, it would be easier, but so much of the way we form identity is based not on what we have in common but that in which we differ from others.

  9. January 5, 2010 at 7:03 pm

    This is indeed good news. And thanks for using “colorable”, a word that I still remember from the SATs 25 years ago, because I missed it.

  10. southern students for choice-Athens
    January 9, 2010 at 4:29 pm

    If there is so much (as the legal phrase goes) “reasonable doubt”, at the very least, that the death penalty is effective and in some cases morally justified, and if most other supposedly advanced, civilized countries think it’s neither effective nor morally justified, then why does the US have the death penalty, and why are so many people on death row?

    Part of the answer is that there is some popular demand for it, and part is also that people accused of the sort of capital offenses have, as the article above said, “defense lawyers [who] are underpaid and some are incompetent”, and there’s other possible answers, like racism or classism or the like.

    One has to wonder though if a bigger part of the answer, though certainly less talked about, is that there is enormous amount of support for it from within the legal community, particularly from prosecutors and the prison/industrial system that regulates and enforces it. It’s often been said that the entire process of prosecuting, sentencing, appealing, and (maybe) eventually enforcing the death penalty in a given case is more expensive than the same process with a life sentence imposed, followed by decades of imprisonment until the guilty party dies in prison. The fact that it’s more expensive ought to raise questions about where the money goes and what say they have in that the death penalty exists or is enforced at all. There seems to be a conflict of interest here, as many people stand both to make money off of it while determining when and how it is to be enforced.

    But this doesn’t make much news, at least if there are organized lobbies of attorneys, legal authorities, and prison administrators / corporate officers who advocate or support the death penalty, they don’t make the news, at least not in a way that some simple Google news searches and the like in Lexis-Nexus can discover. It’s something though that death penalty opponents should look into, especially as the legal body which, according to the NYT article above that “created the intellectual framework for the modern capital justice system almost 50 years ago, pronounced its project a failure and [has now] walked away from it.”

    If this means that there’s less of an “intellectual framework” supporting the “modern capital justice system”, then who – and what – is supporting it?

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