Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Because some people just need killing

Grits for Breakdast, on the death penalty: The missus thinks I'm going to "get in trouble" for writing this, but I think, as a practical matter, I'd prefer a death penalty privatized on a case by case basis at the discretion of 12 jurors than operated by the government itself. What do you think?

Me, I'm a native of the Lone Star state, now a long-time resident of the East Coast version of the Wild West, and I confess to a great deal of sympathy for this view of murderers and their victims:

The truth is that Texas's propensity for killing its citizens, and its leniency with some murderers, are both expressions of the a single principle. Texas doesn't execute murderers to show its regard for the value of life; it does so because some people (as the parable says) need killing. Sometimes the guy who -- in the eyes of Texas -- needs killing is the accused, and sometimes he's the complainant.

"He needed killin', and my guy was the guy to do it" has long been a viable defense in some Texas murder cases. These are cases in which the State often couldn't secure convictions despite being technically murder; it'll be even less able to secure convictions in the future from juries that know that, if they convict, prison will be the only option.

On the whole though, I'm opposed to anything that smacks of vigilanteism. I don't want to live in a place where people are allowed to, or feel compelled to, take the law into their own hands. But the reality is that some people do kill in self-defense and those people, unless they later get it into their heads that a bullet is the way to deal with everyone who irritates them, are not going to be a danger to me. Turn 'em loose on probation.

Besides, I just plain dislike killin' be it state-sponsored or not. The death penalty, like torture, ought to just be one of those unquestioned and unquestionable taboos that requires no further philosophical justification beyond Dude, we don't do that kind of thing here.


Steve Bates said...

"The death penalty, like torture, ought to just be one of those unquestioned and unquestionable taboos that requires no further philosophical justification beyond Dude, we don't do that kind of thing here." - hipparchia

You'll get no argument from me on that approach.

I've come to realize that while the moral arguments against the death penalty are the most personally compelling, it's the practical arguments that carry the most weight in the public debate: what if we kill the wrong person? what if the person is innocent? what if... what if the death penalty doesn't actually have the effect of reducing violent crime? what if... this is one of my favorites... what if it costs dramatically less to imprison a murderer for life than to execute them after full appeals that display any semblance of due process?

All things considered, "dude, don't go there" is almost certainly the best approach. Anything else is gambling with people's lives.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Re: "dude, don't go there" ... I get that a lot.:)

OTOH, the current approach generates one of the highest murder rates in the country in Texas, PLUS all the executions. Why isn't that considered "playing with people's lives"? Perhaps you haven't heard of Texas' "reverse lottery theory of justice"? It applies to the death penalty, too.

In truth, the arguments I tossed out cavalierly about "privatizing" the death penalty were intended as a provocation, but one meant to highlight a point: As long as there are angry fathers, cuckolded spouses, embezzling business partners and drug deals gone bad, there will be a death penalty. People get killed every day. You can't create utopia with laws.

The question, then, is whether intentional killing ever creates justice? If it does, then whether the state or an individual does the killing matters little for justice's sake.

For myself, I think the best policy is to minimize killing. I think it's best if the state investigate, capture, and sequester killers, but that it sets a bad societal example to kill them. People are still gonna get kill't, though. Call it a "privatized death penalty" or the natural order of things since Cain and Abel.

As a commenter mentioned on Grits, in most cases whether someone "needs killin'" is an inherently subjective judgment, whether being made by 12 citizens on behalf of the state or a lone vigilante killing on their own. If after a they're arrested and a prosecutor brings charges, if a jury fails to convict or the defendant winds up with probation because the victim "needed killin'," as a practical matter it's not the worst thing that can happen in the justice system. Maximum punitiveness does not always equal justice. It's not like Texas isn't plenty "tuff on crime." best,

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...

I have no moral objection to the death penalty as long as there is no doubt about guilt and it's dispensed in an equitable manner. Since both of those conditions are currently impossible, there's no point in considering it.

Equal justice under the law isn't just a good idea, it is one of the founding principles of our current experiment in government.

Show me how we eliminate doubt and ensure equal application, then we can talk about it again.

hipparchia said...

hey, grits!

thanks for stopping by, and for the thoughtful answer. i'll admit that my post was a bit on the cavalier side too.

i'm with you on minimizing the killing. it's hard to prove either way, but i'm convinced the death penalty raises the murder rate, rather than deters murders.

i'm also willing to take my chances with the possibility of accidentally turning a few murderers loose, as opposed to accidentally killing an innocent person.

murderers kill maybe 16,000 people a year, while car wrecks kill more than 40,000 a year, and hospital-acquired infections kill something like 90,000 per year. i'll take those odds [and i'll try to stay out of hospitals].

i have to agree with you on the subjective aspect of who needs killin, which is why i mostly prefer that the state not kill any of them. like you say, ordinary citizens are still going to go around killing each other from time to time, no matter what.

hipparchia said...


a few quibbles...

our current experiment in government being president cheney and the unitary executive, i'd have to point out that equal justice under the law is all animals are treated equally, but some are more equal than others. /7

i'm pretty sure there are actually cases where there's no doubt at all about guilt, but the system is horribly lacking in equitableness.

mostly, i've just got ethical/moral objections, but i don't mind if all you practical-minded folks cross over to the dark side and rise up against the death penalty for other reasons.

hipparchia said...

august, yikes!

i had read a little about that case when it first hit the news, but i hadn't realized the vigilanteism had gone that far, or who the cyberbully had turned out to be. very scary stuff, all the way around, and depressing to read about, but thanks for the link nonetheless.

hipparchia said...

heya, steve.

one of the newer fads in the debate seems to be economists dusting off their econ models to prove/disprove the deterrent effect of the death penalty.

one of the problems with the models that purport to show a deterrent effect is that few people can [or care to] follow the math. i've waded through 3 or 4 of the papers [had to drag out some of my math books to get through them] and the models, assumptions, and conclusions look shady at best. unfortunately, ordinary mortals are going to look at all the squiggles on the page and be intimidated [or wowed] into believing that the authors know what they're talking about.


- death penalty proponents are going to point to those deterrence studies and blindly worship them.

- they're going to think that even the dramatically higher price of killing someone as opposed to keeping them alive and watching tv in an air-conditioned place with free food is worth it.

- they're not going to mind that the occasional innocent person gets killed, justifying it with it's all part of the price of safety, and besides they wouldn't have got caught in the first place if they weren't already doing something wrong.

fear and vengeance, that's what's driving some of the most vocal proponents, i'm convinced we-the-sane-people are just going to have to stand up and say, without apology or explanation: dude, we're going to stop killing people.

Anonymous said...

I hate to bring the reality of walking a beat into the argument, but the people who commit crimes don't think they'll get caught, so there is almost no discernible deterrent effect for any penalty.

The worst kind of murderers have a tendency to plan out their crimes specifically not to get caught.

Most murders are committed in the heat of the moment, and those committing the murders often feel justified in their actions.

I want just one verified case of someone who honestly said "well, I was considering a life of crime, but after reviewing the penalties I decided against it." Have the draconian laws about the use of crack had any effect?

If penalties were really a deterrent the recidivism rate would be zero.

hipparchia said...

reality is good.

i don't believe in the deterrent effect either, just based on observation and a little rational thought.

the problem with some of the people who devise these models and write these papers, is that they don't listen to critics unless you successfully punch holes in their math [who cares about reality?] so i spent some time wading through their math [and criticisms of the math].

also, i haven't put any time into fact-checking this, but i'm pretty sure at least some of those "yes, death penalty is a deterrent" papers were written by pro-death penalty folks who either consciously or unconsciously ignored anything that might prove them wrong.

If penalties were really a deterrent the recidivism rate would be zero.

dead on.

as a psychologist friend of mine puts it [and as i've found out in years and years of training dogs]: you don't instill complex behaviors with punishment.

it may seem like "don't kill" and "don't steal" are simple, but getting along in society without killing anybody or stealing anything actually requires quite a repertoire of complex behaviors.

there might be some justification in the state-sanctioned killing of ted bundy and a very few others like him, purely as a means of collective self-defense, but beyond that we don't need to be executing murderers [or even necessarily locking up some of them].

TenaciousK said...

I'm touched.

hipparchia said...

you're a sweetheart and a smart cookie.