Tuesday, May 26, 2009


The fact that some people deserve a good killing is not, by itself, a persuasive argument for capital punishment. There's no particular evidence that the death penalty deters crime (last year, American states with the death penalty had nearly twice the homicide rates of states without it), and the principle of an "eye for an eye" belongs to the long list of cruel and tyrannical Old Testament injunctions that should give a moment of pause to those who believe that scripture both automatically and axiomatically provides instruction in good morals. But the foremost objection to the death penalty is more straightforward: so long as the sentencing option exists, there is a chance that it will be carried out on an innocent person.

The Innocence Project has a list of over 300 wrongly convicted felons – many of them freed on the basis of DNA evidence, while the Death Penalty Information Center maintains a list of an astonishing 133 convicts released from death row after having been exonerated. Nearly sixty of these cases occurred in the last 10 years. There certainly are some sociopathic killers who seem to have abdicated their right to life, but my concern is with the innocent. The evidence suggests that the probability of sentencing error is very far from negligible, and death is the one form of punishment for which no compensation could be provided in the event of error.

Polls show that most Canadians want the death penalty back , but polls also reveal that people favour all kinds of frightening and undemocratic ideas (such as random police searches of homes) if you ask them in the right way. Fortunately, there is little chance that the death penalty will return. Our Parliamentarians are, I am convinced, mostly incompetent, but there's something to be said for stupid people running things, provided that they're also lazy, because at least they accomplish nothing, whereas stupid people with ambition can do all kinds of damage.

At any rate, I suspect that the death penalty never will return to my country. If it does, however, executions absolutely must be made public again. The people crying for blood don't get to shield their eyes from it when it is spilled.


Graham Broad said...

The photo is of me with Jacques Louis David's famous painting, the Death of Socrates, an example of what can happen when you give people - even free citizens of an enlightened state - the right to kill people they don't like.

Anonymous said...

In my humble opinion, you ask too little of anyone supportive of capital punishment. They must not only willingly watch executions, they must:
1. Be willing to sit on a jury and sentence someone to death.
2. Be willing to be the actual executioner.
3. Be willing to accept that their verdict was wrong and they executed an innocent person.
4. Be willing to tell the mother of that innocent person who was executed that they made a mistake and justify the execution nonetheless.
5. Be willing to be that mother of the executed innocent and willingly accept the mistaken conviction and execution of their child.
If a person will truly accept those conditions, they may honestly support capital punishment (but should be disallowed because they are obviously crazy).