Monday, May 03, 2004

I couldn't think up something clever; this one is about the death penalty

So I guess Massachusetts is like the anti-Illinois or something like that.

Governor Mitt Romney convened a blue ribbon commission in order to study ways to bring the death penalty back to MA in as fair and even handed a way possible.

They’ve come up with ten recommendations, all of which seem to be about keeping away wrongful convictions. The ten provisions thought up by the committee include having all decisions to seek the death penalty reviewed by the Attorney General, having accusations of wrongful conviction examined by an independent body, only seeking the death penalty for torture killings, terrorism, multiple homicides and killing of law enforcement officer etc.

These proposals seem well and good. Certainly, if one is really jonesing to put people to death, the commission seems to have found a good way to do it as fairly as possible. But doesn’t that beg the question… why is killing someone so important that you would spend this much money and this much public legal brain power in order to do it?

Just think about it for a second. Regardless of whether you’re for or against the death penalty (I’ve gone back and forth many times in my life but am for now comfortable ensconced in the “against” camp) doesn’t it seem a bit odd that being able to put people to death is that important to Governor Romney and the people of Massachusetts? Many of the arguments against capital punishment have been fairly definitively debunked in the past decade. For example, putting people to death is more expensive for the state than giving them a life sentence in one of America’s hellish maximum security prisons, and statistically, the death penalty does not work as a deterrent. Furthermore, no matter what you do you can’t be 100% certain that everyone you put to death is actually guilty, unless you have easily verifiable footage of them doing it (etc.) and in those cases the person will almost certainly plead guilty anyway, which usually means that the state won’t put them to death, because no one wants to punish telling the truth.

There are arguments in favor of the death penalty that I don’t agree with, but I understand them, and they’re more subjective. Arguments like the Message argument, which states that this is a good way for society to make it clear how unacceptable certain crimes are. Or another one, which is simple vengeance. They killed someone, they deserve death. How would you feel if your wife was raped and murdered? Wouldn’t you want the killer to die? How can you withhold that right from someone to whom it happened to?

I can understand being not-against the death penalty. On a good day, I could even understand supporting the death penalty. What I can’t understand is being so in love with the death penalty that you would think Romney forming a commission to study better ways to be certain you’re killing the right person is a good idea. It just seems like a waste of money, talent and brain power to focus so tightly on returning to the age of Leviticus in our sentencing procedures.

(oh and PS: the NYTimes article is here)

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