Here’s Part One for the sake of completion.
I’m always interested in the views of those who support capital punishment, as something I’ve been trying to understand is exactly why it is so popular. The possibility of changing a sufficient number of minds to significantly alter the vox-pop statistics on this question is one on which those opposed should not pin a great deal of hope. Death sentences are and will remain immensely popular, but far from conferring a sense of righteousness on the electric chair, this is yet another reason why they are so dangerous.
An unfortunate constant of my many conversations with advocates of the death penalty over the years has been the total lack of consideration that many give to the prospect of wrongful execution. For every acknowledgement that this very real risk exists, and that every possible step should be taken to minimise it, you’re likely to get a response based either on some sort of denial of that risk, or worse that the wrongfully executed represent mere collateral damage, akin to innocent civilians being blasted by so-called friendly fire.
Apparently, you can’t make an omlette without breaking a few eggs…
I’m not terribly keen on the debate around whether or not it’s better for ten guilty men to go free than see one innocent suffer. Both scenarios represent a miscarriage of justice, and whether one is much less or more desirable than the other would depend entirely upon the circumstances. What had the ten guilty people done and what was the innocent actually convicted of? Moreover, the assumption that the crime subject to the wrongful conviction was definitely not committed by one of the hyopthetical ten is a curious one. Aren’t the wrongly convicted and guilty people getting away with it two sides of the same coin?
However, the presence of the death penalty adds a different, and altogether more sinister dimension to this question. When we’re dealing in life and death, there is something cold and almost Stalinesque about its reduction to a straightforward numbers game based on horse-trading. I’d love an advocate of capital punishment to come on here and give us a straight answer to the following:- if we accept the risk of wrongful execution as a real one, then how many innocent people are you prepared to sentence to death in order to get, say, 100 guilty ones? What’s the acceptable margin of error here and how many eggs are you prepared to break? Is it one, two, five, ten, another hundred?.
I’d be interested to hear the subsequent arguments of someone who actually came up with a number, but surely the only correct answer to that question is, er, none?. This formulation transforms the debate in two ways – firstly it turns what might be regarded as an abstract notion, that of wrongful execution, into a real-life scenario in which actual innocent people are being killed, and forces any advocate of the death penalty to confront it. Moreover, by giving you a number, he or she is basically agreeing that should the real figure ever exceed this, then it would be right for capital punishment to be abolished.
And finally, if you’re arguing that x number of wrongful executions are a price worth paying for the supposed benefits of capital punishment, are you therefore comfortable with the prospect, however remote, of ‘taking one for the team’ and becoming one of them? Or is it only ok if it happens to someone else, someone you don’t know?. Playing God is remarkably easy when it’s done from a safe distance, when the consequences of getting it wrong have no personal impact on you. And in the event of a horror story being uncovered, blame the fuzz, the courts, the system. Blame everyone except those who campaigned for it in the first place.
I’ll be back either tonight or most likely tomorrow with part three – take it easy.