SYNDICATED COLUMN: End the Death Penalty. Allow Vigilantism.

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To the State of Ohio, Dennis McGuire was a human guinea pig — the first inmate executed using an experimental mix of poisons cobbled together because the manufacturers of pharmaceuticals used in older, proven cocktails refuse to continue supplying them for anti-medical purposes. For 25 agonizing minutes, McGuire thrashed against his restraints, choked and gasped for air before finally succumbing to death. “He started making all these horrible, horrible noises, and at that point, that’s when I covered my eyes and my ears,” said his daughter Amber McGuire, who witnessed the state killing at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility, near Lucasville.

Unsurprisingly, the family of the woman McGuire raped and murdered was unmoved by McGuire’s suffering. “As I recall the events preceding her death, forcing her from the car, attempting to rape her vaginally, sodomizing her, choking her, stabbing her, I know she suffered terror and pain. He is being treated far more humanely than he treated her,” said a statement issued by Joy Stewart’s survivors.

Ohio doesn’t have an awesome track record with killing killers. In 2009, the state unsuccessfully tried to kill Romell Broom — who did his best to help his would-be executioners. “For more than two hours,” reported the Cleveland Plain Dealer, “the team attempted to insert two shunts into a vein of the compliant Broom, who tried several times to assist his executioners by shifting positions, rubbing his arm and pointing out possible usable veins…At one point, Broom, 53, lay back on his bed, covered his face with his hands, and cried. Another time, while sitting up, he was seen grimacing as the execution team appeared to seek a vein around his ankles.”

In 2007 prison staff tried to find a usable vein in the arms of an obese inmate, Christopher Newton, for nearly two hours. “The execution team stuck him at least 10 times with needles to get in place the shunts where the needles are injected” before finally managing to kill him, according to the AP.

Given the finality of capital punishment, proof that one innocent person has ever been executed is enough for me to find the practice abhorrent. The fact, is numerous innocents have died in American death chambers.

Most of the world agrees. Only 21 out of the world’s 195 nations carried out any executions last year.

But I keep coming back to the angry statement issued by Joy Stewart’s survivors. They have every right to their rage. If some monster took away someone I loved like that, I would want to kill him too.

But I would want to do it myself.

Assuming that the guilt of death row prisoners like Dennis McGuire could be ascertained with absolute certainty — which is impossible in 100% of capital cases — I would be fine if Stewart’s grieving relatives shot him or garroted or beat him to death. Whatever makes them feel better.

Revenge is fine. Routine murder is not.

I can’t get past the gruesome bureaucratic spectacle of government workers executing people like McGuire (or trying to execute people like Broom) bloodlessly, motivated solely by a paycheck. As a society, we shouldn’t demand that state workers expose themselves to psychic trauma. As a system of justice, the death penalty is dishonest because it masks its true purpose: vengeance.

The purpose certainly isn’t deterrence. Year after year, states with capital punishment have significantly higher murder rates than those without it.

Some countries — nations most people would not look up to — nevertheless manage an interesting compromise: the authorities carry out the death penalty, but only if the aggrieved parties agree to it. In some executions carried out under Sharia law in areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan under Taliban control, the crimes are read out to a crowd of witnesses. Judges ask the victim’s family whether they want the execution carried out or, instead, prefer to offer mercy. (Mercy can vary between outright release to a harsh punishment short of death, for example, an amputation. In a surprising number of cases, families choose forced labor on their farms.)

Here in the United States, on the other hand, executions are often carried out against the wishes of the victims’ families. What’s the point of that?

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16 thoughts on “SYNDICATED COLUMN: End the Death Penalty. Allow Vigilantism.

  1. The pro-capital punishment types can still say the US has never executed an innocent person. This is because the US always took at least a year from conviction to execution (now, usually at least ten years), so all the facts were presented over and over, and rejected. (In the UK, after the sentence, the defendants got three Sundays to prepare to meet their maker, and irrefutable evidence of their innocence turned up after the execution with embarrassing regularity. No problem, the UK authorities exhumed the body from the unblessed grave in the prison graveyard, gave it a Christian funeral, reburied it in a consecrated grave, and the UK had made full amends for its little error.)

    Prosecutors have to get convictions or they lose their jobs (and their income). Defence attorneys go to prisoners and say, ‘If you don’t give me all your money, you’ll be executed, but I can get you off.’ The prisoners have no way of checking, and usually give all their money to a defence attorney, who doesn’t get any more money if the prisoner is acquitted, and loses points with the judge and prosecutor. Public defenders are on straight salary, and lack of any acquittals is usually no reason to dismiss them. So defence attorneys aren’t very motivated. Some fight hard for their clients even without any monetary incentive. Many do not.

    The prosecutors pick someone who looks guilty (everyone, as a child, reads picture books that have villains, so every child learns what a villain looks like). Witnesses are asked, ‘Did he do it?’ Those who say, ‘Yes,’ are chosen as reliable. Those who say, ‘No, he’s too fat/skinny/tall/short,’ are dismissed as unreliable. When the defence interviews witnesses, every witness on the official list of reliable witnesses confirms the prisoner’s guilt. And the prisoner’s guilt is proven beyond a reasonable doubt to the jury.

    After the conviction and death sentence, lawyers who are motivated by a desire for justice and/or hatred of the death penalty try to get a reversal. Those ‘unreliable’ witnesses come forward to complain that they were there, they saw the crime, and it couldn’t have been the condemned. But now the burden of proof is reversed: the condemned must prove innocence beyond a reasonable doubt. OK, some new witnesses came forward, OK, some experts said it wasn’t arson, but there are still witnesses who stand by their original testimony, and the experts can’t prove beyond a doubt that it wasn’t arson, they can only say it probably wasn’t arson. That would have been enough for acquittal at the original trial, but it’s not enough at an appeal. The prisoners MIGHT be guilty, it’s not proven beyond a doubt that they was innocent. So, legally they ARE guilty.

    So they say, ‘He had a fair trial. Evidence was reviewed and reviewed and reviewed and every court agreed he deserved the death penalty, so don’t say he was innocent.’

    The condemned probably were innocent in many cases, but legal proof is almost impossible, so they’re legally guilty and their executions were legally justified.

    It’s a rotten system. But there’s a huge vested interest in keeping it just as it is.

    One more reason to support Mr Rall’s anti-American Manifesto.

  2. Ted,

    And what happens when someone with no relatives gets murdered? Who steps in then? The state? Uh, then we’re right back where we started, aren’t we? And what of the person who is murdered and whose relatives all demand the right to strangle the sonofabitch who did it? Do they take turns with the corpse? And what of those people who couldn’t wait to kill the bastard, and then discover that it is not at all like it is on television? Does the state owe them continual financial, medical and emotional support?

    There’s plenty of holes to pick; those are just the ones that come to mind immediately.

    The goal is to avoid murders of the innocent. How? A good start would be decriminalizing drugs, just like Portugal did. When the economic base for drugs drops away, the drug “problem” will too, as will all the collateral murders and bystander deaths, AND the attendant crime that comes about because of the need for unemployed people with addictions to fund their expensive addiction.

    A good second step? Close all the prisons. Prison is for dangerous criminals. Murderers, rapists, Wall Street types. No one else. Low-level drug dealers? Ridiculous.

    • Alex, of course you are right. Prison should be eliminated for the most part. Except for the people that you mentioned. And yes, it really is a problem when you get murdered and no one really cares about you enough to want to carry out vengeance. I was trying to say is, there ought not be capital punishment but if there is, it ought to be based overtly on vengeance.

  3. «Revenge is fine. Routine murder is not.» Ted, should not merely the punishment, but also the investigation of crimes against persons also be left to the friends and relatives of the victim ? Surely abolishing capital punishment is a better alternative than returning the «justice» of the Islanders’ sagas ?…

    Henri

    • Make no mistake, Henri, The death penalty is barbaric. The state should always set the highest standards of behavior. Murder is the lowest standard. That said, if you’re going to do it, let the families be the arbiter of revenge, since that’s all it is.

  4. “Massaraksh!” The prisoner wiped his tears with his shoulder. “Some
    threat!” He turned to the civilian. “But you, you re still a young man. You
    must learn to do your job coolly, officially — for the money. It makes an
    enormous impression on the victims of your inquisition. What an appalling
    state of affairs when you find yourself being tortured not by an enemy but
    by a bureaucrat. Take a look at my left arm. His Imperial Majesty’s
    specialists sawed it off in three stages; and each order was accompanied by
    a lengthy official correspondence. Those butchers were just doing a
    disagreeable, boring, unrewarding job. While they were sawing off my arm,
    they cursed their wretchedly low pay. And I was terrified.

    Arkady & Boris Strugatsky – Prisoners of Power

  5. Jury members who decide to kill should be required to to do the killing themselves.

    There was a time not so distant that civilians were drafted to kill enemies of the state. Moral repugnance of civilians limited this participation, bringing on the age of mercenaries who have no stake in the outcome but but their payday.

    Killing should be done by the jury, up close and personal, not distant and impersonal like in a drone video game. Assigning an execution to someone who is indifferent, or enjoys killing, will only make state sponsored murders more commonplace and frequent.

    Persons who have been convinced by resume-building prosecutors and cops are usually so invested by their moral certitude in being correct that they will deny irrefutable facts. Their personal interest is in conflict with justice.

  6. Alternately, abolish the death penalty and stop busting people for illegal drug use and prostitution, when these crimes do not involve hurting other parties, and put all the money we spend imprisoning these people into stuff like education and free on-demand birth control, including abortion.

    But that would actually make sense.

    I can understand wanting to kill the bad guys, but unfortunately the bad guys feel that way too.

  7. > Revenge is fine. Routine murder is not.

    I can go along with that. If I caught some scumbag who had killed someone close to me, I would absolutely kill him with my own hands and sleep soundly that night. Someone raping my wife/daughter/granddaughter would die as well … but I’d take my time about it.

    The thing is, I’m a human. The State shouldn’t seek revenge. There’s a huge difference.

  8. A neighbor of mine suffered the murder of his daughter at the hands of her estranged husband. I can’t imagine the pain and suffering he endured.

    In the back of my mind, I still see the slaying of a man who was arrested for molesting (raping) and killing (?) the son of the man who shot him to death in an airport (Salt Lake City, I believe). That’s the kind of justice that should apply to scumbags like that. It’s something I would seriously consider in similar circumstances.

  9. “Year after year, states without capital punishment have significantly higher murder rates than those with it.”

    Ted — I think you meant to write “Year after year, states WITH capital punishment have significantly higher murder rates than those with it.”

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