The Death Penalty, Explained

Facing the imminent expiration of its last stash of execution drugs, the state of Arkansas attempted to rush through multiple executions before they became what, too unsafe to kill someone with? Capital punishment has never been less popular with the public, which makes it a good time to ask: why is the United States one of the few industrialized nations to still kill people while claiming the moral high ground?

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25 thoughts on “The Death Penalty, Explained

  1. The state provides harsh sentences, supposedly to deter crime.

    A person who kills someone is not usually breaking only one law, but multiple laws; so adding a seventh law and penalty to stop a crime may not be any more effective at stopping a crime than having only six laws and penalties.

    But if the penalty is too harsh some people might double down, or flee, and kill victims and witnesses to improve the odds they won’t get caught, because most murders are not followed by arrests according to FBI statistics.

    Someone might run or try to shoot their way out of trouble if there is, say, a five year sentence for possession marijuana, for example, instead of a $25 fine.

    I just read a news story about a guy who died in a chase initiated for speeding 66 in a 45 zone, possibly because he had two ounces of marijuana in his pocket and didn’t want to go to prison.

    http://www.agingrebel.com/15270

    The USA has about 25% of the world’s prison population. That’s too many for about 6% of the world’s population.

    • @Glenn

      Statistics show that the death penalty is not a deterrent; but as you say harsh penalties for victimless crimes *are* an incentive.

      If blue lives truly do matter, then we might consider a different approach. One that doesn’t endanger good cops’ lives. (assuming they aren’t extinct)

      • It’s worth investigating.

        When social institutions don’t value every person’s life, it’s easy for people who have been devalued to devalue others.

        And things go downhill from there, whichever side of the badge you’re on.

        Some countries do things differently, with better outcomes.

        https://www.equalitytrust.org.uk/resources/the-spirit-level

        The book at the link above is mostly graphed statistics. They show what’s possible in countries where people are more equal.

        “It shows that for each of eleven different health and social problems: physical health, mental health, drug abuse, education, imprisonment, obesity, social mobility, trust and community life, violence, teenage pregnancies, and child well-being, outcomes are significantly worse in more unequal rich countries.”

    • «Some countries do things differently, with better outcomes.» Indeed, Glenn, but the relevant – the political – question is «better outcomes for whom» i e, who holds the reins of political power in the country under discussion? It is the answer to that question which explains why outcomes are so poor for so many in the United States, despite the country’s wealth….

      Henri

      • The book doesn’t prescribe the means to get to equality, but measures the outcomes of different societies based on the equality already obtained at the time of measurement.

        https://scholar.princeton.edu/sites/default/files/mgilens/files/gilens_and_page_2014_-testing_theories_of_american_politics.doc.pdf

        “The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy,” they write, “while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.”

        So don’t expect either party to reflect policies favored by average income people unless they are also favored by richer people.

        In my opinion, average income people can’t afford government funded wealth-fare of the “trickle down” type proposed again by Trump, or the absence of remedial proposals for average income people by Democrats.

      • http://talkingpointsmemo.com/livewire/princeton-experts-say-us-no-longer-democracy

        “The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy,” they write, “while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.”

        As one illustration, Gilens and Page compare the political preferences of Americans at the 50th income percentile to preferences of Americans at the 90th percentile as well as major lobbying or business groups. They find that the government—whether Republican or Democratic—more often follows the preferences of the latter group rather than the first.

  2. Unlike most lefties – I am not 100% against the death penalty; but neither am I 100% for it. I firmly straddle that fence.

    To me, the deciding factor is that we get so many verdicts wrong. We absolutely cannot execute someone without absolute proof. So right there, we should throw out 99.9% of death penalty verdicts.

    But here’s the other side of the coin. Think of *known* mass murders such as Bundy, Gacy, Ridgeway and Bush. Why do owe them food, housing and medical care for the rest of their worthless lives? Why should we give them a (very slim) chance of escape to where they have an even greater incentive to kill than the first time around? They’ve shown that they don’t want to live by the social contract, why should they be protected by it?

    Full disclosure: I lost a friend to a murder.

    She was stabbed multiple times, and tried to crawl away from her killer. She died a long, painful, senseless death, alone on the floor of her home hours after the perpetrator left the scene. The evidence was overwhelming, they had her blood on his knife, he had her possessions on his person, and he was stupid enough to brag to his friends about it before the murder became public knowledge.

    My friend will never get to see her son become a man, never tend her flowers again, nor welcome me into her home. But her murderer is walking free today.

    Is that justice?

      • I covered the case of wrongful convictions, and I do agree – that is why I am against it today. The Innocence Project has uncovered so many wrongful convictions that it’s downright horrifying.

        In the case of the bastard who killed my friend, walking free means “convicted, served time and released.”

        I don’t know whether his sentence was commuted, but in any case he’s out by now. I stopped paying attention when I realized I wasn’t sure what I’d do if I knew the date he was released. I don’t know what I would do if I saw him walking down the street today.

        Believe me – it’s a different situation when it’s a friend rather than some stranger or an abstract principle. If it was a family member … the murder had better pray that the state finds him before I do.

      • @ CrazyH –

        I get your point. A close friend of mine, a next-door neighbor when I lived in Little Rock, lost his daughter to a murder. There was no question that it was committed by her estranged husband and that he staged an attempt to make it look like a suicide. (It’s hard to shoot yourself in the back of the head.) I believe the jurisdiction was West Virginia; at any rate, the state does not permit capital punishment, so the man is serving a sentence of life without parole (which could be reduced at a later date, depending upon circumstances).

        In my friend’s place, I might have served “justice” myself, as did the father of a young boy who was sexually abused and perhaps murdered by a predator many years ago. The exact details escape me. At any rate, this father was in the Salt Lake City airport, talking on a public telephone, when the prisoner was being escorted through the airport in handcuffs. As they walked by, he turned and shot the prisoner in the head, threw down his pistol, put his hands in the air, and let himself be arrested.

        The jury acquitted him with a ruling of justifiable homicide, as I recall.

      • And so the mockingbird will be killed once again.

        Ted said something to the effect that The State does not have a right to vengeance. That makes perfect sense to me. A state is not a person, it has no emotions, and ours is *supposed* to treat all equally.

        I have a very strong belief in the “Neanderthal Social Contract” (a highly regarded anthropological theorem that I just made up)

        To wit: I would like nothing better than to smack you with an antelope’s thighbone and take all your stuff. However, I will forgo that pleasure if you will do the same for me.

        Such is the basis of civilization. However, if you do not want to play by those rules then I am not bound by them either. May the biggest bone win.

      • «The “difficult concept for those in control” has nothing to do with the mass murder of innocent civilians. It is the surrender of profits made on the manufacture of weapons of warfare.» Once again, mein verehrter Lehrer, you nailed it….

        Henri

  3. Opiates are plentiful in the USA, so wouldn’t it make sense to let executions be an opioid bliss out?

    If the real issue was the safety of the public then executions would not need to be painful.

    But if the safety of the state itself from the public is the issue, then considerations would be different.

    If a limb is gangrenous, it is not necessary to inflict pain on the offending limb when amputating it.

    Why, if state murders were merely for the health of the state would the removal of the offending unit need to be a terrifying spectacle?

    Of course, if war is the health of the state (the externalizing and unifying of popular murderous desires focused on a public enemy, albeit an enemy determined solely by the authority of the state), then murderous savagery authorized by the state would be awarded ribbons, and prominent positions such as governor, rather than shame.

    And so it is.

    • Are you saying that the 1) “botched” executions and 2) reporting of them is a type of second, attempted deterrent added to a debatable primary deterrent?

      • I will say that that interpretation could be made on that basis.

        The ruling class believes that a terrified population is a compliant population.

        Thus the extreme bombing campaigns against civilian populations and their repeated failure to achieve submission, whether by German bombardment of England in WWII, or by American bombardment of Vietnam, or… the list could go on.

      • … or bombing of Dresden by Brits & Yanks. We all have blood on our hands. The only way to make it stop is to stop. Why is this such a difficult concept for those in control?

      • @ CrazyH –

        The Allied bombing of Heilbronn am Neckar (December 4, 1944) practically wiped out the entire city, occupied primarily by old men and women & children. A two-year-old at the time, my wife — along with her mother and aunt — survived the bombing, and she remembers stepping over dead bodies, some of them afire, escaping on foot to a rural location owned by a relative. That is not an experience I would wish upon anybody.

        The “difficult concept for those in control” has nothing to do with the mass murder of innocent civilians. It is the surrender of profits made on the manufacture of weapons of warfare.

        (How many Tomahawk missiles were recently used, at a cost of how much?)

    • @derlehrer

      It pains me to hear of your wife’s experience.

      That there are anonymous bombers and the anonymous bombed, each anonymous to the other, seems the crime.

      Can an anonymous apology to anonymous innocents who have been bombed by anonymous bombers really make a difference? I apologize anyway.

      Damn all who would entangle the inexperienced and naïve in their bloodthirsty crimes and quests for profit and glory; and in word play turn the conscience of a nation into a weapon of war.

      Kurt Vonnegut, as a prisoner of war in Dresden, recalled the sirens going off whenever another city was bombed.

      The Germans did not expect Dresden to get bombed, Vonnegut said. “There were very few air-raid shelters in town and no war industries, just cigarette factories, hospitals, clarinet factories.”

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kurt_Vonnegut

      • «Damn all who would entangle the inexperienced and naïve in their bloodthirsty crimes and quests for profit and glory; and in word play turn the conscience of a nation into a weapon of war.» At the moment, a so-called «upgrade» of the US nuclear arsenal, initiated not by the bellicose (no scare quotes needed) Mr Trump, but by the «pacific» (scare quotes definitely required) Mr Obama, recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize for 2009, planned to be carried out over a period of thirty years to a cost of a million million (10¹²) USD, is in its initial stages. The strategic ramifications of this measure, which makes what little sense it does make only in the context of seeking a first-strike capability, are discussed in this analysis by Hans M. Kristensen, Matthew McKinzie, and Theodore A. Postol….

        H sapiens sapiens might just possibly make it through the coming decades, but I’d not bet the farm on it (in the event I had a farm to wager)….

        Henri

      • Exactly!

        Obama pacified the anti-war movement, without pacifying US foreign policy.

        I suppose there are some who would still find that pacification worthy of a prize.

  4. Right on the mark, Henri! While I am very grateful to have been born in the USA, I am very ashamed of what it has become. It always had a bad history of terrible things it had done, but today? – It is beyond belief. 🙁

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