Death Penalty

I asked a while ago, “When is it right for one person to kill another person.” We talked a fair amount about self defense. But another controversial example is a state authorized execution.

Arizona has recently had a special role in American death penalty jurisprudence. Specifically, Ring v. Arizona [syllabus]was the case that said juries, not judges, had to find the factual justifications for making a defendant eligible for the death penalty. The named defendant, the opinion affected several others, just recently accepted a life sentence. Although, it appears he has some more appealing in mind, perhaps asserting that he was in fact innocent. [story] The story does a pretty nice job of summarizing things, except I didn’t know any defense attorneys who thought this was going to be good for defendants.

The Hebrews had some rules about putting people to death. Exodus 21 contains the list of offenses. (If you pull up the link, notice that in Exodus 21:22 our translators think the offense is causing the woman to have a premature birth; but the note tells you maybe it means miscarriage. I think the causing the baby to come out of her almost certainly means miscarriage, but that translation interfers with pro-life position so it finds its way into the footnote.)

Exodus 22-23 have some interesting stuff about property rights and cultural laws. Here is a bit about mercy and warning against wrongful conviction. Here are verses 6-7:

Do not deny justice to your poor people in their lawsuits. Have nothing to do with a false charge and do not put an innocent or honest person to death, for I will not acquit the guilty.

Seems like the Hebrews, after much reflection on their relationship to God and their place in the world, came to a pretty similar conclusion as Americans on this topic. There are some things that merit the death penalty, but man you better be very careful in handing it out, and it better not matter what your social class is in making the determination.

I think there are probably people who deserve to die (whatever that means) but I think it is too hard to do it right in our huge anonymous society.

2 thoughts on “Death Penalty”

  1. I think I concur with you for the most part. I am most definitely pro-death penalty in principle. I have found the number of potential miscarriages of that justice to be troubling in the extreme, and I guess that makes me think we’re just not good enough at teasing the truth out of most cases to make it workable.

    Then again, I’m pretty dedicated to the idea of the death penalty for the extreme cases.

  2. The idea that X is good, but the necessary safeguards make it unusable is the sort of pragmatic analysis that you have to do for real life issues. It is not as satsifying as purely logical thinking because what the necessary safeguards are is such an emperical question.

    For example, I know a number of people who acknowlege the benefits of nuclear power, but suggest the tremendous effort needed to do it safely make it not viable. Respectable argument, but I don’t agree.

    I just happen to take the opposite position on the death penalty. I think while working for the Arizona Supreme Court and seeing first hand (1) the tremendous resources dedicated to reviewing the process and (2) the fact that none of that process actually re-examines the facts used to sentence the defendant pushed me to the not worth it camp.

    I bet if my nuclear experience was at Chernobyl, I would think the same thing about nuclear power.

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