Killing people

Another execution in Virginia, to no apparent positive purpose.

Washington Post staff writer Maria Glod was an official witness to the execution of convicted murderer Teresa Lewis. Glod’s short account, published today, was properly understated and thus especially shattering. (I do wish Ms. Glod had included more information about Lewis’s awful crime. That, too, is part of the story.) I don’t know what Virginia hoped to accomplish. I won’t presume to judge the reactions of Ms. Lewis’s victims or their survivors. I hope it brought them some consolation.

My own and my colleagues’ research brings be into contact with some causes and consequences of urban crime. I’ve seen nothing to suggest that we accomplish much by brutalizing troubled, impulsive, or vicious people who commit atrocities. Killing these people does nothing to honor or memorialize their victims or to heal those left behind. In my view, it does the opposite, making the killers rather than their victim the center of public attention and, inevitably, prolonged and painful legal proceedings.

Capital punishment certainly doesn’t save money. Studies indicate that it costs an extra $2 million to execute a murderer, over and above the costs of imposing a lesser punishment. We could so many things with that same $2 million that would make us safer. Liberals might send 500 kids to Head Start for a year. Conservatives might send 30 violent offenders in jail for a year, or buy maybe 50 officer-years of police overtime in high-crime neighborhoods.

I do not categorically oppose capital punishment in all circumstances. To update Hannah Arendt, Tim McVeigh and Osama Bin Laden don’t care to share planet Earth with me. I feel the same about them. The existing research literature supporting capital punishment is, to be polite, limited and shaky. Yet there may be particular calculating and vicious crimes that warrant execution, I might execute hitmen who kill witnesses, for example, if there were good reason to believe that such a sanction would improve public safety. Such executions would require a different system from the appalling state systems that carry out the great majority of executions now occurring. Ms. Lewis is a woman, a grandmother–making this execution particularly discomfitting. Many other people are executed who did something horrible but do not deserve to die.

We should also ask discomfiting questions about our own mindset when we impose harsh punishment. The desire for vengeance comes with our humanity. You don’t have to be an evolutionary biologist to understand how this drive is sometimes necessary and healthy.—or how it can lead us astray or release powerful emotional toxins that can damage our lives. As I’ve written elsewhere, that was certainly my experience.

I don’t think we made ourselves much safer or saner by strapping Teresa Lewis onto a gurney and injecting the poisons that ended her life. There are better responses to depravity. We see enough sadness and violence these days.

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect, tnr.com, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

24 thoughts on “Killing people”

  1. It is impossible to have capital punishment for Timothy McVeigh or Osama bin Laden without also having it for innocent people.

  2. I wouldn't say that it's impossible, but the politics of it can be problematical. The federal death penalty is actually fairly limited and rarely used, which is more like what an ideal death penalty statute should be. I oppose the death penalty on practical grounds, but I wouldn't have too much problem with having just a Federal one limited to traitors, terrorists and mass murderers.

    Of course, once you allow for a Federal death penalty, then you open the door for states to have their own death penalties and that's where the big problems are. Better to have no death penalty at all then.

  3. No, Henry is right: If you're going to have the death penalty, you have to accept that there's SOME chance of applying it to innocent people. You can reduce that chance, at the expense of reducing the chance of not executing guilty people, but reducing it to zero can only be achieved by abolishing the death penalty entirely.

    At which point, of course, you're imprisoning people for life without parole, instead. ANY penalty you apply to the guilty is going to get applied on occasion to the innocent. So, it's an argument that proves too much.

    I think the chief problem, from a rhetorical standpoint anyway, of arguing against the death penalty on the basis that it's expensive, is that much of that expense is due to the efforts of opponents of the death penalty. That said, I'd be fine with life in prison, instead, if one could actually count on current opponents of the death penalty not immediately switching to fighting life in prison without parole.

  4. Brett, imprisoning an innocent person for life without parole is different in principle from executing an innocent person because you can free the former person and compensate him if his innocence is established.

    Also, is there something wrong with opponents of the death penalty fighting zealously to prevent its use and thereby increasing its expense?

    Finally, you don't quite take this position, but you seem to suggest that you would favor the death penalty (including, as you acknowledge, the risk of executing innocent people), to ensure that people who would have gotten the death penalty get no less than life without parole. So, it is worth person A's execution (even if he is innocent) to ensure that person B will not be eligible for parole after, say, 50 years. (Parole could be allowed in some cases only after 50 or even 60 years; do we really need to have people in their 80s and 90s dying in prison.)

  5. I've yet to hear an argument for retribution, or non-utilitarian justice that makes any sense. I think we ought to have reasons for the things we do. Especially when the stakes are so high.

  6. "Also, is there something wrong with opponents of the death penalty fighting zealously to prevent its use and thereby increasing its expense?"

    Not at all. I'm simply saying that you can't work zealously to make something expensive, and then cite the expense as an argument against it. Doesn't work, rhetorically, if people know you're the reason it's expensive. It's like claiming that people should use the stairs, because elevators cause shin pain, and then kicking them in the shin when they head for the elevator: They're not going to blame the pain on the elevator, are they?

    People know that executing people isn't inherently more expensive than life in prison. They know quite well who's responsible for the expense.

    That you can't release somebody subsequently proven to be innocent IS a strong point against the death penalty. That people you execute can't go on to kill somebody else is a strong argument in it's favor. Assuring the public that life without parole will REALLY be the alternative would go a long way towards reducing support for the death penalty.

  7. I have never found the cost argument to be informative. If the death penalty were free, would it be right? If it made money, would it be an imperative? Economics can tell us how much things cost, but it can't tell us what is right and what is wrong.

  8. It may not work rhetorically, but, regardless of the reason, the death penalty is more expensive, and, since its opponents are not going to fight less hard, it is going to remain more expensive. That is a legitimate argument against it.

    Assuring the public that life without parole will REALLY be the alternative might go a long way towards reducing support for the death penalty. But so might assuring the public that there will be no parole before 80, and assuring the public that people over 80 are extremely unlikely to commit murder (and if any seem to be potential exceptions, they can be denied parole). I am concerned about this because some people are teenagers when they are sentenced to life without parole, and some really do reform. An example is Wilbert Rideau of Louisiana, author of In Place of Justice: A Story of Punishment and Deliverance. He had done the killing, but received a fair trial only after 44 years of imprisonment and was then convicted of manslaughter instead of murder and sentenced to time served.

  9. Brett,

    I think the chief problem, from a rhetorical standpoint anyway, of arguing against the death penalty on the basis that it’s expensive, is that much of that expense is due to the efforts of opponents of the death penalty.

    But any seriously justice-oriented process that leads to the death penalty is going to be expensive. I take it you think that these efforts are intended specifically to drive up the costs, and not to ensure that proper procedures were followed, all evidence heard, etc. Argue that if you like, but there is another side to the coin. The no doubt economical procedures used at the trial level in some of our jurisdictions are a travesty, and create good reasons for lots of issues to be raised later on.

    I tend to agree with Harold's views on capital punishment, and I do not believe that laws that lead to, say, one execution every few years will necessarily lead to innocents being executed. It would help a lot, under those circumstances, as well as our present ones, if we took the initial trial seriously enough to guarantee the defendant an excellent defense, including paying experienced lawyers with time to work on the case, investigative resources, etc. I suspect that those sorts of requirements alone would do a lot to reduce the number of capital cases tried.

  10. "But any seriously justice-oriented process that leads to the death penalty is going to be expensive."

    And this isn't true of seriously justice-oriented processes leading to life in prison without parole? And, yes, when you file appeals on behalf of convicts who want to die you're just deliberately running up the bill.

    "It would help a lot, under those circumstances, as well as our present ones, if we took the initial trial seriously enough to guarantee the defendant an excellent defense"

    Now, THERE I agree. There are a lot of things I dislike about our 'justice' system, that have absolutely nothing to do with the penalties it levies after it'd decided you're guilty. Hell, after they fail to convict you, they don't exactly lift a finger to make the innocent man whole again, do they? Which means that prosecutors have the power to ruin the innocent even when they CAN'T convict, a power I'm sure they must use sometimes. But does anybody seem to worry about the innocents who walk out of court adjudicated innocent, and financially ruined?

  11. "I have never found the cost argument to be informative. If the death penalty were free, would it be right? If it made money, would it be an imperative? Economics can tell us how much things cost, but it can’t tell us what is right and what is wrong."

    I think that's exactly right. I think we end up arguing these secondary points because the first points are fought to a standstill. There's plenty of ground to be made on that front, however. There are fallacies involved in arguments for the death penalty whose dismantling would pay dividends in many other areas of criminal and social justice.

  12. Presumably much of the cost of imposing the death penalty is caused not to satisfy, or to combat, opponents of the death penalty but to satisfy its more conscientious supporters that it is being properly applied.

    Canada has no death penalty. It has instead a life sentence, which means in practice that the person convicted is eligible to apply for parole after 25 years. This does not mean that the person GETS paroled in 25 years. There are definitely some people now in jail for murder who will never get out.

    There is no serious political agitation for a return of the death penalty, abolished in the 1970s and not applied since the early 1960s. That does not necessarily mean that a referendum on bringing it back would fail, but the political class, even the 'tough on crime' ones (who are not much interested in criminological evidence), seem convinced that the death penalty is a bad idea. Canada has had some high-profile wrongful convictions in the past 20 years that keep the risk of execution in the public eye.

  13. If you'd execute hitmen who kill witnesses in order to improve public safety, why not torture hitmen who kill witnesses if that too would improve public safety?

    I don't see how you draw the line.

  14. "That does not necessarily mean that a referendum on bringing it back would fail, but the political class, even the ‘tough on crime’ ones (who are not much interested in criminological evidence), seem convinced that the death penalty is a bad idea."

    So, essentially what you're saying is that the absence of a death penalty in Canada isn't due to public opinion on the matter, but rather due to elite opinion over-riding public opinion? Yeah, that seems to be the case in most nations which lack the death penalty, from what I've heard. An awful lot of what liberals like about European social democracies does seem to rely on them actually being less democratic than the US…

    My own view on the matter is that taking away the days of somebody's life by imprisoning them is just the death penalty implemented in tiny increments. It's really too bad we don't have a reliable, effective means of rehabilitation. OTOH, since such would really just be an effective means of brainwashing, maybe it's just as well technology isn't up to that task.

    The incapacitation aspect is reasonable justification for life in prison, or at least life up to decrepitude, for people who have already demonstrated that they lack sufficient impulse control to refrain from inflicting grievous harm on others. But I think the deprivation of liberty is sufficient retribution, so I see no good reason the conditions of that imprisonment should be quite so horrifying. Let them have kindles, read only internet, minor hobbies. And a little black pill behind glass, in case they ever decide that they'd rather not hang around any longer.

  15. "Killing these people does nothing to honor or memorialize their victims or to heal those left behind. "

    How is it that you can speak with such authority for all the families of murder victims?

    Also, what do you have to say to the families of prisoners and prison guards murdered by people who'd otherwise be executed?

  16. And, yes, when you file appeals on behalf of convicts who want to die you’re just deliberately running up the bill.

    How amusing for Mr. The Government = The Mafia to not only be unable to distinguish between "how fervently a convicted person wishes his sentence to be carried out" and "how thoroughly and in accordance with all proper Constitutional procedures the government has proved its case"; but to believe that a proper function of government is to provide assisted suicide to the criminally mentally ill.

  17. In any case, I oppose the death penalty on moral, procedural and political grounds; but if public defenders' offices were funded and staffed at anywhere near the levels that prosecutors' and district attorneys' offices are — which they should be, since there's a Constitutional right at issue here — we'd probably see a lot fewer innocent people at all levels of punishment being convicted in the first place.

  18. Anderson says:

    why not torture hitmen who kill witnesses

    Because torture is a crime, and there is no such thing as lawful torture?

    But the law can be changed to allow torture.

    The point I was clumsily attempting to make was that killing, maiming and torture should all be taboo, on the theory that if we allow utilitarian considerations (short of existential) to determine where we draw the line, then there's no limit to how much violence we'll be able to justify. Killing an incapacitated prisoner already violates that taboo.

  19. So your morality is entirely situational? You're opposed to capital punsihment in all cases except for those cases where you are in favor of capital punishment.

  20. Murphy, I am against capital punishment in all situations, but there is nothing in principle wrong with wanting a moral rule to apply in some situations but not in others. Although it is generally not moral to lie, it would be moral to lie, pace Kant and Christine O'Donnell, if, in Nazi Germany, a government official asked you where a Jew was hiding.

  21. Mark

    Tim McVeigh is a very bad example.

    The prosecution decided to prosecute McVeigh with a goal of capital punishment. They therefore suppressed evidence of a conspiracy by other members of Aryan Nation and of a conspirator on the day. Their concern was that the jury would find evidence that McVeigh was not solely responsible.

    The truth never came out. The former lawyer who pursued this matter has died of cancer. Mother Jones had quite a good piece on all this.

    Maybe McVeigh deserved to die but his execution robbed the victims of the Oklahoma City bombing of the chance for a real accounting of the guilty. It also leaves open the nagging question of whether the whole thing was an FBI sting gone wrong: they fed Aryan Nation with some of the tools for the atrocity, hoping to catch Aryan Nation in the act. And in which McVeigh and his confederates did an end run around them. That's more tendentious, it is a genuine conspiracy theory. But such things have happened in law enforcement.

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