Pick Wayne's Brain

April 25, 2008

The Supremes Blow It Again

Filed under: Commentary — Tags: , , , — Wayne A. Schneider @ 1:02 AM

The Supreme Court recently ruled that execution by lethal injection does not constitute “cruel and unusual punishment”. (Side note, would it not have been “unusual” the first time it was done and, to the uninitiated, a tad “cruel”, too?). Oddly enough, while they felt that Kentucky’s Strap-Right-Up-Get-Yer-Three-Shot-Monte Lethal Injection system of capital punishment was constitutional, “a majority could not agree on the proper standard with which to judge execution practices.” But whatever that standard was, they felt Kentucky had met it.

Before continuing, I’ll cut to the chase and state up front that I oppose the use of capital punishment for reasons on which I shall elaborate later. And, yes, I do agree that the Constitution’s specific mention of terms such as “capital offense” clearly and undeniably proves (yes, “proves”) that the Framers found no problem with the use of capital punishment per se. So, no, it is not, in and of itself, unconstitutional. I shall stipulate all of that up front, so there is no need to rehash any of it. Capital punishment is, in and of itself, constitutional. (There, I said it and I’m mad.)

What I feel is unconstitutional is the way in which the sentence has been administered, and upon whom, throughout our justice system. Let’s face facts, white people out there (and you know who you are), if a black man and a white man are convicted of the same capital offense, the black man is statistically far more likely to get the death penalty than the white man, even if all the circumstances and justifications for it are the same in both cases. You know it because it is a fact. In what way, then, is this administration of capital punishment “equal treatment under the law”?

For those who don’t know, when lethal injection is used to terminate someone’s life as punishment for committing a crime, they give the condemned an injection to erase any pain he may feel from what is about to happen (which I’ll skip). Trust me when I say that you would not want to feel what’s about to happen. The thing is, it sometimes doesn’t deaden the pain and/or senses enough, or even at all in some cases, and the condemned not only knows what’s going on, he feels it. Every excruciating moment of it. It turns out that rather than being a humane way to execute someone, it becomes a horror for anyone who experiences it, and probably even witnesses it.

I’m truly sorry to have gone all through that, even omitting what I did, but it all begs the question: What if it happens a lot, even though it isn’t supposed to at all? How many prisoners have to be executed in such a horrible way before the Supremes will decide that maybe it is just a little too cruel? And it’s not like they can predict when this will happen, so it all becomes a game of chance and a case of having to take the executioner’s word that he didn’t mean to screw it up so badly. Sure, and we’re supposed to believe that every single time? Suppose the guy who has to carry out the execution has a particular hatred for the kind of people who committed the crime for which this condemned person was convicted? (I say it that way because, believe it or not, sometimes the guy is innocent. Please visit and learn more about The Innocence Project.) What if decides that he’ll “accidentally” botch this one? If he plays it cool and can keep his mouth shut, he could get away with it, and people will just say that this was one of those regretable times that the execution went badly. But it won’t stop them from doing it again, will it? Unlikely. From the article, “Just hours after yesterday’s decision was announced, Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) lifted the hold he had placed on capital punishment.”

And why do we continue to execute people for committing crimes in this country? It’s not like the fact that we keep doing it is stopping more people from committing those same kinds of crimes. Capital offenses continue to be committed. The purpose of there being laws prohibiting things is to deter people from doing them. Some are more serious than others, of course, and require stronger deterrents. If you knew that, at most, it would cost you a $100 fine to punch someone in the face, and no risk of jail time ever for doing so, don’t you think you might start saving up your money for some “payback nights”? So clearly you want the punishment for punching people in the face to be more severe, if not the first time, then for repeat offenses. Even multiplying the previous fines by ten. That would put a stop to that nonsense. But when monetary fines alone will not deter someone, you have to start talking serious stuff. Incarceration? Not yet. First we might decide to make them spend some time doing something useful and good for the community, like picking up trash along the highway for a few weekends, talking to high school seniors about why it’s stupid to do whatever you did because it not only cost you a lot of money but you had to go around doing what you’re doing which is telling kids to not be like you, or driving some elderly folks across state lines to a casino. Okay, they probably wouldn’t let them do that last one, but you get the idea. If that doesn’t work, a trip to the Big House is in order, right?

Maybe not the real big one, but a prison none-the-less. Okay, I could go on-and-on with this, as if I were getting paid by the word, which I am not. I’m not getting paid by the word, am I? I am? Wow. That’s great. Paid by the word, eh? Wow. Wow. Never thought I’d land a sweet, sweet, any number of “sweets” I feel like here, deal like that. No sir ree. Does “ree” count as a word? It does? Sweet. Wow. Okay, I’m pretty sure I’m digressing here. My apologies. Eventually you get to the level of crime that is so heinous and reprehensible that people actually consider putting the person to death. That’s got to be pretty serious. But I ask you, what does it ultimately prove? That we, as a society, are better than those blood-thirsty murderers out there? I don’t understand how it does that. Someone will have to explain that one to me.

I would say that, hands down, the single biggest argument I hear from people who enjoy having the death penalty used (yes, that’s an odd way to characterize them, but it is totally accurate) fo these horrendous crimes (the level of horror varying from jurisdiction-to-jurisdiction) is that they don’t want their tax money to be spent keeping this guy behind bars for the rest of his life. Well, guess what? You people are fools!

Virtually every convicted person sentenced to death is entitled to an automatic appeals process that, in the end, usually costs the taxpayers about $2,000,000 (maybe more since I last heard that figure.) Yet they say it costs about $50,000 per year to house a prisoner (figures from the same year). Well, that two million bucks would pay for forty years behind bars, and most prisoners do not survive forty years behind bars. So, if you sentence him to death, it will cost you more money!

You see, the guy gets his two million dollars worth of appeals just because he’s been sentenced to death. Let’s say the appeals process is relatively fast (for a capital case), and it takes another five years to get resolved one way or the other. (Yes, it usually takes longer, but that just strengthens my point.) Not only are the taxpayers already out two million bucks, they’re also out the quarter million more spent keeping him locked up for those five years. If he loses and is executed right away, it will have cost the taxpeyers $450,000 per year to house that one inmate. If he manages to get his sentence commuted and lives another twenty years in jail (being generous), it will have cost the taxpayers a total of $3,250,000 to house him for 25 years. An average of $130,000 per year. Still pretty pricey for something you could get much cheaper. And if he hits the jackpot and wins his freedom (rare), the taxpayers are out more than two million bucks, and, quite possibly in this one case, the guy who really did it is out running around free. And if they finally catch his ass, the taxpayers will be out another two million-plus bucks once he’s convicted and sentenced to death. Sorry, but if it’s money you’re concerned about, the last thing you want to do is sentence someone to death.

Remember, these are automatic appeals we’re talking about. These are appeals that the convicted might not necessarily be entitled to if he weren’t given a death sentence. He might not get all those appeals if he were sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole. And he would still probably not live forty years in jail, and the taxpayers will have paid less money, and gotten what they truly needed (forget what they wanted – bloody revenge): a dangerous person removed from society and locked away where he can’t hurt decent people any more.

Some people favor the death penalty because they feel that if you take someone’s life, then yours should be taken in return. Okay, but what about the guy who has to take the life of the guy who took someone else’s life? Does he have to die then, too? Why not? Are there times when it’s okay to take someone’s life? Turns out there is, but this isn’t one of them.

It is acceptable to use deadly force to protect your life or the lives of those for whose safety you are reponsible, or to protect all of you from serious physical harm. Beyond that, you are reaching for excuses to kill people. Once the person trying to kill or harm you (or your protectees) is no longer a danger to you, the right to use deadly fiorce ceases. You can’t kill someone for screaming at you, because screaming at you won’t put your life in mortal danger. You can’t kill someone who is down on the ground, badly wounded, and not in danger of going anywhere or hurting anyone, no matter what he did to you two seconds before. You have no reason to. Why should it be okay? If your first attempt at deadly force was unsuccessful in that it did not kill him, that does not justify a secnd attempt to “finish the job”. The level of violence you are permitted to commit in defense of yourself or your protectees is that which is sufficient to remove the active threat. Once the threat of danger is gone, the justification for using deadly force evaporates.

So, once you have the criminal safely locked away, how is he a continued threat to anyone? Prisons have standards and rules and procedures to ensure that the risk to the people guarding the prisoners is minimized. Minimized, but not eliminated. Though I have no statistics to back this belief up, my guess is that the vast majority os incidents where dangerous criminals somehow broke loose and caused further mayhem happened because someone did not properly follow procedures. This always seems evident once the “post-incident review” is completed. So, I think we can agree that an incarcerated prisoner is not expected to be hurting anyone. Why, then, would it still be necessary to use deadly force against this guy? He’s locked up, most likely chained up, watched day and night, his movements are controlled, so how is a danger to anyone? He’s not any more, is it? If he ever gets out, that’s a different story, but we’re not talking about anyone who gets out or “might get out, we’re talking about an incarcerated person, waiting on Death Row. How is he doing anything that warrants taking his life any more?

Then there’s the religious aspect of it. I should point out to those who don’t know me that I am atheist. I do not believe that God exists. That’s a subject for another time. Suffice to say that I realize the vast majority of you do. And, statistically, most of you practice some form of Judeo-Christian worship. That’s nice. While I profess no expertise on the subject, I thought that God wants everyone to be nice to one another. I thought that The Golden Rule, the one Rule which should be applied above all others was, in one form or another, “Treat Other People The Way You Would Want Them To Treat You.” And an absolutely fine moral code it is. It happens to be the one I use, too. I hope it doesn’t surprise you that an atheist could live by The Golden Rule just like a Christian. The main difference is, I don’t live a life in fear of going to Hell for any length of time. But I do have a conscience, and it does bother me when I do bad things. And I feel bad when I treat people in ways I wouldn’t want to be treated. So I try my best not to do it. I hate losing sleep, but I hate the awful feeling of guilt I have even more. So I try to be nice to people. But I’m not perfect. I certainly don’t go arpund killing people, because I would not want someone to come around killing me. You can apply this analogy to most of the terrible things one could do to another.

But isn’t God the only one who is supposed to decide who lives and who dies? Are we supposed to believe that judges and juries are divinely inspired to render sentences and the verdicts they do? I sure hope not, because that sounds dangerously close to violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. (More than ten thousand weeks on the Best Seller List.) What right can we as mere mortals claim to play God and decide that another human’s life should be ended? And, it has to be asked, which God are we trying to please here? Sorry, but trying to apply some kind of religious justification for using capital punishment ends up running into constitutional issues, if religious reasons are why capital punishment is being applied. So that can’t work.

At this point, we are left with nothing but Revenge. Some think of it as Justice, some call it Retribution, some call it Just Desserts. To me, at this point you just want the satisfaction of seeing another human being die. I mean, the guy is safely secure and can’t do it again. You can’t say he’s dangerous when you’re going to be wheeling him, strapped down nice and tightly. Immobile. At this point, it is you who are killing a defenseless person. To wish this to continue at this point cannot be explained as anything but Revenge. And Revenge is not Justice. Justice is impartial. Justice is blind. Justice is sober and unemotional. Justice is Fair.

Someone supposedly said (in another language), “What you do to the least of you, you do to me.” There is no moral justification for ending the life of someone is who is not trying to hurt anyone any more. When you consider that Justice may be all those things but it is sometimes imperfect, then how can you correct the horrible mistake of executing the wrong person for a crime? What kind of message does this send to everyone else? Don’t kill someone, or we’ll kill someone else? I don’t think that has much deterrent value, now does it? I mean, other than deterring me from wanting to live in such a country. And how would you feel if you were the one about to be wrongly executed? Would you still believe in America at that point? Could you still believe that you, for the next short while at least, live in “the greatest nation on Earth” if you were about to be put to death for something you did not do? And would you have any right to condemn another nation for the fact or manner in which it executes people? I hardly think so.

The use of capital punishment must end if we are to continue to grow as a species. There is no future for us if we continue to justify putting each other to death. “Treat Other People The Way You Would Want Them To Treat You.” Capital punishment violates The Golden Rule.
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4 Comments

  1. Executing just one innocent person is one too many.

    You state how would you feel if you were the innocent, I would like to add, how would feel it the innocent was someone that you loved.

    I find it really odd that someone would actually want to witness an execution. To me, that person is just as immoral as the guilty person being executed. How can someone feel better watching another person die? That’s something that serial killers enjoy.

    I’m with you on this one. Capital punishment is nothing more or less then revenge. It’s old testament crap and no real Christian would support the death penalty. The new testament teaches a different philosophy.

    Comment by Cats r Flyfishn — April 25, 2008 @ 8:16 AM

  2. Outstanding post Wayne..I am going to send it to my friend in NH either by copy and snail mail or by sending her your link….Thank you so much for your work here…Blessings

    Comment by witch1 — April 25, 2008 @ 10:53 AM

  3. Absolutely fantastic, Wayne. You nailed every argument.

    Capital punishment is wrong. Period.

    Comment by Zooey — April 25, 2008 @ 1:44 PM

  4. Thank you all. Cats, in fairness, I think the idea of having witnesses to an execution is so that someone other than the government can attest to the fact that someone (at least) was, in fact, executed. Otherwise, they could just say that they killed him and actually whisk him off to a secret prison somewhere to be exploited somehow.

    Comment by Wayne A. Schneider — April 25, 2008 @ 11:19 PM


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