The recent focus on the case of Troy Davis has made me think about the death penalty and its place in the American justice system.  I won’t comment on whether or not I feel Davis is guilty, because I haven’t paid enough attention to his case to justify having an opinion.

Capital punishment is a controversial issue in the United States.  Fourteen states have abolished it (Alaska, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Dakota, Rhode Island, Vermont, West Virginia and Wisconsin), while other states (notably Texas) execute prisoners with some regularity.

Are there crimes worthy of capital punishment?

The first question I ask myself is whether there are crimes that are worthy of the death penalty.  I do feel that there are some crimes where the death penalty is an appropriate punishment.  I believe that capital punishment is an appropriate punishment for cases of premeditated murder in which the perpetrator acted in cold blood.

While there is a segment of the population that advocates the death penalty for some sexual crimes, specifically those against children, I do not agree.  While I am the father of two young children, I believe is necessary to consider what is just in these cases, rather than what I would prefer for the punishment.  I truly believe that at some point down the road, medical science will discover a treatment for sex offenders.  The high rate of recidivism among offenders make me believe that an underlying mental defect contributes to the behavior.  However, I do realize that this is a controversial opinion and don’t want to get sidetracked too much.  The article is about capital punishment, not sex offenders.

Should we use capital punishment?

So I agree that there are crime worthy of capital punishment.  Do I agree that we should actively use the death penalty?  No.

There are a number of arguments that are made against the death penalty.  Amnesty International and other organizations argue that capital punishment is cruel and unusual, and often are joined by world leaders such as the Pope and Jimmy Carter.  Others argue that the cost of the nearly inexhaustible appeals a death row inmate is allow are a huge burden upon the taxpayers, and that it would be cheaper to simply incarcerate the person for life.

Those aren’t my reasons.  I’m opposed to the death penalty because it’s irreversible.  Our entire criminal justice system is biased toward the accused person, in an effort to prevent wrongful convictions.  For example, the burden of proof in a criminal case is beyond a reasonable doubt, as opposed to the civil burden of proof, which is a preponderance of the evidence.

What I worry about is one wrongful execution.  If you imprison someone for life and discover that they were wrongfully convicted, you can set them free, pay a settlement, and let them begin the rebuild their life.  Things will never be the same as they were before their imprisonment, of course, but they’ll still be able to hear the birds sing and catch a game at the stadium.

If you execute someone and realize later that they were wrongly convicted, there’s not much you can do other than apologize and cut a check to their family.

Can’t happen, with all the safeguards in the system?  I disagree.  It would only take a few dirty cops working in concert to plant evidence and frame someone.  While I believe that the vast majority of cops are dedicated public servants, it’s no secret that a small number are corrupt.  But even if those involved in the investigation conduct themselves professionally, evidence can sometimes be misleading, especially when dealing with newer scientific methods which are still being refined.

It’s my belief that one wrongly executed person is one too many.  I’d rather have a hundred serial killers doing life in prison (instead of on death row) than one innocent person executed.  I don’t want that “one too many” to be me.