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 Post subject: Capital punishment
PostPosted: Thu May 10, 2007 11:29 pm 
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It's obvious that we need a dedicated thread on this issue. :) I know that we discussed some of the constitutional issues involved last summer, but that thread has since moved in a different direction, and the Mormon thread is threatening rapidly to become a death penalty thread.

So, consider this thread open for discussion of the merits, or lack thereof, of legalized capital punishment.

(I'm opening this thread because I have a vignette that I want to discuss from last year that is related to this issue (I just saw the journal entry that I wrote on it), but I'm not going to put it in the first post because I don't want it to limit the issues that can be discussed in this thread.)

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When, when the fire's at my feet again
And the vultures all start circling
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PostPosted: Thu May 10, 2007 11:32 pm 
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I wrote this journal entry late in my third year of law school, as I was taking a course on capital punishment that caused me to grapple daily with these issues. A few of you have already seen it, but I suddenly feel moved to discuss it again. I just reread it and felt as profoundly disturbed by the story the day that I first heard it.

Quote:
A couple of weeks ago, I took the T into Boston to listen to a former death row inmate speak at Suffolk University Law School. This former inmate was particularly interesting because he was not an innocent man exonerated by DNA evidence. He was guilty of murder, but became so completely rehabilitated in prison and so sincerely tried to make amends with his victim's family that it was the victim's family who pleaded with the Georgia PTB first for a commutation of his death sentence, and subsequently for his full release. Fifteen years later, he still travels the country speaking to students, activists, and laypeople about the criminal justice system and life on death row.

In any case, it is not his story that troubles me; I am perfectly fine with his post-rehabilitation release from prison (although I won't go so far as to say that the alternative outcome would have been morally wrong.)

(Note: use of the term "mentally retarded" is not intended to be me taking a stance in the PC/anti-PC war over that term. "Mentally retarded" is the term used in the legal academic literature and by the courts, so I am using it for that reason.)

Alongside him on Georgia's death row was a mentally retarded inmate, also undeniably guilty of murder. (I will call him MRI, because his name did not stick with me.) MRI had always struggled in school. He was, in his own words, "the slow kid" whom the teachers and students ridiculed. He had never even learned how to read, and did not complete middle school. On death row, he yearned desperately to make up for his past academic failures. Enter the speaker (whose name I have also forgotten, so I will call him S.) S worked with MRI for 2-3 years, painstakingly teaching him how to read, write, do basic arithmetic, and otherwise develop basic reasoning skills. S gave MRI a sense of confidence about his academic abilities for the first time in his life.

Now, at the same time, MRI's pro bono attorney had been in the courts and in front of the Georgia PTB arguing that MRI should not be executed by virtue of his mental retardation, which had been documented prior to the age of eighteen. (This was before the SCOTUS ruling that it was unconstitutional to execute the mentally retarded.) Nonetheless, the attorney managed to sway the PTB somewhat, and the state of Georgia agreed that it would not execute MRI, if he took and failed an IQ test. (The mental retardation threshold is at IQ=70. If his IQ was at or below a 70, the state would then not execute him.)

Now, MRI was informed that he would be taking what was described to him as an "intelligence test". And for the first time in his life, he was not dreading it. With all the excitement of a newly literate person, he announced to S that his attorney had told him great news. The state was going to give him a chance to prove his intelligence! (Somehow, I doubt his attorney, who seems to have been quite competent, put it to him quite like that.) Now, S and the other death row inmates were able to figure out what was going on, and they urged MRI that this was the one test in his life that he needed to fail, no matter what. They tried to explain to him that failure meant life; success meant death.

But MRI would have none of it. He told his fellow inmates, "You don't understand what it's like to have failed at everything you tried in school. You don't understand what it's like to always be the stupid kid, always be the hopeless case. Now, I finally know enough to have a chance at passing this intelligence test, and I'm going to give it my very best shot." No matter how much the others tried to explain the consequences of passing this "intelligence test", MRI was simply not able to comprehend its ramifications.

MRI did, in fact, give the "intelligence test" his best shot.

He did pass it. With an IQ of 71. He was gleeful at his "success", if by only one point, still not understanding that his success had signed his death warrant.

...and the state of Georgia executed him.

I cannot in good conscience celebrate the state-sanctioned execution of a man so mentally infirm that he could not comprehend the concept, repeatedly explained to him, that he had to fail an IQ test to be moved off death row. Equally troubling to me is a more mentally competent person would understand enough to lie on such a test and fake their way off death row, if given the opportunity.

But what truly makes me wonder is ... what if someone had gotten through earlier to this man, who felt so much pure, childlike joy at being given the ability to READ for the first time in his life? What if he had internalized that he was a human being with worth and potential, not an "incompetent idiot" who only merited derision? Would he have been a contributing member of society? Would he have been gainfully employed? Would he have friends and family who cared about him? For the state of Georgia to strap him to a wooden chair and send thousands of volts of electricity through his body was for them to pronounce their judgment: they could find nothing inside that shell, that body of his, worth saving. I wonder if they would have reached a different conclusion if just one person...one teacher or mentor or friend or parent had cared enough to channel that joy of learning before he could make it to death row. When there was still something more to say other than those ominous words, "May God have mercy on your soul."


Last edited by nerdanel on Fri Jul 01, 2011 6:35 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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PostPosted: Thu May 10, 2007 11:52 pm 
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Good lord, that story is awful. :( :( :(



Just stating my stance: I abhor capital punishment. I'll make concesions in the case of (as V-man put it) "mass murder, extreme acts of terrorism, other horrendous crimes in which there is no doubt at all of guilt", but otherwise, I am very heavily opposed to it.

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PostPosted: Fri May 11, 2007 12:05 am 
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I'm opposed to it in the absence of a perfect legal system.


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PostPosted: Fri May 11, 2007 12:07 am 
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Thanks for sharing that, nel. It is really powerful. And it really well illustrates why I am opposed to the death penalty. Of course there is the issue the issue of the ever-present possibility of executing an innocent person, which has gotten so much attention of late. But to me the more tricky questions are how do you decide who really should be executed, and who should make that decision. As I said in the other thread, there are clearly some situation where it seems fairly obvious to be justify - those who's guilt of committing mass murder or other horrific crimes is completely beyond doubt. But in practice, once you actually start making decisions about who should die and who should not, the line drawn is an arbitrary one, and I don't believe there is any satisfactory way of deciding where it should be drawn.

You've raised just two of the thorny issues. The question of to what extent redemption and rehabilitation should justify commuting a death sentence came up in the other thread. But again, who decides, and how? That was the issue with Tookie Williams here in California, last year. In my opinion, a compelling case was certainly made that he was sufficiently redeemed to justify commuting his sentence. Governor Schwarzenegger clearly disagreed. Should he really have the power to make that decision? And what about the question of mental competency? Even with the Supreme Court's decision outlawing executions of mentally retarded defendants, the individual you described could still be executed, since he "passed" the test. How can that be justified as fair? How can you set an arbitrary dividing line between "70" and "71"? Or "71" and "72"?

To say that capital punishment is justified in some circumstances makes sense to me in theory. But it collapses like a house of cards when put into practice.

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PostPosted: Fri May 11, 2007 12:19 am 
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Quote:
(This was before the SCOTUS ruling that it was unconstitutional to execute the mentally retarded.)


I found that really surprising. What was their argument? The idea that it's okay to kill one group and not okay to kill another group is pretty disturbing, no?

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PostPosted: Fri May 11, 2007 12:29 am 
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I have a couple of counter-intuitive positions on the death penalty.

The execution of the mentally retarded, for example. Personally, I think that it is more appropriate to execute someone who doesn’t have the mental capacity to know that their actions were wrong – they cannot be rehabilitated and will remain forever a danger to society.

The idea that rehabilitated criminals should have their sentences reduced to life imprisonment is another. If they are rehabilitated, why keep them in prison? Why not release them? If it’s to punish them for their actions, why commute the sentence at all? They commited crimes for which the punishment is death. And why not let other rehabilitated criminals out of prison? And if rehabilitation is the goal, why have prison sentences at all? Locking them up with other criminals probably isn’t the best way to make people less criminal.


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PostPosted: Fri May 11, 2007 2:43 am 
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And if rehabilitation is the goal, why have prison sentences at all? Locking them up with other criminals probably isn’t the best way to make people less criminal.


I don't think rehabilitation is the goal. The first goal is to remove this person from a free environment where he could do more harm. The second goal is to set an example to others who could be thinking of doing such harm. The third, maybe, is rehabilitation. Maybe, I don't know.

Coming back to the death penalty - what ner described is exactly the reason why I am opposed to it. Once you say - you can take the life of a person legally - its messy, tricky and horrible.

Why do we take lives of people who take lives to prove that taking lives is wrong?

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PostPosted: Fri May 11, 2007 3:11 am 
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I have started to come at the issue from not a legal angle, but that of a literary critic. Capital punishment has been, historically, state-sanctioned Ritual Drama of the most effective sort, for the broadest of audiences. Not only that, it's art with a message: We Are In Charge. Break the Rules and We can do This to You.

Since we as a society became too squeamish to allow public executions, they have become private, secret, hidden affairs, in which the violence necessary to kill a person takes place only for a select few, with a glass window and curtains--it's a peep show, in other words, state-sanctioned snuff, instead of Drama.

If we, as a society, are not willing to kill people publicly, it makes us supporters of pornography of the most sordid kind.


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PostPosted: Fri May 11, 2007 4:09 am 
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Mahima wrote:
Quote:
And if rehabilitation is the goal, why have prison sentences at all? Locking them up with other criminals probably isn’t the best way to make people less criminal.


I don't think rehabilitation is the goal. The first goal is to remove this person from a free environment where he could do more harm. The second goal is to set an example to others who could be thinking of doing such harm. The third, maybe, is rehabilitation. Maybe, I don't know.

Coming back to the death penalty - what ner described is exactly the reason why I am opposed to it. Once you say - you can take the life of a person legally - its messy, tricky and horrible.

Why do we take lives of people who take lives to prove that taking lives is wrong?


I am pretty sure the ultimate goal is punishment for crimes committed.
No I am not in favor of the death penalty, but there sure are some instances that I feel it is warranted. I can't define what those instances are, but I know them when I see them.

I don't trust many people enough to hold an office, let alone be the arbiter of life and death.

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PostPosted: Fri May 11, 2007 8:15 am 
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Mahima wrote:
Why do we take lives of people who take lives to prove that taking lives is wrong?


Do we? Or, why do we fine people to prove that stealing is wrong? Why do we lock them up to prove that deprivation of liberty is wrong?


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PostPosted: Fri May 11, 2007 1:36 pm 
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Holby wrote:
I am pretty sure the ultimate goal is punishment for crimes committed.


Yes, you're right about that.

Lord_Morningstar wrote:
Mahima wrote:
Why do we take lives of people who take lives to prove that taking lives is wrong?


Do we? Or, why do we fine people to prove that stealing is wrong? Why do we lock them up to prove that deprivation of liberty is wrong?


Yes, we do. Fining is different from stealing - or is it? Is it just a legal word for taking someone else's money?

I never thought of this, thanks Lord_M. I guess our entire legal system is based on "an eye for a eye".

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PostPosted: Fri May 11, 2007 2:40 pm 
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Eye for an eye is a specific case of the more general threat of deprivation. The state, as punishment, can deprive you of your property, your freedom, your civil rights, or your life. In ages past, it could also deprive your family of property (via bills of attainder).

There is no inherent linkage in Western societies between the nature of the crime and the nature of the punishment. Crimes against property can be punished by jail time. Crimes of violence can be punished by fines.


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PostPosted: Fri May 11, 2007 4:21 pm 
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I have no special sympathy for murderers who are executed but I don't think that is the point. A society that is prepared to deal out death to its citizens is a more brutal society than one that is not. Consider the list of nations that have the death penalty and those that do not. Which list do you wish to keep company with?
Who could have predicted in the 1950's that America would bring back executions and Russia forswear them?
Besides, the thought of the state executing an innocent person is a nightmare if one puts oneself in the victim's shoes. Don't ever kid yourself it is rare or excuse it by saying they had a fair chance in court to defend themselves.


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PostPosted: Wed May 16, 2007 2:38 pm 
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I am oposed to death penalty by principle and would refuse to live in a country where it is legal.

I am an active letter writer for AI in death penalty cases.

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PostPosted: Wed May 16, 2007 5:28 pm 
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yovargas wrote:
Good lord, that story is awful. :( :( :(


And totally unsubstantiated.


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PostPosted: Wed May 16, 2007 5:49 pm 
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A good point, artie - although there is often no way to substantiate many stories from a system which state governments often want partially (or fully) obscured. The only people "on the outside" who can speak freely are (1) people who have been released from death row and prison altogether (the rarest of types - either innocent people or those who have managed to receive full clemency in generally conservative states) and (2) abolitionists who have a (usually political) interest in humanizing those on death row. Of course one must receive stories from both sets of people understanding that they may be slanted -- but unless we have full transparency on death row, those are really some of the only stories we have.

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I won't just survive
Oh, you will see me thrive
Can't write my story
I'm beyond the archetype
I won't just conform
No matter how you shake my core
'Cause my roots, they run deep, oh

When, when the fire's at my feet again
And the vultures all start circling
They're whispering, "You're out of time,"
But still I rise
This is no mistake, no accident
When you think the final nail is in, think again
Don't be surprised, I will still rise


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PostPosted: Wed May 16, 2007 6:06 pm 
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Quote:
abolitionists who have a (usually political) interest in humanizing those on death row.


You mean they are not human?

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PostPosted: Wed May 16, 2007 6:11 pm 
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"Humanizing" - at least in the States - is a verb used to refer to the process of bringing a person's human (i.e. "good" or "redeeming") qualities to light.

For instance, I have heard the sentence, "A prisoner appearing for sentencing should have his family, friends, and others who know his good qualities appear as character witnesses during sentencing in order to humanize him for the judge." Of course that doesn't mean that a prisoner is not a human.

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I won't just survive
Oh, you will see me thrive
Can't write my story
I'm beyond the archetype
I won't just conform
No matter how you shake my core
'Cause my roots, they run deep, oh

When, when the fire's at my feet again
And the vultures all start circling
They're whispering, "You're out of time,"
But still I rise
This is no mistake, no accident
When you think the final nail is in, think again
Don't be surprised, I will still rise


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PostPosted: Wed May 16, 2007 6:18 pm 
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nerdanel wrote:
A good point, artie - although there is often no way to substantiate many stories from a system which state governments often want partially (or fully) obscured. The only people "on the outside" who can speak freely are (1) people who have been released from death row and prison altogether (the rarest of types - either innocent people or those who have managed to receive full clemency in generally conservative states) and (2) abolitionists who have a (usually political) interest in humanizing those on death row. Of course one must receive stories from both sets of people understanding that they may be slanted -- but unless we have full transparency on death row, those are really some of the only stories we have.


This story is heresay. There is not even the name of the storyteller. There is not even a clue? What is the name of the person that you heard this story from?


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