Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Thoughts on Capital Punishment and American Justice in General

The subject comes up now and then with cases such as that of the D.C. region sniper John Mohamed, recently executed in the state of Virginia.

As a general rule I cannot support a death penalty in America at this point in time; too many ways it resembles giving the Ronnie Earles, Janet Renos, Scott Harshbargers, and Mike Nifongs of the world a license to kill people.

In theory at least I've got nothing against hanging somebody like Manson, Dennis Rader, Paul Bernardo, John Mohamed...

Nonetheless I'd want several changes to the system before I could feel good about capital punishment anymore.

1. Guilt should be beyond any doubt whatsoever; the usual criteria of guilt "beyond a reasonable doubt" clearly doesn't cut it for hanging somebody.

2. The person in question must represent a continuing threat to society should he ever escape or otherwise get loose. The "bird man" of Alcatraz would not qualify, John Mohamed clearly would.

3. I'd want all career/money incentives for convicting people of crimes gone which would mean scrapping the present "adversarial" system of justice in favor of something like the French "inquisitorial" system in which the common objective of all parties involved was a determination of facts.

4. I'd want there to be no societal benefit to keeping the person alive. Cases in which this criteria would prevent hanging somebody would include "Son of Sam" who we probably should want to study more than hang, or Timothy McVeigh who clearly knew more than the public ever was allowed to hear.

Given all of that I could feel very good about hanging Charles Manson, John Muhammed, or Paul Bernardo, but that's about what it would take.

In fact in a totally rational world the job of District Attorney as it is known in America would not exist. NOBODY should ever have any sort of a career or money incentive for sending people to prison, much less for executing people. The job of District Attorney in America seems to involve almost limitless power and very little resembling accountability and granted there is no shortage of good people who hold the job, the combination has to attract the wrong kinds of people as well.

They expected DNA testing to eliminate the prime suspect in felony cases in something like one or two percent of cases and many people were in states of shock when that number came back more like 33 or 35%. That translates into some fabulous number of people sitting around in prisons for stuff they don't know anything at all about since the prime suspect in a felony case usually goes to prison. Moreover, in a state like Texas which executes a hundred people a year or thereabouts, that has to translate into innocent people being executed on a fairly regular basis.

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