As a generally pro-America Briton, it does trouble me that thirty-eight of the US’s fifty states allow the death penalty in some form.
Although many states haven’t enforced it for decades, some have: Texas has seen 337 executions since 1976, and over 450 inmates are currently on death row.
For me, the rational argument was won by the anti-capital punishment lobby some time ago, which is why very few western countries are yet to abolish it.
In a recent debate over this hoariest of old chestnuts with the prolific right-wing blogger Orrin Judd of the renowned BrothersJudd, I actually managed to get in the last word and, it would seem, silence him within three or four posts – which, as regular OJ sparring partners will know, is no regular event. Now there is probably some much more rational explanation for Orrin’s silence, but I don’t care, so I’m just going to go ahead and assume that I gained a rare victory.
The killer argument
As all former sixth-form debaters will know, there are many worthy arguments against the death penalty of varying degrees of validity – the outdated barbarity, the inequality of its application according to how good a lawyer you can afford, its ineffectiveness as a deterrent, etc.
There are even some significant arguments in its favour: a murderer has forfeited his right to life, the worst crimes must have the strongest punishments etc.
However, all of these pale into insignificance when we consider the best argument against capital punishment: that is, the fallibility of the justice system.
Miscarriages of justice don’t just happen on very rare occasions. They happen frequently, and sometimes they happen deliberately.
Timothy Evans, Stephen Downing, Randall Adams, the Birmingham Six, the Guildford Four and Krishna Maharaj are merely some of the most famous cases in Britain and America. Goodness knows how many innocents were wrongly thrown off this mortal coil in Britain prior to 1964, and how many still are in the US, China and the Middle East.
In the States, 7% of those whose capital convictions were overturned between 1973 and 1995 were found innocent on re-trial.
In fact, the numbers are irrelevant. Once you know that your justice system has put even one innocent person to death, you simply cannot justifiably take the risk again, if you want to have a shred of decency.
Why a killer argument?
I have described the fallibility of the justice system argument as a ‘killer’ because there is no response to it which is both valid and sane.
The counter-arguments with which I was presented on BrosJudd were as follows:
1) It doesn’t matter if we put some innocent people to death, because the overall good is greater, in that by the weight of probability we reduce the number of violent felons in our midst.
2) It doesn’t matter if we put some innocent people to death, because those accused of murder are usually violent people anyway.
Both of these arguments were advanced by ‘Bart’. Both fail the sanity test. A much stronger counter-argument is:
3) It is an argument not just against capital punishment, but against all punishment, so by following the logic we end up unable to convict anybody in case we get it wrong.
This passes the sanity test, but fails the validity test. It is specifically an argument against capital punishment, because capital punishment is irreversible. The Guildford Four got compensation and a chance to rebuild what was left of their lives. Not much, when you consider how unpleasant it must be to be locked up for years for something you didn’t do...
...but still a lot better than a posthumous pardon, which is what Timothy Evans got.
Even Sean Penn gets it right now and again
Naturally OJ and his ilk instinctively dislike anti-capital punishment campaigners because they associate them with bleeding-heart liberals and Susan Sarandon movies.
But sometimes even bleeding-heart liberals stumble across a single, overriding, unanswerable, killer argument, and you just have to accept it.
This is one such occasion. I’m convinced that one day even the most red-necked red states will grasp that.