Various thoughts on current events with an emphasis on politics, legal issues, books, movies and whatever is on my mind. Emails can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org; please put "blog comments" in the subject line.
Last month, I noted that Justice Kagan had her first on record dissent in regards to wishing to grant a stay in a death penalty case, the specific matter concerned with lack of clarity on the purity of the drugs used in the execution. Suffice to say, Mr. Landrigan was not a prime case for sympathy, but the situation in various respects was problematic, including an earlier 5-4 ruling. Still, this was no Troy Davis, where the innocence of the person is credibly offered, or any number of cases where guilt is apparent but some other problem arises.
The death penalty, however, does not rise and fall on such cases, since like Jesus' lost sheep, the stakes are high enough that even a relative few problem cases taints the system. The system will by its nature bring with it many cases that seem mostly benign (so to speak), but enough troublesome cases -- to varying degrees -- that a red flag arises. Toss in a general problem with the death penalty as a substantive level (the former more a procedural concern), even the most heinous cases do not justify it.
This includes, for me, a lack of clarity on knowing if a person has the level of guilt to warrant an execution. Free will is not so clear and strong that execution is an easy call. It isn't keeping me up at nights, but to justify taking a life, you need a pretty hard standard that I doubt is truly met. I don't find it totally benign or anything to keep people in lifeless cages for decades, something that will be deemed cruel and unusual in the future, but we do it for non-capital crimes. So, I'm unsure on that level why people who kill should get an "out" on humanity grounds. And, wrongful killing remains worse than wrongful captivity.
The immediate reason for these musings is the capital sentence in a particularly heinous (check out the picture of the family of four ... well one now ... this is the sort of thing that made Last House on the Left so visceral) crime:
A jury in Connecticut voted on Monday to impose the death penalty on a longtime criminal for his role in a home invasion in Cheshire, Conn., that left a mother and her two daughters dead. The panel had deliberated just more than three full days.
It's useful to read the details to get a practical feel of what is behind these often technical legal principles. The appellate courts are intended to be deciders of law, but in other areas, those who oppose the death penalty are likely to want them to also keep the facts in mind. They influence the law. The cases have two side, the state (serving justice for the victims) and the defendants. Victim impact statements suggest a cloudy role there; one of the two videos on the SCOTUS website is the attachment to a dissent by Justice Stevens on the matter. The proper balance is messy; the crime does have a role to play.
The death penalty opponent does not take a blind eye to the victims. Some work to help both sides. The abolitionist does question the value of executing these people, generally a random few even among the most heinous criminals. One person was executed in Connecticut since 1960. Appeals and such could not be the only reason for such a low number, there being time before Furman and since Gregg to execute some of the heinous criminals of the state. Hopefully, the sort of crime at issue here (which the person here claims, fwiw, was not planned that way beforehand -- but criminals are known to not go about things like that anyway ... it's a reason why deterrence is not a great defense of capital punishment) has been very rare as well.
The judge noted that this case is likely to go on for years. I wouldn't doubt if there was some flaw -- the heinous nature of the crime(s) doesn't stop that -- in the prosecution or sentencing. From biblical times, we made this complicated with the knowledge that will cut down the number of executions. Still, this is likely a more pure case (a rare context that Steven J. Hayes can be called "pure") than others. It still doesn't convince me the penalty is justified. And, again, the system doesn't only give us pure cases.
[And More: I'm not totally comfortable with the jurors meeting with the family here. They there not to help the victims, but to try a particular defendant. Justice for the family is not their direct role -- it is to try this one individual. I understand it all and yes I'm sure others meet family members in other cases. Also, as to if he "deserves" to live. This underlines that the penalty, particularly in "pure" cases, often is clearly a matter of retribution. That is the bottom line. I realize too, see here, some think people who suggest such things are simple-minded monsters.]
* I noticed that I use "but" a lot. This is a result of my tendency to see most important things as pretty complicated with more than one side. Still, even with synonyms for variety, it does come off a bit off, huh?