The Library Basement
Reading under ground

Reasonable doubts about capital punishment

If you have not seen it already, see this exchange from a recent 2012 Republican presidential candidate debate:

(Texas Governor Rick Perry is questioned about the 234 executions which have occurred under his watch and the crowd applauds).

We cannot be very surprised by the audience's support for Perry on this issue, though I think it took an odd form as applause. Capital punishment has fairly significant popular support in the United States. Some states allow it, and some don't. Of those who allow it, some do not really actively execute death-row inmates. But Texas is the king of the death penalty.

The US finds itself in league with some strange partners in the use of capital punishment. We find ourselves in the company of North Korea, Libya, Zimbabwe, China, Iraq, and Iran. None of our traditional allies in Europe or Canada practice it, and many of the countries we regard as the most despicable do.

I know that the Declaration of Independence is not a binding legal document for the US. Still, it is the statement of the spirit of our republic, and many politicians invoke it. So I wonder how it could be true that "Life" is an "unalienable Right" where capital punishment is practiced. Let me be clear: I am not trying to portray the death penalty as a departure from our idealistic roots. The founders supported capital punishment in various forms. So there is some form of ideological hypocrisy there. Mostly I just want Americans to consider how the God-given, unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness relate to our current criminal justice system.

I found Perry's phrasing here interesting: "the ultimate justice." The word I was expected was "punishment," not "justice." I think it is useful to maintain a distinction between justice and punishment in our rhetoric. If the death penalty is carried out in error, it is the ultimate injustice. Rick Perry does not express doubts about 234 convictions, but I find it hard to believe that every single one of those condemned was truly guilty. That's a level of accuracy that is hard for humans to achieve in even the simplest matters.

Christianity has a mixed witness on capital punishment. I do not feel I can make an authoritative appeal to scripture or tradition one way or the other. So when I address the death penalty, I typically do so from the standpoint of reasonable doubt. I believe that the burden of proof for capital punishment should be higher than what can be delivered by our legal system. In other words, I never trust a judge and jury to get it right when the stakes are so high. We cannot afford to get it wrong.

I am surprised that more people do not distrust the government to make a life and death decision. So many people who are otherwise skeptical of government competence are supportive of an irreversible punishment. I think that is because most people never have to consider the possibility of a wrongful execution for themselves or their loved ones. But then cases like Troy Davis come along, and the media attention raised by them may help people to at least think about the issue.