Friday, December 14, 2007

New Jersey's Death Penalty

New Jersey has scrapped the death penalty, the first state to do so since the reinstatement of capital punishment by the Supreme Court in 1976. I have always been intuitively against the death penalty. But, I reasoned, this was little more than a visceral reaction and the Americans in particular have their reasons and their traditions. I became much less sympathetic after reviewing Scott Turow's excellent book on the subject. Basically, he showed, executions don't work and they distort the whole judicial system. Individuals may live by absolutes, but states cannot. New Jersey is wise to have grasped this. 


  1. I agree with everything you've said here Bryan.

  2. I too agree. One thing: regardless of whether it's a deterrent or not, the death penalty isn't really a punishment is it? Surely, the idea of a punishment is that the person punished can reflect on his or her crime and resulting punishment and say to themselves "Crikey, I had better not do that again" If the person is dead, then obviously that can't happen. It's not a punsishment, it's legalised, premeditated murder, plain and simple.

  3. Virtually nobody with a brain still believes in the death penalty, except in the States.

    Over there, people with brains support it only because the anti-lobby is so awful. It's unfortunate.

  4. The idea of punishment is primitive. i don't have moral objections to it really: it's just a very short-term way of dealing with things, and usually just makes things worse in the long term.

    We have this vague idea of 'rehabilitation' but as far as i can tell it hasn't been thought through, they've just decided it should be the opposite to punishment, so 'rehabilitation' consists of getting a TV in your overcrowded cell.

    i'd love to be made a prison governor with a free hand. i'd rehabilitate them good & proper. Out with TV! More solitary confinement, because i believe in solitude. More poetry! More Verdi and Mozart!

    i would make them my army and then take over this damn country and apply my methods to the rest of you.

    Then i'd attack America. Or perhaps they would envy my new England and voluntarily come back to the Empire.

    i would be a kind of God-Emperor and each of my nations would bring me tribute in the form of MILF and very select pies. Ho ho!

  5. I'm sure Scott Turow knows as well as anyone that hard cases make bad law. So let's consider an easy case. If an individual - a Ted Bundy, for instance - is known to have wantonly taken the lives of others, exactly why should we scruple over insisting that such an individual forfeit his own?

  6. Frank, that's a dangerous rationale - you could extend it (as a Xian friend of mine once did) to say that the Red Army's rape of seemingly every female in Berlin in 1945 was justified, because the Germans had 'been bastards to the Russians'.

    i think it's a dangerous precedent to say we, as living creatures who don't know how life comes about really, and can only (through sex) kickstart it, have the right to take it away, where other options present themselves. This, however, rests on a non-materialist view, that life is essentially not in our hands, we're like cavemen who've figured out how the remote control works but couldn't have built the TV let alone do our own TV shows.

    On the other hand, i don't think death is so terrible, and i'd certainly rather be executed than imprisoned for more than a few years.

  7. Frank - that's the question that all pro-death arguers ask. It amounts to: "Does someone who deserves to die, deserve to die?" So of course the answer is 'yes'.

    It's the wronq question.

  8. If the state permits itself murder in the form of the death penalty, then it has dissolved all basis for moral truth, obviously enough. State execution is essentially a simple statement that there is no evil or moral truth, since in the act of premitting itself this absolute action, it states that there is no absolute truth which can be violated. Obviously, the nationality of the executors is completely irrelevant.

  9. The view apparently extolled by Frank is the mentioned absence of moral truth, or that a Ted Bundy sets the standard for what is the moral order, which is that there are no moral truths to be transgressed, and hence all is permitted to society, and by natural extension- the individual.

  10. You say, Elberry, that "I think it's a dangerous precedent to say we ... have the right to take it away." That is precisely what people like Bundy and Charles Starkweather and others took it upon themselves to do. Is society to have no recourse against such people except to feed, clothe and house them for the rest of their lives? I did not, by they way, advance any rationale - except implicitly. I raised a question.

    I am at a loss, Brit, to figure out why that is the wrong question. And what would be the right question?

    Murder, ak, is defined as the unlawful taking of a human life. The murderer has, among other things, broken a very serious statute. By your reasoning, he has to be allowed to get away with that - in the sense that he retains what he unlawfully took from another and that cannot be returned - because if society does unto him as he did unto others, society will somehow become just like him. I see it as what is called retributive justice.

    The death penalty deters one specific murderer from ever murdering anyone else again. And I would also suggest that these sensitive views of murderers be taken up, not with me, but with victims' families. Of course, I am the son of a police officer and the uncle of another.

  11. Exactly as I say, Frank. You believe in the absence of moral order since there is no action the state should deny itself; cold-blooded murder being an absolute moral or amoral action. There is no sense of the state protecting itself from the threat of its own dissolution here; you simply believe in cold-blooded murder as a moral action. In other words, you are a moral nihilist.

    The death penalty deters one specific murderer from ever murdering anyone else again.

    You're presumably not talking about the person or people murdering the murderer here?

    "And I would also suggest that these sensitive views of murderers be taken up, not with me, but with victims' families. Of course, I am the son of a police officer and the uncle of another."

    Of course, you are the son of a police officer & the uncle of another? I confess to not having seen much to have made this statement a matter of course or obvious deduction. It must have been written between the lines, but it also, of course, is completely irrelevant. Many people are, of course, related to police officers; it makes no difference to the nature of this argument.

    And it is you who are the one with the more than sensitive view of murderers, since you view murder, or however you describe it, to be a justified action, and you are of course the main advocate of killing other human beings here.

  12. Frank, I tend to believe that for certain acts there is no possible retribution, i.e. 'retributive justice' is a concept which needs careful consideration.

    In any case, life imprisonment also 'deters one specific murderer from ever murdering anyone else again'; and other solutions are at least conceivable, possibly based on developments in neuroscience etc.

    As to asking the victims' families, some studies have actually indicated that opinions are divided.

  13. One of John Grisham's books is quite horribly anti-death penalty. I forget the title but it is loosely based on a case in which the electrocution only worked incompletely and the victim died most horribly. I couldn't face another JG book for years.

    Another factor in the death penalty argument is what about the mistakes? People who were "not of sound mind" such as Ruth Ellis, or simply innocent such as Hanratty, John (forget surname) who was hanged for the murders committed by Christie. To my mind, you can't afford to make even one mistake, so even if you approve of a death penalty, you have to believe 100 per cent in the system being faultless. And what system is faultless? I have yet to meet one (still reeling from the HMRC 25 million debacle).

  14. I don't believe there is any necessity to bring the argument beyond the level of the intrinsic evil of killing human beings, but if we do consent to do so, to take up Maxine's line:
    In the appeal of the Birmingham Six in 1979, the ruling judge Lord Denning stated that: "If the six men win, it will mean that the police are guilty of perjury, that they are guilty of violence and threats, that the confessions were invented and improperly admitted in evidence and the convictions were erroneous... This is such an appalling vista that every sensible person in the land would say that it cannot be right that these actions should go any further...We shouldn't have all these campaigns to get the Birmingham Six released if they'd been hanged. They'd have been forgotten and the whole community would have been satisfied."

    Of course, it eventually transpired that the police were guilty of perjury, that they were guilty of violence and threats, that the confessions were invented and improperly admitted in evidence and the convictions were erroneous.

    Though it is a descent into evil, and abandoning of a moral universe to kill so the above is an argument one shouldn't need have resort to.

  15. I'd rather feed an innocent, in some far off place, who is hungry - than feed someone who is a proven, premeditated murderer. But I could not throw the switch, plunge the needle, start the gas, pull the lever on the trapdoor or ask anyone else to do it for me.

    Throw 'em in a cage, all alone and don't feed 'em. Could I watch that happen? Well, that's not very human of me, is it? How about, throw 'em in a cage and just walk away? I wouldn't have to watch 'em starve to death. And I can think of them as dead 'til they are dead, (what, no food, no water, four or five days?) and then never have to think of them again.

    Well, that doesn't sit too right with my idea of being human either. And besides, cable news journalists would recycle stories about it for centuries and I'd have to read and hear about it every six months while pickle producers blipvert their products at me.

    Of course, I could kill a man coming to kill me. I'm certain of that, tho' not as up on my marksmanship practice as I was when I was younger. So, if I can do that as an individual, shouldn't I be able to do that after wise men who have agonized over it tell me it needs to be done in 'this' specific case? Still, I could not walk up to a human being and kill them in cold blood. I could not execute someone.

    Mercy. At Christmas. Hmmmmmm ...


    "Now, how should we feel about Power that can execute someone?"

    "Well, that certainly frightens me. Or is that the real point of execution statutes?"

    " No, they're to protect society, right?"

  16. AK, you equivocate: Murder is what you are executed for, not the execution. Had I suggested that the victim's family ought to have the right to kill the murderer, that would be nearer to what you suggest - and by your lights maybe they ought to, since the state would have to stay neutral, I suppose. To all others: The case I have proposed is when there is no doubt that the accused has done the crime. No one should be executed if there is the slightest doubt as to their guilt - indeed only if we are as certain as is humanly possible of their guilt. And no, I am not in favor any form of execution that would be cruel or unusual - which is more consideration than many murderers give their victims. Indeed, the general absence of consideration of the victims' plight in this discussion amazes me. Oh, the poor murderers.

  17. Frank, it is no surprise that you are the advocate of execution here, as you seem incapable of grasping the simplest nature of the situation, which is the existential moral/spiritual/ethical action of killing another human being. Instead you attempt to divert the issue into irrelevant discourse about the poor murderers, your relation to police officers and such like, imagining that everyone but yourself is full of pity for the murderers, though not a single line has evidenced the slightest such sentiment.
    "Indeed, the general absence of consideration of the victims' plight in this discussion amazes me."
    More irrelevant, inane self-righteousness. Sympathy for victims equated with decent, caring desire for bloody vengeance. And it is you are doing the equivocating- whether we call it murder or execution, we're mostly not idiots and know that we are talking about cold-blooded killing.
    So to repeat, you asked "So let's consider an easy case. If an individual - a Ted Bundy, for instance - is known to have wantonly taken the lives of others, exactly why should we scruple over insisting that such an individual forfeit his own?"

    The answer being because killing is evil, and thus the revulsion for the actions of a Ted Bundy. But you apparently don't consider killing to be evil, once you stick a word like 'lawful' in front of it. You are truthless, but delude yourself with empty logic, as shown by your belief that your relation to police officers was of some consequence, and gave you intimate understanding denied to all us murderer sympathisers.

  18. I should have said your position is truthless.

  19. Frank: there are lots of better questions.

    But for a conservative, the best question is: "Given that the justice system is fallible, should the state be granted the power to kill its citizens if there are viable alternatives available?"

  20. It's been said by others but i think it's worth repeating: if we say it's okay to kill because Bundy killed first, we're modelling ourselves not on men like Christ or Gandhi but on, well, serial killers. Surely part of being civilized is not allowing an aggressor to determine one's own actions, more than is necessary?

    i also don't recognise the moral legitimacy of the State - i see it as (at best) a necessary administrative function, and at worst as an abomination (e.g. Stalinist USSR).

    i'd argue that the State doesn't have any moral sanction, any more than the Post Office does. Where it is necessary to moralise and greatly interfere with our lives, please let it be as minimal and modest as possible. And yes i'd rather pay more tax if it means a terrible human being is fed & housed for another 50 years, rather than executed.

    i don't really recognise any distinction between 'to execute' and 'to kill'. The surrounding circumstances are different - a trial, solemn expressions, a blindfold, a noose etc. - but the metaphysical act is the same, the ending of a life.

    i guess it depends where you're looking at it from, the metaphysical or the societal.

  21. Brit, why do you think opinions on this issue have anything to do with brains?

    It is all well and good to discount vengeance and retribution as legitimate justifications and to say we have progressed beyond all that, but the impulse will always find a way to sneak in the back door. Those who take the "it is never permissable to take a life" high road might reflect on the growing popular support for longer and longer sentences in hell holes and the desire for pure punishment qua punishment. Reform and rehabilitaion seem to be the quaint dreams of the naive locked in more innocent times. There are indeed serious objections to capital punishment based on the fallibilities of the legal system and prosecution misconduct, but no one seems to care much about them in cases of life sentences without parole in overcrowded, gang infested sewers with 300 pound cellmates/boyfriends named Bubba. And nobody seems to challenge the legitimacy of state authority in those cases. Transportation to Australia was the epitome of enlightened compassion compared to what we do now.

  22. Everyone with a brain is either opposed to it, or they haven't thought about it enough, or they have thought about it but are understandably too embarrassed to concede that Susan Sarandon is in the right of it.

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  24. NY had brought back the death penalty a few years ago but the NY Court of Appeals ruled that the new law violated the state constitution. The problem had to do with jury instructions in death penalty cases. The state legislator talked about fixing the law but then decided to hell with it and let the death penalty die. So no one has been executed in NY and no one will.

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