Tuesday, 12 June 2007

"I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death"

The AP moved a very interesting, if superficial, story about a half hour ago on the death penalty. Apparently, a series of recent studies have shown that the death penalty is responsible for anywhere between three and eighteen less murders. (The conclusions are similar to those Isaac Ehrlich, whose study in the '70s helped reinstate the death penalty, but was later debunked by the National Academy of Sciences.)

The new studies compared states that ban the death penalty with those that allow it, and looked at the data over the years, trying to weed out other factors that would influence the numbers, like unemployment or poverty. Here are some resorts:
To explore the question, they look at executions and homicides, by year and by state or county, trying to tease out the impact of the death penalty on homicides by accounting for other factors, such as unemployment data and per capita income, the probabilities of arrest and conviction, and more.

Among the conclusions:
• Each execution deters an average of 18 murders, according to a 2003 nationwide study by professors at Emory University. (Other studies have estimated the deterred murders per execution at three, five and 14).
• The Illinois moratorium on executions in 2000 led to 150 additional homicides over four years following, according to a 2006 study by professors at the University of Houston.
• Speeding up executions would strengthen the deterrent effect. For every 2.75 years cut from time spent on death row, one murder would be prevented, according to a 2004 study by an Emory University professor.

While there are plenty of reasons to question the results of the study--it looked at overall homicide rates, not just those that could result in a capital murder conviction, for example--even if the results were unimpeachable, they're no argument for not doing away with the death penalty entirely, as I'm sure they will be used.

First of all, I reject the argument that excuses the most abhorrent crimes on the part of the state in the name of some minimal public welfare. The classic example is the childish hypothetical of whether you would torture someone if it helped stop a WMD from going off--a most ridiculous hypothetical, but, remember, the people using it are not particularly intelligent. We have some astounding numbers on the execution of innocents--so much for equal protection and due process--as well as studies detailing the cruelty of such "modern" methods of execution as lethal injection.

Beyond that, there are times that the state just can't do something, regardless of how many benefits it might produce. Torture and capital punishment are some examples. Never mind the general hypocrisy of someone who advocates a utilitarian reason for keeping the death penalty, but doesn't support banning or regulating a right to buy handguns which would stop far more violent crime than executing several innocent dudes a year.And I'm not even going to address the retributivist argument.

If you think the state should be engaged in revenge, you are a fucking moron. And please don't come back at me with the stupid "if your daughter was raped and murdered you would want the person who did it executed too" curve ball they threw at Dukakis. Yeah, I'd want to rip the fucker's head off myself, but I also don't think the state should conduct itself like an grieving, irate father.I personally feel disgusted to live in a country where roughly one third of its states still execute people, and keeps a federal death penalty statute. There's no other way of saying it.

I really do feel a personal sense of disgust and complicity in the crime that doesn't go away. We can't just wash our hands off this or turn a blind eye. Every American is partially responsible for every person that is executed in this country, especially every innocent person.

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