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can someone we've never heard of be among the worst of the worst?

Most of us don't really know how often the death penalty is used.  People are executed, and we don't even know their names or what they did.  Their crimes made the local news at the time, I suppose.  But by execution, they're mostly forgotten.

There are exceptions.  People of my generation cite Ted Bundy.  Bundy was national news and stayed a household name to the end.  But he's an exception.

This has me thinking: If the death penalty has become so commonplace that an execution doesn't make the national news, is that an indication that we're using it too much?  The line-drawing questions are always difficult, but if the crimes and criminals have ceased to be newsworthy, could that be an indication that we have not crossed that "worst of the worst" line?

starting new things

Eric has some new thinking going on, targeted at changing our "get a job"-obsessed culture into one in which more people can imagine starting their own businesses.

Sooo important.  For several reasons:

  • new businesses are the US's main new-job engine,

  • at the current rate of job creation, we will all be old before the country is back to pre-crisis levels,

  • race plays into this -- black-owned businesses vanished overnight in the civil rights era,

  • local businesses are better at keeping the money in the community instead of sending it all to WalMart headquarters,

  • many virtually unemployable people (e.g., felons) can nonetheless support themselves and contribute

  • there is this little idea of Right work, or Call, or whatever . . . =)

And btw, this is one more reason universal healthcare is important.  It frees us to start our own businesses, support ourselves, build the economy, build our communities, do what we are meant to do.

walk to beautiful

Last night I saw the PBS documentary A Walk to Beautiful.  It's a well-told story of rural poverty, lack of access to health care, gender issues, social shunning, etc., and a hospital for women whose lives are ruined by childbirth injuries.

The part that got me most, though, was the briefly-mentioned story of the white-haired Dr Catherine Hamlin, who went to Ethiopia with her husband and stayed to establish the Fistula Hospital.  She's been giving poor women their lives back ever since.  I love stories of people finding their Right work.

3 arguments, 3 responses

I saw this comment on a British website today:
WOULD [the author] still be against the death penalty if someone in his family was murdered? With DNA no mistakes can be made. Look how many people come out of prison to murder again.

My response:

1. Would the author still be against the death penalty if someone in his family was murdered?

No, of course not, not at first.  He'd want to rip them to shreds with his bare hands.  But many people with murdered family members move through that revenge to a different place.  Some don't want the death penalty.  These families don't get much press because they don't fit the media narrative, but they're out there.  If a family has the wisdom and courage to get past revenge, shouldn't we support that rather than imply that they are somehow wrong?  Is the posed question fair to them?

That initial revenge reaction is one reason we have a criminal justice system.  We don't just let everyone go give the wrongdoer what they think he deserves.  Society does a better job of determining appropriate punishment than the victims do.

2.  With DNA no mistakes can be made.

DNA is not a magic bullet.  If you shoot me, hit me with something, or push me off a bridge, there may well be no DNA evidence.  DNA is about bodily fluids and a few other things a person might leave at the crime scene or take with them from the crime scene.  Many, many murders involve no DNA.

And sometimes DNA can be misleading.  Often, it only shows the person was there, not that he did the murder.  For example, if a man has sex with a woman and later someone finds her dead, his DNA will be in her body.  His DNA tells us something, but not that he killed her.

Plenty of mistakes can be made with DNA, especially if the victim and defendant had some kind of relationship.

3. Look how many people come out of prison to murder again.

How many? Actually, murderers have a very low recidivism rate.

And anyway, not getting a death sentence doesn't mean he's getting out.  The alternative to the death penalty in most places is life without parole.  That means he never gets out, no matter what.

insulting the victims

A state trooper was murdered in my hometown, and the defendant just got life without parole.  The public reaction is anger, according to the local paper.

The jury clearly worked hard.  They listened to six weeks of guilt evidence, followed by two-and-a-half weeks of sentencing evidence.  They deliberated for 20 hours before they deadlocked 6-6.  This is the result.

I understand outrage and wanting the harshest punishment.  But why do people give a life sentence the meaning they do?  Why, for instance, does life in prison mean that “[b]asically all [the jury] did was tell other people that if you kill a law enforcement officer in the line of duty, don't worry about it.”

The trooper was the first member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Nation to become a trooper.  Because of this, some members of the tribe see the verdict as an affront to the entire tribe.  “I feel that the justice system not only let [the trooper's] family down but the Native Americans as well,” said one.

The underlying assumption is that the only way to respect troopers and Cherokees is to impose the death penalty.  Anything else is disrespect.

I think that's wrong, but let's say it's true.

We can't give death in every murder case, so we're always disrespecting someone.

Some murders by definition aren't eligible for the death penalty.  It has to be first degree and meet some other qualifications to even get considered for death.  And even then, we have to let the jury decide whether to impose it.

If death is the only way to respect a victim, then as a society we disrespect families every time a defendant gets life:  "Sorry, your loved one's murder wasn't one of the worst."

No matter where we draw the death line, someone will be on the other side, insulted.

If all murderers got some kind of prison term, there wouldn't be the disparity that leads to these insults.  Death is a categorically different punishment from prison.  It's not just different in degree the way a 50-year and life sentence are different.

It's precisely because we impose death in some circumstances that people in others feel insulted by a life sentence.  These insults are an unavoidable cost of having to draw the line somewhere.  We will continue to insult families and ask them to pay this cost as long as we have the death penalty.