Friday, December 16, 2005

Tookie Taken: Ruminations on Capital Punishment

It is bizarre timing that now, in the throes of the holiday season, the execution of Stanley "Tookie" Williams forces us to pause from writing cards and shopping for gifts to reflect on the death penalty. But like it or not, it is upon us. I had never given a lot of thought to the issue before, but I realized I ought to if people are being executed in my name as a citizen of California. I had conflicting feelings about it. On the one hand, some crimes are so heinous that nothing short of execution seems appropriate. But on the other hand, execution seems so, well, barbaric.

I'm more interested in contemplating the death penalty in general than in arguing the particular merits of this specific case. In short, I will just say this about Tookie Williams: if the death penalty is ever appropriate, then it is appropriate for this man. He was convicted of multiple murders of the most callous and cold-blooded kind. While he protested his innocence to the end, and duped a few gullible idealists into believing him, there is no real question on this matter. Though there may well have been cases in which innocent people have been executed, this is not one of them. Moreover, he does not dispute that he was a co-founder of the Crips gang, and there is strong reason to believe that he was guilty of much, much more than what he was convicted of. This was an evil man with a formidable legacy of evil. As to his alleged redemption, he never even admitted what he had done, let alone begin to regret it. His touted efforts to dissuade children from becoming involved in gangs are more likely to be a calculated PR tactic. He certainly didn't dissuade his own son from following in his father's footsteps. To me, that's what makes his case provocative. If capital punishment is only appropriate in extreme cases, where guilt is clear and the crime is heinous, one can scarcely imagine anyone more deserving than Tookie. That clarifies the question: is it ever appropriate to execute anyone, even someone like Tookie Williams?

In considering the question, one must distinguish the legitimate from the illegitimate reasons for capital punishment. One important purpose of the penal system is to protect society from dangerous people. That purpose is equally served by life imprisonment without parole as it is by execution. Another important purpose is deterrence, the pause that one criminal's fate may give to another prospective criminal. On that count, actual results should be looked to. I haven't looked into such studies, but my hunch is that capital punishment as it is practiced in the US is a weak deterrent, because it is such a rare and long-drawn process. (Tookie lived a quarter century between sentencing and execution.) A stronger deterrent effect might be achieved if execution were meted out more swiftly and frequently, but that's not possible to do without transforming the US into someplace more like the old Soviet Union or the Taliban or Singapore (all of which had low crime rates for the crimes that they punished).

Then there are the illegitimate reasons for capital punishment. One most commonly cited is that it is "justice" that capital crimes be answered with capital punishment. But justice is a misnomer here, the proper word is vengeance. This is the old "eye for an eye", and it is as barbaric as chopping the hands off of thieves. Believe me, I feel the allure of it too. It's hard to think of the crimes Tookie committed, and not to wish much more painful deaths on him than the one he suffered. But a civilized society must rise above this, or it ceases to be civilized. It has nothing to do with what the criminal deserves. It has to do with what we as a society become if we stoop to blood vengeance. And I'm coming to believe that if we practice capital punishment, we corrupt ourselves.

Another common justification given is that the family of the victims deserve to see the murderer executed. But this is just another spin on the same blood vengeance. If we truly believed that, then we should have a guillotine or a firing squad, and we should allow the families of the victims to pull the trigger, and enjoy the violence of spilling the murderer's blood. If that sounds barbaric to you (and I hope that it does), then ask yourself whether that differs in any significant moral respect from the clinical death-by-injection carried out on Tuesday.

A different argument is sometimes made that it is expensive to maintain someone in prison for life, and why should the good taxpayers be burdened with supporting a worthless life. If one looks only at the ledger, there seems to be an argument there. But one must look at the non-fungible costs. Killing someone because their life "isn't worth the expense of supporting it" is a monstrous precedent. If we do that, we cease to be a society in which life is sacrosanct, and we become instead a society where each life has a quantifiable worth. Once that bright line is crossed, all sorts of questions become fair game, including euthanasia or medical treatment decisions based on how much a given person's life is worth. Should we go around to state hospitals euthanizing patients who are unlikely to leave the hospital but not dying soon and costing the state a lot to support? If that sounds barbaric to you (and I hope that it does), then ask yourself whether that differs in any significant moral respect from killing a prisoner just because it costs a lot to keep him alive?

To recap: the legitimate reasons for capital punishment are uncompelling. The compelling reasons are illegitimate. And even if some extreme criminals deserve death, we cannot be the executioners without becoming barbarians ourselves.

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