Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The "Capital" in Capital Punishment

An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind. --Mahatma Gandhi

The current economic crisis has given death penalty opponents a new argument that seems to be gaining attention among legislators in several states: the simple economic reality that putting people to death is an enormously costly process. With every state in the union on starvation rations, spending $3 to $7 million to kill someone who can no longer do harm is enough to give pause.

There are other, less expensive, options for dealing with convicted killers and other nefarious characters. Of course, we could simply let them rot in prison (which advocates of the punishment-and-revenge philosophy of social “justice” might find appealing, if only they’d stop and think about it). But we could also adopt the practice of some of the more practical and efficient world powers that, metaphorically speaking, simply lop off their heads and be done with it. Why waste even more money on appeals?

Here’s a way it could be done. First, we simply gather cheek cells from everyone in America and put together a huge DNA database. Then DNA analysis could be done before a trial, thus preventing unpleasant and embarrassing mistakes when long-incarcerated inmates are later proved innocent. (The already executed, of course, are almost never proved innocent because, once they’re dead, human rights advocates don’t waste time on reviewing their cases.)

Of course, the presence of one’s DNA at the scene of a crime is not prima facie evidence that an accused person committed the crime, but let’s not quibble about details. It’s usually enough to convince a jury, and that’s all that counts.

Now, speaking of the jury, here’s the meat of my argument: since it’s usually a jury who decides that a convicted criminal should die, let’s cut out the middlemen and let the jury kill him (or her). Juries in capital cases are, after all, all proponents of the death penalty—unless they’ve perjured themselves and lied about their position during the voir dire process, when attorneys for both sides question them. So juries (or, in some cases, judges) who condemn convicted persons to death should have no qualms about doing the deed themselves.

Besides, only those who are actually in court during a trial can really understand the implications of putting a human being (albeit a possibly dangerous and despicable human being) to death. The judge and jurors have seen the faces of the accused and the families of victims. They’ve perhaps heard the mother or sister of the accused plead for his (or her) life. Maybe they’ve gained some glimmer of understanding about any possible extenuating circumstances—such as trauma or mental illness—that may have contributed to the crime. Only those present in the room when the sentence is handed down can really know which arguments won the day and which ones were discarded. By virtue of their decision, they’ve earned the right to wield the sword of “justice.”

So here’s my modest proposal. After a capital case has been tried and the conviction handed down, a date will be set in the very near future for the execution. The members of the jury will immediately participate in a lottery (some high-tech, modern equivalent of drawing straws), and the lucky juror who wins will be sequestered until the time of the execution, to allow for any desired spiritual preparations she may deem appropriate before killing someone. Then this true and responsible representative of the people can pull the switch, mix the chemicals, plant the needle—or whatever—and get on with life, secure in the knowledge that she really lives by her values.

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