Thursday, December 31, 2009

Murder by State

The British government continues to express its outrage at the execution two days ago of its citizen, Akmal Shaikh, in China. Mr. Shaikh had a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, which often results in deranged thinking and impulsive actions.

While the U.S. government is generally quick to condemn other countries for human rights violations, our great nation has been appropriately silent in this case. We pretty much have to be. We execute people who are mentally ill all the time. Also children—or, rather, people who committed capital crimes as children. Also innocent people who get snared in the net of a ruthless and antiquated “justice” system.

Reliable DNA testing has only been available for a few years and is often not used because of costs. Nonetheless, it’s become routine for prisoners condemned to death or life in prison to be exonerated when someone, such as the Innocence Project, takes an interest in their case. In 2009 alone, nine death-row prisoners were shown to be innocent of the crimes for which they were convicted. Estimates of the number of inmates who are clinically diagnosed to be mentally ill (never mind those whose mental capabilities have never been assessed) range from a very modest 5 to 10% among death row inmates to about 33% in the general prison population. Children are routinely condemned to death or life in prison without possibility of parole.

Of the 52 people legally executed in the U.S. in 2009, how many were innocent or mentally ill? We’ll never know, of course.

What we do know is that as long as we as a nation condone execution, we cannot complain if our citizens abroad risk being subjected to the same rough justice.


Sue said...

The entire capital punishment question is very interesting -- and very complex. Some of the issues include:

1) to what extent does the state (i.e. Society) have a right or an obligation to protect its members from dangerous criminals?

2) how should the rights of individuals (both criminals and victims) be balanced?

3) is capital punishment an effective deterrent to crime?

4) is capital punishment the best or even a reasonable alternative to dealing with violent crime/criminals?

5) does the risk of executing an innocent person outweigh the costs to society of otherwise treating a guilty person, particularly one who is likely to reoffend either in or out of prison?

6) if capital punishment is accepted by society, who, if anyone, should be exempted from it?

And the list can go on and on.

My personal position is that killing anyone is wrong -- whether it's the state or an individual doesn't lessen the guilt. I also believe in the redemptive possibilities of life -- who knows what a guilty person might do to turn his/her life around in the future and perhaps make some significant contribution to society? -- and I believe we should give them a chance. I don't feel that capital punishment is an effective deterrent to crime or that it is cost-effective, given that the costs of lengthy appeals frequently exceed the costs of lifetime incarceration. But I can see how others would come to a different conclusion.

I do believe we need to have the conversations about capital punishment and -- as a society -- come to an agreement about if and/or when it is appropriate and, if appropriate, how to assure that it is applied in a just and equitable manner.

Six said...

Excellent post Jane!!

Sue -

My answers to your questions is summed up by my loose recolection of a famous quote by Ben Franklin... "those who are willing to give up a little liberty for temporarty saftey deserve neither liberty nor safety."

I would rather take my chances with 1000 guilty walking free than 1 innocent be executed. To answer directly your 5th question - it does to the innocent person being executed!!

The death penalty does not deter crime. As I understand it, states as a whole without the death penalty actually have a lower murder rate than those WITH the death penalty.

I am not a pacifist and I do believe quite strongly that there are situations where it is justified to kill another person - it is sometimes right to kill. However I do not believe the state should have the power kill it's citizens unless it is able to demonstrate in every situation it is clearly, and plainly without any possibility for error. WHich our system as Jane points out has routinely been proven not to be.

The Tarquin said...
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