Once again, the death penalty is being discussed in the news as the final hours tick away to another execution, and once again I find myself frustrated and angry to hear opinions that, to me, are fundamentally dissociated from reality.
I subscribe to a set of ethics under which capital punishment is acceptable and appropriate in certain circumstances. I accept that some people's ethical systems say that capital punishment is never acceptable or appropriate under any circumstances. I don't agree, but I can respect the position; their opinions aren't the ones I'm complaining about.
What upsets me is the frequently-repeated mantra that the fact that a relatively large number of people have been exonerated after being sentenced to death but before the sentence has been carried out tells us that the death penalty is flawed and we should not have it. This is a somewhat complex point here. I do not mean that it is not a problem that a fair number of people on death row have been proven innocent is not a problem. It is very definitely a problem. It is not, however, a problem with the death penalty. When a person on death row turns out to be innocent, the thing that we need to be upset about is not that he was sentenced to die, it is that he was found guilty. If so many of the people actually on death row were convicted wrongly, what does that say about the number of people who were convicted in capital trials but spared the death penalty by the actual jury? What about the much greater number of murder cases where the prosecution decides to not go through the tremendous amount of extra work, so called "super due process", required only in death penalty cases? Surely, if we get a lot of cases wrong with "super due process", we must assume that we get at least as many wrong with plain old due process; in fact, if we don't get more wrong with plain old due process, super due process is just a resource-wasting sham. Simple logic tells us that our prisons must be crammed with innocent people, yet we would get the impression, listening to death penalty protesters, that it's only the people sentenced to die who are being treated unjustly. Get rid of the death penalty, they seem to say, and everything will be fine.
I'm sorry, but putting innocent people in prison for life is not fine. Maybe it's just a quirk of my own personal philosophy, but I think it's actually worse to imprison someone for their entire life than to execute them; I think life in prison with no chance of parole is worse than a swift, humane execution.
The number of people who have been found innocent after their cases have been examined in depth because they were sentenced to die is a wake-up call. Something is horribly wrong with our system, but it isn't in the sentencing or the penalty; it is in the determination of guilt or innocence. If we abolished the death penalty, we might gain the illusion of a better justice system because we would no longer be examining a small fraction of cases so deeply, but we'd be sweeping the real problem under the rug.