Tuesday, January 05, 2010


From the New York Times courtesy of

Group Gives Up Death Penalty Work

Instead, the institute voted in October to disavow the structure it had created “in light of the current intractable institutional and structural obstacles to ensuring a minimally adequate system for administering capital punishment.”

That last sentence contains some pretty dense lawyer talk, but it can be untangled. What the institute was saying is that the capital justice system in the United States is irretrievably broken.

A study commissioned by the institute said that decades of experience had proved that the system could not reconcile the twin goals of individualized decisions about who should be executed and systemic fairness. It added that capital punishment was plagued by racial disparities; was enormously expensive even as many defense lawyers were underpaid and some were incompetent; risked executing innocent people; and was undermined by the politics that come with judicial elections.

Roger S. Clark, who teaches at the Rutgers School of Law in Camden, N.J., and was one of the leaders of the movement to have the institute condemn the death penalty outright, said he was satisfied with the compromise. “Capital punishment is going to be around for a while,” Professor Clark said. “What this does is pull the plug on the whole intellectual underpinnings for it.”


The article references a 1994 60 Minutes interview with Justice Harry Blackmun where he asserts that it is not possible to reconcile capital punishment with the Constitution. I remember watching, and, fairly new to the liberal game at the time, was excited to hear a new argument against the death penalty: even though killing criminals in the name of the people appears to be Constitutional in theory; actual judicial practice makes it impossible.

But then, I had already felt this way for many years, even when I was a conservative. The notion that I personally might be strapped into an electric chair, even though I was innocent, has always scared the fuck out of me. I think I've always opposed the death penalty for selfish reasons. The government makes a lot of mistakes, and I don't want to be one of them. Later in life, especially after my leftward shift in ideology, it was easy to expand my own fear of death by government to everyone. No one should end his life as a government mistake.

It's really, really, really nice to hear that smart people who support capital punishment have finally concluded it is impossible to do it fairly. But such a landmark conclusion ought to now clear the market of ideas for this notion: why should the government kill anybody, regardless of their guilt or innocence?

I mean, once you've got the guy, you've got the guy: he's not going to kill again. He's no longer a threat to society. What good is killing him? How is it right to punish a murderer by murdering him? Killing is either wrong or it isn't. No matter who the killer is. I mean okay, self-defense, defense of others, all that I understand. But I'm talking about people who are already convicted and behind bars. Capital punishment is murder, and the sooner we all embrace that notion the better.