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Capital punishment should be put to death

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From page A8 | December 11, 2012 | 8 Comments

Have you considered capital punishment lately? Most of us don’t spend much time thinking about state-sanctioned executions, even though their employment in the United States is thoroughly out of step with all advanced Western countries, keeping us in company with repressive nations like China, Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Even here in my home state of Texas, which is closing in on the execution, since 1982, of its 500th criminal – well, I’m sure that nearly all of them were guilty – an ordinary lethal injection is never front-page news.

It takes an unusual case, like Robert Post’s, to catch our attention. As reported by the Associated Press, Post is an Ohio death row inmate whose lawyers claim that, at 450 pounds, he is too fat to be executed in a humane way. They argue that Post is so heavy he might even collapse the death chamber gurney.

The problem is finding, amid the fat, a suitable vein for injecting the deadly chemicals. In 2007, Ohio executioners took two hours to find a vein of a condemned 265-pound killer.

Post’s lawyers contend that he has no veins accessible for injection and that they will resist any effort to “cut down” into his body to find one.

A story like this provides a field day for online commentators, who wonder why Post’s executioners can’t just shoot a bullet into his brain, at a cost of less than a dollar. Why not hang him? That would probably take his head off. Hit him in the head with a hammer. One hilarious wit suggests a cyanide-laced chocolate cake. Imagine how much fun these guys could have if we were still using the electric chair!

This episode – and these ignorant, mean-spirited comments – exemplifies what a grisly and unseemly business killing human beings is, whether or not they deserve it.

All the old arguments against capital punishment still stand up: It works fine for revenge, but it really doesn’t serve as much of a deterrent. We’ve never managed to administer it impartially; while Robert Post happens to be white, in general you’re much more likely to be executed if you’re black, Hispanic, male or poor.

And we’ve never figured out how to avoid mistakes when putting people to death. The fact that subsequent evidence or DNA testing regularly exonerate death row inmates or longtime prisoners indicates clearly that at least occasionally innocent people have been executed.

But the real problem with capital punishment is that it looks backward rather than forward. The ascending arc of civilization moves slowly and erratically and its progress is fragile. Still, we’ve managed to move in the right direction, more or less, with regard to a number of important issues such as women’s rights, children’s rights, animals’ rights, slavery, torture and so on.

We’ve also stopped executing people for trivial offenses, and we’ve done away with decapitation, drawing and quartering, burning at the stake, the electric chair and, for the most part, hanging.

At the same time, we’ve made executions more palatable by moving them out of the public view – the last public hanging was in 1936 – and by using less dramatic methods of execution like lethal injection.

But we’ve never understood that capital punishment isn’t about what the criminal deserves as much as it’s about what kind of society we want. Everyone’s freedom became more secure when we did away with slavery, and our culture’s integrity advanced when men gave in to women’s demands for the right to vote. Abolishing capital punishment – a fallible, ineffective practice that brings out the worst in us – would be one more step in the right direction.

Does Robert Post deserve to die? Probably. But I’m not sure that’s my call. Are you certain it’s yours? Maybe we’d all be better off if we were a society that is willing to lock people up for as long as necessary but that still reserves final, irrevocable judgment for some wiser, higher power.

John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. Email jcrisp@delmar.edu.

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Discussion | 8 comments

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  • rlw895December 11, 2012 - 12:32 am

    In 1978, California voters put the death penalty in the state constitution with a 70% favorable vote. Last month California voters approved keeping it there by a 53% vote against Proposition 34. There is a trend, and it's true this battle isn't over. Crisp has provided an uplifting argument against the death penalty (the "real problem" is "we’ve never understood that capital punishment isn’t about what the criminal deserves as much as it’s about what kind of society we want"). The argument that it costs too much to administer, most commonly cited for Prop 34, isn't enough, and shouldn't be. The "real problem" to me is the fact that there is no way to guarantee--to my satisfaction anyway--that an innocent person will not be put to death under our inevitably imperfect system of justice. "Beyond a reasonable doubt" is not good enough in death penalty cases. I would accept "virtual certainty" with eyewitnesses and a confession, but prefer a maximum sentence of life without parole. And then move on.

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  • Former FF residentDecember 11, 2012 - 3:16 am

    Gas them, fry them, shoot them whatever but do something to lessen the burden these inmates have on the state budget. Being on death row for 20+ years is ample time to prove you don't belong there. Locking them up forever, while appealing to bleeding hearts, is ridiculous.

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  • rlw895December 11, 2012 - 12:26 pm

    FormerFF: You have to define who "they" and "them" are. You're missing my point.

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  • ArtimusDecember 11, 2012 - 6:41 pm

    The bottom is lame your bleed.

    Reply | Report abusive comment
  • CharyofDecember 11, 2012 - 7:19 am

    I currently back the death penalty in defined instances. Among those would be serial killers and other multiple life takers where the question of guilt is fully proved. I would also use the death penalty in cases of murder while behind bars. There is no incentive for lifers who cannot be released and there is no incentive for me to want to rehabilitate them if they will not. I would even make a case for those that would use espionage to seriously damage our country regardless of wether life was taken or not. What comprises sufficient evidence is an argument that already has been answered in some states although some states like Texas need to reassess that area of their laws.

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  • rlw895December 11, 2012 - 12:30 pm

    I'm not familiar with what other states do to allow the death penalty. Perhaps you can cite the best one you have in mind. We agree it's not Texas, which goes the other way. So, do you think "beyond a reasonable doubt" as applied to other crimes is good enough?

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  • CD BrooksDecember 11, 2012 - 8:06 am

    Mr. Crisp presents a very good argument and certainly brings pause to our current thinking. But my argument to the contrary is we have not carried out enough sentences to truly identify their effects. Since I don’t believe in a “higher power” and why would I? There has been no evidence to suggest his presence… ever, or availability, thus questions like this resulting from heinous acts that could have been averted by such an entity. But I digress…I was an advocate for death but after further review, have decided that life especially for younger offender’s, is probably the worst possible sentence. I will argue however, instances where children and the elderly are abused or molested in any fashion. I cannot reconcile any circumstance that allows these rotten humans to exist and are so deserving of the worst possible execution. I presented an idea to pay death row or lifer inmates $50K to sign their life away with the proceeds going to the families of their victims. Their sentence would be carried out within days of the signing. Maybe this would thin out the population and make more room for the bad guys. Seems equitable to me…

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  • rlw895December 11, 2012 - 12:45 pm

    Oh, I don't know, CD, there have been enough state executions over history and outside of California--and research done--that I believe it is pretty well established that the death penalty is a poor deterrent. There are several theories of punishment in criminal law research. Deterrence is one of them, but so is rehabilitation, isolation, and retribution. People who focus on retribution naturally favor the death penalty and are willing to overlook its faults. The only difference between them and me is I'm not willing to overlook its faults. And the fault that our system of justice isn't good enough, and likely never will be, to assure me that an innocent person will never be put to death is a fatal flaw. That's been a major consideration where the death penalty has been abolished. It's not that most of these people don't deserve to die or the cost of keeping them in prison or the fact that life without parole is even greater punishment. I disagree with all of those arguments. If you focus on the easy cases, you will miss the point. How many innocent people are you willing to kill to satisfy your need for retribution? For me, it's none. If you've thought about it and still favor the death penalty, then for you it's more than none, and you have to acknowledge that to yourself.

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