Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Capital Punishment in America

On the wonderful site called the National Coalition for the Abolition of the Death Penalty there is the following statement which caught my attention and made me wonder.

The United States is moving away from the death penalty because of growing concerns about innocence, unfairness, discriminatory application, lack of efficacy and other reasons, including the ways the death penalty causes more pain for the survivors of homicide victims. These concerns have led to an eight year decline in death sentences nationwide. In 2007, the number of defendants who received a death sentence was at its lowest point since the death penalty was upheld in 1976.

Although I boast unabashedly of always having an open mind, I readily admit to a deep skepticism. For example, as I frequently mention, I shun statistics because I usually question their veracity and relavence. In the same way, I take what I read on web sites with a grain of salt, always considering who's writing and what their agenda is.

About the above statement, I wondered, is the United States really moving away from the death penalty? The stats quoted sound pretty convincing, but I wonder. And, if true, which I certainly hope it is, are the reasons the ones stated: "growing concerns about innocence, unfairness, discriminatory application, lack of efficacy and other reasons, including the ways the death penalty causes more pain for the survivors of homicide victims."

I especially liked the last one. I'm sure if I wrote something like that I'd be immediately hit with prove that with sources or indicate where you got that from. Which is exactly what I'm wondering.

Do relatives of victims get the closure they often talk about by knowing or even witnessing the execution of the killer of their loved one? I'd bet not. I'd bet they poison themselves so deeply with the desire for revenge that they never get over it. On the other hand, I remember a case, sadly a very rare one, in which the father of the victim expressed forgiveness in a Christian sort of way. As difficult as that may be, I'd bet that's the only way to get closure and find peace.

What do you think?


  1. I've said it once, I'll say it again. The United States does not have the Death Penalty. They have a fucked up political fiasco where a prisoner is put to death, and it makes the national news and the people on both sides do their thing (Cheer, Cry, Blog, whatever)

    But it is a circus not a penal system. It shouldn't exist in its current form. While I'm for a REAL death penalty being installed (Swift unbiased appeals where afterwards the defendant is either set free, given an abriviated sentence *I'm against "Life without Parole" sentences* or lead to an execution chamber where they will be painlessly and without fanfare freed from their mortal ties)

    But I'll tall full abolition over what we have now.

    BTW Mike, thanks for your honesty on how you view polarizing issues like this, and the stats that refute/support them. But what steps are you taking to free yourself from your given biases?

  2. Mike,

    Here is a story I would be interested in getting your opinion on.
    Troubled Teen sentenced to 99 years for shooting cop

    It has all the elements you like; guns, gangs, troubled youth, prison sentence.

    Food for thought: While the 99 year sentence isn't a death penalty, isn't it producing nearly the same results? How much does the environment affect the choices people make?

  3. It isn't the USA per se, which is the mistake European anti-death penalty advocates make. They waste their considerable financial resources on the coasts (Yes, I'm lookin at you, Amnesty International!) , for instance, when this issue is literally a STATE BY STATE thing.

    The Catholic Church gets it. When SC needed a bishop, the one promoted was a Florida priest who had held death penalty vigils, etc; they deliberately sent an anti-death penalty activist priest to a death penalty state. That's targeting!

    But you have to focus on the death penalty STATES, such as here, Florida, Texas, etc. Simply focusing on "the USA" is not the way it works on this particular issue.

  4. its a rough call.. one that i dont want to make. I know that if heaven forbid someone wronged my family and i had the choice, i dont think the "turn the other cheek" part of my personality would prevail...

  5. See I think about it a different way. I don't think in an ideal world the Death Penalty should be seen as "Revenge" or "Retribution"...while it might be considered Restitution for a crime against society.

    In the end rather than thinking about what I'd want to happen to the man who killed my family, I'd rather the man who might kill my family to be thinking about what will happen to him if he crosses that legal line.

    It should be a deterrent, not "revenge".

    In the current form in the US, the Death Penalty is a Circus, and highly unpredictable, and rare, I don't think Criminals think about it on a serious level overall for those reasons.

  6. Weer'd, Thanks for that tough question. One thing I do to combat my biases is to continue reading and considering opposing arguments, from you and from Bob, for example. Often in the process, I find myself pausing and reconsidering, even adjusting at times my position. I really do this.

    Can I ask you the same thing? Can you answer like I just did?

    Bob, That one does have all my favorite elements. I should turn it into a post.

    Daisy, Thanks for the reminder that it's a State thing. Do you think Georgia will be improving with that new bishop? Do you agree with the article that the overall trend is good for the anti-death penalty folks?

  7. "Can I ask you the same thing? Can you answer like I just did?"

    Yes. Remember, I used to be an Anti-Gun Liberal. I supported bans, and felt that people who carried firearms were paranoid.

    ...But I also thought guns were neat, so I started reading technical papers on them, and I learned that most of what I thought I knew "My Bias" was factually wrong, and the more I read, the more it supported the opposite conclusion.

    I frequent anti-gun websites, and read anti-gun articles and books.

    If any of them can make a valid point without lying, or dodging facts then I'll have no choice but to change my opinion back.

    I guess my goading you into answering questions you claim to be "rhetorical" has a certain selfish components. By Dodging questions, and repeating refuted argument you only support my bias that anti-gunners are only supported by misinformation and dishonesty (either the sinister kind, or the more passive intellectual dishonesty), and leave the facts, data, and logic I've spent a great deal of my personal time acquiring and putting through my own personal filters entirely unused.

    I know you don't have any irons in this fire, given that you aren't being paid to write anti-gun articles (Like Bryan Miller, Paul Helmke, or John Rosenthal, et al) and that you have little to gain one way or the other however laws may swing as you and your family live in Italy, so if guns are banned it doesn't effect you, and if machine guns go back to being sold at the local hardware store like they were in the 1920s it really won't effect you either, and everything in between. And lastly I find your blog to be overall intelligent, thoughtful and respectful (BTW, I withdraw my above claim of you being a Troll on the gun issue as an obvious miss-communication, and present my sincerest apology) So of all the anti-gun sites and people I speak with (and there's LOTS of them here) I list you as one of the people who I consider potential to change my mind. (I consider people like Bryan Miller, Paul Helmke, or John Rosenthal, et al as people to read to prevent further misinformation, as they all are proven spreaders of dishonesty of the most sinister kind, a great example here *make sure to read all the links if you doubt me*)

    So when I present you with a question they aren't rhetorical, its honestly something I'm either curious about, or see as a logical disconnect (Such as the logical fallacy of why we should sue the maker of a gun when a person breaks the law with it an commits an assault.... while not suing a car company when a person breaks the law and drives drunk and commits an assault...or simply uses the car as a weapon. Doesn't make any sense to me.)

    So its a big task I place on you, Mike, but its my thoughts that if I want to stand by my beliefs, I should be able to openely defend them. If I cannot (such as my support for Gun Control) then I must give them up.

  8. Weer'd, When you said, "(BTW, I withdraw my above claim of you being a Troll on the gun issue as an obvious miss-communication, and present my sincerest apology)" it meant a lot to me. I really mean that.

    About the biases, your story is a great one. To have actually changed sides on a serious issue by listening to the other side and being humble enough to admit you had been wrong, is just impressive.

    I can't offer such dramatic proof of my open mind and my good intentions, but I would point out that up until the point of changing sides, we're doing it the same way. I hope you don't think that my sincerity can only be proven by my eventually changing sides. In the end we may have to agree to disagree, both respecting the other's position. How's that sound?

  9. "Agree to Disagree" is a lazy-man's chorus. You're welcome to regroup and redouble your efforts at a later time, but I shall not agree to something I see as fundamentally wrong and of no good or benefit to society. (As opposed to say my Agreement that Abortion should remain legal, that I fundamentally disagree with, but also understand that only harm would come from a ban)

    I'm glad you accept my apology. Was a severe mis-communication between us. Sometimes such a serious disconnect can only be broken by raised voices. I'm glad we're beyond it.

    as for your statement:
    "To have actually changed sides on a serious issue by listening to the other side and being humble enough to admit you had been wrong, is just impressive."

    Isn't a factually true statement. I avoided the NRA and other Pro-Gun groups like the PLAGUE until I had already become an avid shooter and started to take personal political action on the issue.

    Why? Well after my first day shooting I found some factual errors that I had learned from the Media during the Assault Weapons Ban discussion. The person who took me shooting I really don't see as much of a 2nd Amendment guy...lots of people deep in gun-friendly country are like that back in those days, its likely changed since the AWB, but at that time people had guns, and didn't really see what all the fuss was about, and since their local politicians also had guns, and really didn't care, there was no need to look to Washington, or even the Constitution.

    No, the media had lied to me about guns, I just assumed the NRA et al were just as full of lies. So before I even approached them I made sure I was reasonably knowledgeable about the common types of guns, common ammo, and general laws and restrictions posed on them.

    Dry reading. Ballistics tables, technical sheets, law books, and crime statistics.

    After I felt reasonably comfortable with those issues, I went to the NRA...not as a friendly, but on the offense! I wanted to find THEIR lies on the issue. To be honest, I found very few, and most was the standard political simplifying of the issue. I became a member a few years later...a life-member a few years after that.

  10. Oh a good story for you on this issue, Mike.

    A cop-killer, Could be a Death Sentence...but nobody has been executed in NH since the 1930s

    Also the murder was committed with a gun...but the gun was brought up from New England gun-control Capital (and leader in the nation after DC, LA and Chicago) of Boston, into the state with the #2 most lienient gun control laws, New Hampshire (#1 is next door in Vermont)

    LOTS to discuss on that one, all up your alley, my good man!

  11. Mike,

    Here is a test case for your .
    opposition to the death penalty.

    JEFFERSON, N.C. — Prosecutors say a man shot by his best friend 45 times lived through the first 32 shots.

    They highlighted the findings of pathologists at Freddie McDowell Jr.'s murder trial Thursday after defense testimony claimed the 24-year-old man suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, The Winston-Salem Journal reported.

    Authorities say McDowell killed 19-year-old Drew Howell at a mountain home in Wilkes County, N.C., in June 2006.

    McDowell's attorney says he acted in self-defense and was abused as a child.

    But prosecutors showed photos of Howell, who was shot in the eyes, groin and chest with a .38-caliber revolver, and pointed out that McDowell cleaned the cabin before police arrived.

    Okay, first off the criminal used a revolver to shoot his victim 45 times. Either it was a 5 or 6 shot revolver likely, meaning 7 or 8 times he stopped and reloaded.

    How cold and callous must this criminal be to do that, not just to a person, but to his best friend. Is the prison time likely to reform an individual like this?

    Psychological defense listed as both Post Traumatic and childhood abuse or is it PSTD caused by abuse. Either way, he was 24 years old before he killed, so he was able to control himself up until that point, right?

    How about the millions of people who were abused as children but didn't shoot their best friend 45 times? I don't think they have some magical powder or lack of access to deadly weapons, so the ones that do make the decision to kill are the only ones getting the attention.

    The fact he took the time to clean the cabin, in my opinion indicates he knew right from wrong and tried to hide his crime. Kinda hard to argue diminished capacity when the suspect tries to remove evidence, isn't it?

    Personally, I think the death penalty is appropriate for a person like this.

  12. Bob, That certainly is one bizarre case. My own reaction to it is of course quite different from yours. I don't think anybody merits the death penalty, but this guy much less than any number of others we've discussed. Why are you so unbending on the mitigating factor of childhood abuse? Granted that many claim it when it's not a real factor, but you seem to think no one gets any consideration on that one. Furthermore, the fact that he had to reload a number of times and shot the guy 45 times, to me adds credence to the temporary insanity or whatever syndrome they're trying to sell. Why are you so unbending on the "taking responsibility for the consequences of our actions" argument? These are sick boys who deserve better than the death penalty. What are you saying we should spend millions on Michael Vick's damaged dogs but exterminate these damaged boys?

  13. Mike,

    The reason I'm unbending on the issue of taking responsibility is that so many people who suffer abuse don't commit violent, horrible crimes.

    If the vast majority of the people who have suffered the same type of abuse keep their behavior lawful, why should we give a pass to the few that don't keep their behavior lawful?

    I grew up in a family of 4 kids, Older Brother (OB hereafter), Older Sister (OS), and Younger brother (YS). Military brats all, we moved frequently, folks divorced when I was 17, the usual. Dad was strict, by your standards, probably a couple of the whoppings with a belt where abuse. Not complaining, just explaing.

    OB joined the Navy at 18, spent 4 yours visiting exotic locales, learning about the native drugs and enjoying them. Continued the lifestyle after he got out until he was about 32, then met a woman and decided to clean up and stop being a user. Stopped cold.

    OS decided to go a different route and was pregnant at 17, she married and dropped out of school. Ended up with 4 kids by 4 different dads, spent much time on welfare, aid to families with dependent children, foodstamps, etc. On several occasions she would quit working because the government paid her more to sit at home then she would make in her low end jobs.

    YB started his path early, stealing from his siblings, shop lifting from stores at 12. The break in our relationship came about 15 years ago when he, his wife and two kids were taken in by a family. The stayed with the family 2 months in their own home, then the family let them move into their furnished rent home, plan was for them to stay there 6 months to get on their feet, free of charge. YB moved in on Friday night and out on Saturday morning; stealing every bit of furnishing, linen, dishes, & appliances. He's not in prison for writing hot checks....not his first stay.

    My path had me making good grades in school, but not enough confidence to get a scholarship. Joined the Air Force, offered an opportunity to attend the Academy that I foolishly turned down. Got out in 4 years, spent 13 years getting an associates degree part time. Met a smart lady who said no marriage (not even live together) until bachelors was out of the way.
    Accelerated program and 20 months later, Degreed. Married 5 months after that.

    So, long story but needed. Now tell me that we didn't have pretty much the same background, genetics, experiences, family values instilled, etc. Backgrounds that thousands of people share, we were that different from hundreds of thousands....but the 4 of us CHOSE different paths.

    Many people may not think about how they arrived where they are, but I've spent much time trying to figure it out. It all leads to the same place - Viktor Frankl's "Between stimulus and response is the freedom to choose".

    If I have that freedom to choose, doesn't each and every person?

    If we have the freedom to choose, don't we have the responsibility to accept the consequences of our actions?

  14. the fact that he had to reload a number of times and shot the guy 45 times, to me adds credence to the temporary insanity or whatever syndrome they're trying to sell.

    so the fewer times i shoot somebody, the more likely i'm sane and rational and know what i'm doing? how exactly does this reasoning make sense?

    oh well, if i ever feel the need to murder anybody, i'll just remember to dump an entire drum mag into them and hope the jury thinks like you do...

  15. If I ever feel the need to murder anybody I'm doing it with a pyrex Dildo while dressed as Mickey Mouse.

    No WAY they'll convict me!

  16. Bob, Thanks for such a personal history in defense of you position. I offer you another way to look at it. All of us who came from broken homes or ones in which there was pretty serious dysfunction or worse, you know the violent ones, have sustained some damage. Almost none of us ended up unscathed and turned into totally normal healthy adults. For the vast majority it was internalized. There may have been depression or alchol abuse that never turned criminal. There may have been low self esteem issues that plagued us in relationships and in the job world. There was for many of us serious difficulty in sustaining healthy relationships, some of us could never accomplish that. Then there's the small percentage, as you rightly point out, who commit crimes and an even smaller group who do violent crimes and murder. My point is we're all on the same spectrum, Bob. You (and I, I think) have sustained less damage than some of the others. It is only the level of damage sustained that determined our ability to make choices, and make good ones.

    My idea is to include this thinking into any analysis of a person's responsibility for their actions. It's not to excuse anything. But it's also not to take total credit for the good decisions we may have been able to make in our lives. And as a result, not to judge the offenders quite so severely.

    How's that sound?

  17. Mike,

    I agree that it should be included into the analysis of their actions but it can not excuse any of their actions.

    Your point that everyone is on the same spectrum is exactly my point. If the abuse/poor childhod/lack of self esteem was the cause I think there would be an incredible higher amount of crime. Those factors are a way to understand how someone made the decision to commit a crime. Analyzing the factors can help us put in more programs to try to prevent such problems.

    But when it all comes down to it, someone made a decision. The battered wife, who in amidst yet another beating, fights back and kills her abusing husband made a decision to survive and that the only way to survive was to fight back and stop the attack. Even if she wasn't aware of making the decision, she still made it, right?

    What I've gleaned from your writings is a tendency to want to excuse someone's actions because of their circumstances. I may be wrong, but does it make a difference to society that someone shot his best friend 45 times because he was abused as a child or that the person shot him because he was bored?

    Either way, shouldn't the message, the consequences of that shooting be the same? A rational thinking person made a 45 decisions to pull the trigger, 6 -8 decisions to reload, to try to clean up the fact he had done something wrong. An irrational person wouldn't have seen the wrong of what was done, correct?
    I think if a person truly doesn't know right from wrong, that is the definition of insanity. And in that case the person can not and should not be trusted in society.

    That was why I advocated "guilty by reason of insanity". The consequences differ in that the insane get sent to a place where they can be cared for but never allowed back into society.

    It is only the level of damage sustained that determined our ability to make choices, and make good ones.

    This is where I disagree and I'll point back to my family. The level of damage was fairly consistent, wouldn't you agree. It is not the level of damage, I've talked to people who have had horrendous life experiences that don't commit crime, that don't do drugs and it is because of those experiences.

    It is how we decide to handle those experiences. There is always a choice, even if that choice is simply not to do something. If you grow up seeing alcohol abused, that may be the norm, but there is always the choice not to abuse alcohol. The HOW you do that follows the choice.

    I made my choices differently from my siblings. Later I looked back to figure why I made those choices. My older brother joined the military, I joined the military - two choices very similar. He chose to break regulations (many times), I chose to obey regulations (many times)- according to your theory, shouldn't we have made similar choices?

  18. Mike,

    It occurred to me that you might mean the punishments should be different based on a person's past, so let's conduct a thought experiment.

    Let's say there are two people, me and another guy with identical current conditions & situations. Wife, 3 kids, good job, degree, relatively stable home life. The only difference is I had a relatively non-abusive past and the other guy was severely abused as a child.

    Then we each commit a horrific crime; we each shot our best friend 45 times ( to carry on the earlier post). Both admit to the crime or there is enough evidence to convict, we are both found guilty.

    Should the sentences be different?
    Should I get a life sentence, the death penalty, 50 years in prison while the other person because of his abused past gets 10 years? 20 Years? Or should the other person be sent to a institution to get help for his past and be released as soon as he is able to deal with his past?

    I think that shows the same crime needs to have the same consequence regardless of the past, we both made the same decision.