Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Death Penalty In Error

Cameron Todd Willingham
Texas is the death penalty capitol of the United States. Governor Perry throwing his Texas-size cowboy hat into the Republican nomination ring seems a propitious time to discuss capital punishment, a topic more subject to political pandering than most.

Society must protect itself from the actions of criminals. How is that protection achieved? Constitutionally, the people of the United States have given themselves the right, not simply to prevent future bad acts, but to commit, as is stamped on the death certificate of each inmate executed in Texas, homicide.

Doing less than the minimum necessary to prevent the convicted from repeating criminal acts invites recidivism. Doing more is exacting revenge. Should the thirst for revenge be our guiding principle in assigning punishment? If so, what elevates our collective will above vigilantism or even the acts of the criminal?

What about the deterrence value of the death penalty? Fear of punishment may prevent some crimes, the issue is still open regarding capital offenses, but is it moral to kill one person in an effort to prevent bad acts by others? As a society we must seek moral high-ground whenever we contemplate revoking a citizen’s constitutional rights to life and liberty. If we have the means to rehabilitate, why punish? If we lack the ability to rehabilitate, we may morally retreat to protecting society from future criminal acts through incarceration.

Capital punishment, because it provides no protection beyond that of life imprisonment, is revenge. It constitutes a victory of emotion over reason and an irrevocable tragedy if applied in error, as may well have been the case with Cameron Todd Willingham, former resident of Corsicana, Texas. The death penalty cannot be morally justified. Executions, even after legal due process, are homicide and by definition premeditated. Premeditated homicide is murder. Until capital punishment is no more, we will all have blood on our hands.

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