Monday, April 11, 2011

The Death Penalty - a Proposed Alternative.

On Wednesday, March 9, 2011, at 1 p.m. Eastern Time, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn signed the Death Penalty Repeal bill into law, joining fifteen other states and the district of Columbia in not having the legal ability to execute heinous criminals.

This is one issue in which I have traditionally been squarely on the fence for most of my life, but I’m finally leaning towards abolishment.

The down side of the death penalty is the issue of innocence. Our criminal justice system is good, but not perfect. Not every defendant has the resources of OJ Simpson. Prosecutors have a political vested interest in securing convictions. A conviction means a case is closed, a crime is solved, the community is safer, justice is served, and most importantly the prosecutor is doing a good job and should be retained. This political environment has the potential to foster a climate where results count more than real justice, and an innocent man is sent to prison. Exoneration of convicts based on forensic DNA evidence demonstrates that this happens. That it happens even once is far too much. The cases in which a prisoner is released and cleared of charges get a lot of press. But you cannot release an innocent man who has been executed in accordance with the law!

Then there’s the issue of the cost. A death penalty conviction starts a process which is sufficiently drawn out that the convict stands a very good chance of dying of old age in prison before being executed. Appeals are expensive, time consuming and the justice system (i.e. John Q. Public) pays for the endless appeals and legal maneuverings of a convict who’s willing to grasp at every legal straw available to prolong his life.

On the flip side are the crimes in which the guilt of the accused is in no question, such as Jared Lee Loughner. There are crimes committed where the crime is so heinous, and the guilt of the accused is so well established, that one’s natural reaction is to kill the perp as quickly as possible. I don’t have a problem with this.

Many Christians base their objection on Biblical moral grounds, from the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” (Exodus20:13, KJV). This is a misapprehension, based on a loose translation. The original Hebrew word used was רָצַח (ratsach), which more closely translates to “murder”. Indeed, the death penalty was a central tenet of ancient Hebrew justice. To say that the state cannot execute criminals based on biblical teachings is hypocrisy.

But from a purely philosophical standpoint, the idea that the State has the right -even the obligation -to execute its own citizens should disturb anyone, no matter what the crime of the citizen is.

Let’s think about the purpose of execution. From an emotional standpoint, execution is the ultimate revenge. You have harmed me beyond recompense and for that act you will pay with your life. Is it the role of the state to extract revenge? And what sort of revenge is it when it’s carried out sometimes decades after the crime, when the crime has become a distant memory and the general public doesn’t even remember the details of the crime? If it’s revenge we’re after, locking the condemned in a room with the victim’s family and a ready supply of baseball bats for 20 or 30 minutes seems more appropriate.

The death penalty isn’t an effective deterrent. People committing crimes do not consider the scope of punishments they may face for the crimes. The logical argument in favor of the death penalty is that the condemned is guilty of a crime so heinous that no punishment is adequate, that no rehabilitation is possible, and that the death penalty is an economic alternative to maintaining the condemned for life in prison. In effect, the condemned is too dangerous to release into society, and therefore it’s a preventive measure. The problem with this logic is that the cost to the state of executing a prisoner is often more than maintaining their life in prison.

But, states the death penalty advocate with a certain amount of justification, life in prison is an inadequate punishment for some egregious crimes, and represents leniency on the part of the state. Victims families will never reach closure knowing that the person who committed a heinous crime is drawing breath, warm and safe behind prison walls, getting three meals and a bed to sleep in every night, medical care, exercise, TV and access to prison occupation programs and “quality of life” perks. Can’t say I disagree. Some would argue that prison is a thoroughly unpleasant, stressful place, and that life in the joint is no bed of roses. I would contend that humans are sufficiently adaptable that they can adjust to almost anything, and a person facing life in prison can come to terms with it over time. Surviving the first few years will place the prisoner in a position in the social order of the prison that can be tolerated, at times even enjoyed.

I think there’s a middle road. Short of death, I propose there be a special classification of life imprisonment. Let’s call it “living death”. Upon conviction, you are condemned to die in prison. There is no possibility of parole. From the moment you begin serving your sentence, you will be considered dead for all intents and purposes. You will be declared legally dead for the purposes of settling your estate. You will have no contact with your family or loved ones. They might as well hold your funeral when you enter prison. Once the appeals process has run its course, you will have no further contact with legal representation. You will be allowed to access a minister of the religious denomination of your choice, but the minister will be chosen and trained by the department of corrections. Said ministers will not convey messages to and from outside your prison. You will have no access to any sort of media outside the prison, nor will you have any contact outside the prison. You will be housed alone in a 20x20 cell. Your meals will be provided to your cell with a 2000 calorie per day diet. You will keep your cell as clean and functional as you like – it’s your place to live for the rest of your life. If you destroy property, it will not be replaced. The “death row” block will be subject to periodic inspection to ensure that prisoners are not subjected to abuse beyond the scope of their incarceration. Prisoners will receive necessary medications and annual health checks, but no major medical intervention in the event of serious illness or conditions. The state has no interest in prolonging your life by artificial means. No one will be notified when you have lived out your natural life and died. You will be cremated on site.

This should satisfy the death penalty opponents who abhor the idea of killing a man, no matter the crime, and should satisfy the death penalty advocates by removing the criminal from society as effectively as execution and not providing him with a comfortable living or any sort of social support so desperately important for humans.

This is the harshest punishment I can imagine without becoming inhumane. The state has no interest in spending resources in making the life of the criminal miserable. Neither does the stat have an interest in making the life of the “death row” prisoner comfortable. The prisoner must be satisfied with the fact that the only reason we don’t kill him is he’s not worth the expense. And in the very unlikely event that it’s discovered that a prisoner was found to be wrongly convicted, we can always retrieve them from the abyss of the “death row” prison system and return him to freedom.


  1. Interesting proposal. My main problem with it is that the incarcerated person has no contact with legal representation.
    Like you brought up, one of the problems with the death penalty is that sometimes innocent people are killed by the state. The death penalty prevents us from being able to exonerate a wrongful conviction. Your proposal seems to have the same defect. An innocent person sentenced to "living death" would face the same problem. Being considered already dead, and without access to legal representation, such a person would be beyond exoneration. If new evidence were to turn up, casting doubt on their conviction, the sentenced person would have no ability to start a process to clear their name- as you said, the person is already dead for all intents and purposes.

    1. Since the convict is incommunicado - basically in the afterlife's waiting room, he would in fact have no ability to clear his name.

      There HAS been cases when an executed prisoner was exonerated. Just because he's been flushed down the oubliette doesn't mean there aren't people on the outside working on his behalf - lawyers, family members, etc. The appeals process has run, or he wouldn't be where he is, but new evidence could be introduced that would allow the system to retrieve him.

      I have a problem with the state having the moral authority to kill its citizens.