Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Capital Punishment Deters Crime: Therefore What?

Copyright (c) 2007 by Joel Marks
Originally published with the title “No justification for death penalty” in the New Haven Register, June 26, 2007, page A8

Killing people saves lives. That seems to be the conclusion of recent studies of the effect of capital punishment on the murder rate. According to Associated Press (June 11), “between three and 18 lives … would be saved by the execution of each convicted killer.” One study estimates that the moratorium on executions in Illinois resulted in 150 unnecessary deaths of citizens in its first four years.

The scientific community has not yet subjected the cited studies to thorough scrutiny, but they have garnered enough preliminary respect that, for the sake of what I have to say, I will grant that they have shown the effect they claim: capital punishment deters murder. It still does not follow that capital punishment is justified. Not by a long shot. Why not? I think the most telling fact about these studies is that they do not consider whether the executed convicts were actually guilty!

It is obvious, is it not, that being “found” guilty of something is not the same as being guilty of it; juries can make mistakes and condemn the wrong person. And that is not merely a logical point. The Innocence Project, for example, has helped win the exoneration of 15 persons on death row by means of DNA testing.

The issue here is part of a much broader one of long standing, namely, whether a practice or policy is warranted by its consequences. In simpler terms: does the end justify the means? Here is why the answer is “No.” Suppose the government wanted to put an end to murder once and for all and it knew that capital punishment is a deterrent. The recent studies also suggest that the more speedily the punishment is meted out, the more dramatic its deterrent effect.

Why not, then, simply round up hundreds of derelicts all over the country where there are unsolved murders, try them and convict them quickly in kangaroo courts, and then execute them? Whammo – murders plummet! But this would be wrong to do, would it not? Therefore, effects do not by themselves justify anything.

After all, our society does not believe in chopping off the hands of convicted thieves even if it could be proved that this would reduce the amount of theft dramatically.

Or think about it this way. Suppose your child desperately needed an organ transplant, as did four other young people in adjoining wards. It turns out that there is a healthy young person walking by the hospital whose body contains all of the needed organs in fine working condition. Why not just pluck her off the street, remove her organs, then dump her body in the morgue? The results would be that five young people get to live their lives rather than just one. But it would be wrong to do this, would it not?

Thus, how we think about capital punishment has implications for other important issues as well. Consider torture. Here too there is controversy about whether the practice is even effective, since people being tortured may be as likely to give false information as true. But, again, let us grant the claim that it is effective and efficient. Still we might oppose it on other grounds.

As the United Nations Convention against Torture puts it: “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture” (Article 2). Why not? Because torture is a violation of “the inherent dignity of the human person” (preamble), not to mention, as with capital punishment, the victim may be innocent or unconnected to the matter of concern.

Interestingly, the very reason our country has tried to sidestep the prohibition on torture is to counter yet another egregious example of employing barbaric means on possibly innocent persons in order to achieve one’s ends: terrorism.

Can two wrongs -- indeed, the same wrong --possibly make a right?

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