Thursday, August 18, 2011

Death is irrevocable

I'm working on the Perry/death penalty post; expect to see it tomorrow.

In the meantime, though, as I began to gather my links and thoughts about it all, it occurred to me that it might be a good idea to review what the Church teaches about the death penalty, and what my own ideas about it are. Otherwise the post tomorrow will be much too long for anyone to want to read (especially on a Friday).

To begin with, let's look at Church teaching, as summed up in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

2266 The State's effort to contain the spread of behaviors injurious to human rights and the fundamental rules of civil coexistence corresponds to the requirement of watching over the common good. Legitimate public authority has the right and duty to inflict penalties commensurate with the gravity of the crime. The primary scope of the penalty is to redress the disorder caused by the offense. When his punishment is voluntarily accepted by the offender, it takes on the value of expiation. Moreover, punishment, in addition to preserving public order and the safety of persons, has a medicinal scope: as far as possible it should contribute to the correction of the offender.67

2267 The traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude, presupposing full ascertainment of the identity and responsibility of the offender, recourse to the death penalty, when this is the only practicable way to defend the lives of human beings effectively against the aggressor.
"If, instead, bloodless means are sufficient to defend against the aggressor and to protect the safety of persons, public authority should limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.
"Today, in fact, given the means at the State's disposal to effectively repress crime by rendering inoffensive the one who has committed it, without depriving him definitively of the possibility of redeeming himself, cases of absolute necessity for suppression of the offender 'today ... are very rare, if not practically non-existent.'[John Paul II, Evangelium vitae 56.]

What do we take away from this passage in the Catechism?

First: the use of the death penalty is not something that is intrinsically evil; in fact, it is something that is seen as a legitimate use of the authority of a State.

Second: notwithstanding the State's right to execute criminals, it is a better treatment of the dignity of the human person to avoid execution whenever possible. Given the modern ability to incarcerate criminals indefinitely, it is rare that the death penalty will be required.

Two those two points I would add these others, often brought up in death penalty discussions among Catholics:

Third: it is never right or just to see the death penalty as a form of vengeance enacted by the public upon the criminal, regardless of the hideousness of his crimes. This is wrong not because it damages the criminal so much as it is wrong because it damages the person seeking and feeding his impulse toward vengeance--and when the person is, in fact, a whole large group of people or society itself, the potential harm is very great indeed.

Fourth: it is not just for the death penalty to be indiscriminately applied to the poor, especially when this happens simply because a wealthier person accused of a crime will have access to highly-trained lawyers, expert witnesses, and other resources that the poorer person will not have available. Note: I don't mean to denigrate the honest and sincere efforts of public defenders when I write this; but it is simply a reality that a poor defendant relying solely on public defenders may not, despite their best efforts, learn of things that could truly impact his case or his appeal. If the death penalty ceases to be the impartial result of the justice system for all criminals accused of certain types of crimes, and instead becomes applied disproportionately and unjustly to those who lack the monetary resources to defend themselves or create reasonable doubt in the minds of juries, then can the death penalty really be said to be just?

Fifth: the Catechism itself says that the death penalty may be justly applied when the identity of the criminal and his responsibility for the crime have been ascertained fully and completely. But we know that this is not the standard by which the death penalty is applied in America; it is certain that innocent people have been executed in the past and will continue to be executed in the future. Such a thought should fill our souls with horror--and yet accepting the broad use of the death penalty means accepting that some innocent people will likely be executed for crimes they have not committed.

I realize that it is slightly obnoxious for me to quote an earlier writing of mine; but I addressed my own slow journey to full acceptance of the Church's teaching at the Coalition for Clarity blog last year, and would like to share those thoughts here as well:

I personally struggled to embrace this view of the death penalty. For a long time I saw it only as a matter of meting out to violent murderers their "just desserts." I ignored tales of innocent people being executed (or released from Death Row years after being convicted), and of the disproportionate justice offered to the wealthy, who could afford expensive lawyers, and the poor, who had not these means to defend themselves against criminal charges. I didn't think about that corporal work of mercy which orders us to visit the imprisoned, or consider the impact on the souls of victims' families when they would publicly demand the death of the criminal as a kind of revenge for their suffering and loss.

Surprisingly enough, it was a purely secular source that led me to rethink my position in favor of the use of the death penalty as it is used here and now, in 21st century America. It was the late Erle Stanley Gardner's book, The Court of Last Resort, that first made me rethink my assumptions in favor of the death penalty. At the time I read this book, I'd been presented with Catholic arguments against the death penalty--I had just rejected them as "liberal" without really thinking about them. Mr. Gardner's book, detailing cases where men were waiting to die when there really was reasonable doubt that they were guilty--and in some cases, abundant evidence that they couldn't possibly be guilty--made me think about the issue in a new way.

Death, after all, is irrevocable. If an innocent man is executed, there is nothing that can be done to remedy the matter. But if a guilty one merely lives out the rest of his life in prison--who, exactly, is harmed? Society is not harmed--because we can't execute prisoners merely to avoid the cost of housing them. Society would only be harmed if the incarceration were lacking and the prisoner continued to hurt or kill people while behind bars--which does happen, and must be addressed.
I eventually came to realize that while States may execute criminals, this does not have to be the first or only response to violent crime, and is subject to so many misuses and miscarriages of justice that any society should proceed with great caution before executing anyone at all. This puts me at odds with a certain faction on the Right, which equates being "tough on crime" with being adamantly in favor of the death penalty and unwilling to discuss its merits or its just application regardless of what the Church teaches.

For the Church teaches that a man doesn't lose his intrinsic dignity even if he has sinned so greatly as to commit violent acts of murder and mayhem; he is still our brother, and we are still his keeper. It is a work of mercy to pray for prisoners, to visit them, to continue to speak to them of God's mercy and of the possibility of forgiveness.

And so I find myself disturbed by the relish with which the death penalty is often spoken of by people whose political views I might otherwise share (at least to some extent). But more about that tomorrow.


Geoff G. said...

I have to say that this is the political issue on which both my views and the reasoning behind them are most in accord with Catholic teaching. I find the case laid out, both in the Catechism and as further fleshed out in this post to be utterly compelling.

Would that the Church were as vocal on this issue (and that is by no means meant to denigrate the very important work that individual priests, religious and lay people have done) as it is on other social/political issues. For instance, I have long considered it fundamentally incoherent for someone to proclaim that they are both "pro-life" and pro-death penalty. You cannot be both; they are mutually exclusive positions.

The cynic in me suspects, however, that some in the Church are prepared to pass over this issue in order to make common cause with conservatives in other areas.

There are lots of issues where I can at least understand the other side. The death penalty, however, especially as it is applied in the US, is one that has no reasonable arguments in its favor.

Paul said...

The post quotes from an older version of the Catechism (from its archive on the Vatican site) -- taken from before the point in time where some things were made clearer, and the English improved. The current version of the Catechism #2267) says:

Assuming that the guilty party's identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.

If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people's safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.

Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm - without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself - the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity "are very rare, if not practically nonexistent."

The Catechism makes clear that the ability of the State to use the death penalty is strictly conditional: it is only permitted when there is no other way of protecting society from the offender.

Amongst other things, that means it is never possible to choose the death penalty because of its deterrence effect.

Erin Manning said...

Thanks, Paul. I have the older version myself, and so look for the familiar quotes.

I think the version you cite here is saying essentially the same thing, though. The State should not use the death penalty when other means will suffice to protect society and preserve order.

Paul said...

The wording in the Second Edition clarifies what is stated in the earlier version as: "public authority should limit itself to such means", to emphasize that this is not merely a recommendation, but rather something that must be done: "authority will limit itself to such means".

The earlier version also has some weak translations: "rendering inoffensive" and "suppression of the offender" are fairly opaque. The Second Edition clears these up.

A searchable version of the Second Edition can be found here.

Jeremy said...

Geoff G.
"I have long considered it fundamentally incoherent for someone to proclaim that they are both "pro-life" and pro-death penalty. You cannot be both; they are mutually exclusive positions."

While I am not pro-death penalty, I think you are mistaken to say that pro-life and pro-death penalty are mutually exclusive. There is a huge difference between taking innocent life (such as that of an unborn child) and taking the life of a murderous criminal. Virtually all human societies everywhere and always have condemned the taking of innocent life. Executing murderers and killing foreign invaders is another proposition entirely.

Chris-2-4 said...

I do not expect to convince you one way or another, but I have a few comments on your five points. They are just that--comments-- not arguments meant to entirely refute or persuade.

1st) Agreed without qualification.

2nd) Agreed, but when a nation or state fails to do what many agree to be "better" that is not the same as doing wrong.

3rd) Agreed, but I believe this objection to the Death Penalty is widely exaggerated. While there may indeed be people who support the death penalty in general or specific cases out of an attitude of vengeance, I do not believe that revenge is the motivation by the majority of the public, or any of the judges, juries, prosecutors, appellate participants, commutations boards or governors who have some hand in the justice system.

4) Society MUST fix this disparity, but the fact that people do not get caught, or are exonerated should not mean that a guilty person escape justice. Wealthier people are also disproportionately exonerated from non-capital crimes.

5) This also, I believe is grossly exaggerated by death penalty abolitionists to emotionally bolster their case. I do not believe the catechism envisions such an impossible level of proof that makes a PERFECT ascertainment of guilt. We must continue to improve the justice system in this regard, but it's imperfection is not proof of injustice.

Additionally, the fact that people are released from death row is not proof that innocent people are executed. Indeed, it is not even evidence that the inmate himself is innocent, only that the proof of guilt may have not been sufficient. As often as not, inmates being released from death row supports the notion that our system can work properly.

Unaddressed in this post, but hopefully to be addressed in your follow up is the duty of a non-catholic politician to live up to the highly evolved Catholic position on the death penalty and a Catholic citizen's duty to hold them to such a position.

c matt said...

it is simply a reality that a poor defendant relying solely on public defenders may not, despite their best efforts, learn of things that could truly impact his case or his appeal.

This should and can be remedied by allowing an indigent defendant the same resources to defend himself as are given to the state to prosecute him. There is also a duty on the part of the prosecutor to disclose exculpatory infomration discovered during the state's investigation of the crime, but that is only as good as the honesty of the prosecutor/state investigators.

Rebecca in ID said...

Thanks for laying it all out so clearly, Red. This is also my understanding of Church teaching. I also find it interesting that historically, the death penalty, torture, and other extreme penalties do *not* seem to be associated with a greater rate of deterrence. Reading about public executions, I have wondered if somehow the opposite effect is brought about--witnessing these things or having them happen all around you, maybe has a kind of dulling effect on the awareness of human dignity and the value of human life, and when that happens, people are more likely to commit violent crime. It all seems to go along with the Roman games, etc...just a thought.

I was thinking, too, whether less people would be as gung-ho about the death penalty if it had to be done by guillotine, or something...having a lethal injection seems to remove the reality a little...though the electric chair is pretty gruesome.

Erin Manning said...

Thanks, all! Interesting comments.

Paul, I appreciate you pointing out that very important difference (and I'll bookmark your link for future use).

MightyMighty said...

@Geoff, who said: "For instance, I have long considered it fundamentally incoherent for someone to proclaim that they are both "pro-life" and pro-death penalty. You cannot be both; they are mutually exclusive positions."

I think this doesn't leave enough room for 1.) acknowledging the truly horrific nature of abortion, the murder of complete innocence, because it juxtaposes them with people who are rapists and murderers, and 2.)the different state laws that could make the death penalty necessary. For example, MO does not have life in prison with no opportunity for parole as an option. Anyone who goes to jail for life in MO could theoretically be freed one day. It's not enough to say, "Well, that person's crimes were SO bad that he'll never get paroled." Think about all of the horrible people who do get paroled. So, if I were sitting on a jury in MO (I live in IL), and I had to choose between the death penalty and life in prison, for somebody who was young enough to be paroled and would always pose a threat, I would have to choose the death penalty. Similarly, if the person on trial was already in prison, and has killed guards and inmates, it is clear that he cannot be contained in a prison without further endangering innocent life.

But of course I agree that it's a sicko argument to use it as a revenge tactic. I just think it's worth noting that there are cases where it is a moral choice.

Patrick said...

@ Geoff G:

"Would that the Church were as vocal on this issue (and that is by no means meant to denigrate the very important work that individual priests, religious and lay people have done) as it is on other social/political issues."

Pope Benedict XVI wrote an encyclical "Caritas in Veritate" in 2009 which is highly critical of free market capitalism. Of course, nobody - and I mean *nobody* - bothered to read it much less report it. Do you really think that an encyclical about the death penalty that didn't mention homosexual behavior or the clergy's pedophilia scandal would get *any* coverage in the American press?

My suspicion is that, if it even got a headline, it would read: "Pope Writes Something About Capital Punishment: STILL Won't Address Pedophile Priest Situation". I'm kidding, but you see my point about the lack of coverage of Caritas in Veritate or any time the Church has addressed an issue that wasn't a hot-button "culture war" issue (Pope John Paul II loudly opposed the Iraq War for instance - and yet nobody portrayed the Church then or now as a bunch of hippy Kucinich fans.)

"The cynic in me suspects, however, that some in the Church are prepared to pass over this issue in order to make common cause with conservatives in other areas."

That's true without a doubt.

Rebecca in ID said...

I agree with MightyMighty that the discussion of the death penalty is really on an entirely different level than the matter of abortion. There are some important shared principles but also some very important differences. So, on the one hand, I find it odd and a little split-personality when someone who is against abortion speaks of the death penalty in a positive light as vengeance, but on the other hand, I am sympathetic to those who are against abortion yet hold the death penalty to be practical or necessary. The one can never be just or right; the other is largely a pragmatic matter which varies depending on circumstances.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

Paul, much as I agree with the catechism presented here, you have raised an issue I have to quibble over.

Nothing the church says is EVER mandatory for civil authority, period. It is what the church teaches, it may inform (but never direct) how members of the church vote, and individuals entrusted with public office may (never "must") take it into consideration as sound advice.

The church may use whatever wording it likes, but it has no effective authority, and no right to any, outside the walls of Vatican city.

However I, as a Protestant, but more important as a citizen, will vote for candidates for public office who do adhere to these principals. I respect the right of Roman Catholics who feel as Chris does to vote for candidates who support wider application of the death penalty.

On a different tack, although I am generally opposed to execution, partly because there is no way to correct the inevitable mistakes, I acknowledge that it requires a certain level of productivity and wealth to consider such fine distinctions.

For example, in a subsistence farming community, with insufficient resources to pay even one full time constable, the humane thing to do with a convicted child molester would be to kill him (or in rare instances, her). There simply would not be resources to support secure prisons, probation officers, a police force to apprehend escapees, etc.

On the other hand, if we imprison someone for life, it should NEVER be without possibility of parole. There should always be consideration of the possibility of redemption. There should be evidence, but the evidence being available, it should be given great weight, particularly after twenty years or so.

Rebecca in ID said...

Siarlys, if we are afraid of the mistakes made with innocent folks being put to death, I am just afraid or more afraid of the mistakes which can be made when people are put on parole who should not be. I would think that it would be worth the public security to make some crimes (such as serial murder?) something which would lock a person up for good. Redemption is not really the state's business--it is certainly a *just* punishment, and I would think someone guilty of such crimes who was truly repentant would *prefer* to live out their redemption in the prison setting, just so people could feel safer. The possibilities for human error are just too great.

Patrick said...

@ S. Jenkins:

"the humane thing to do with a convicted child molester would be to kill him"

That's the *humane* thing to do? What is the *inhumane* thing to do?

Siarlys Jenkins said...

Patrick, please remember that in modern society, I am opposed to execution. But think again about a primitive community with little surplus and no resources for imprisonment, or even trial. The inhumane thing to do is to let the perpetrator go, because, in the absence of any means to detain or restrain, other children will be molested. You could try exile -- but then he might hang around in the woods and raid the community that ostracized him. You could propose chaining him to a post in the middle of the village and bringing him pans of food to eat as best he can...

...Remember, I'm talking about a culture that has NO means to support even one person acting as jailer, where EVERYONE's labor is needed to produce the food that will sustain the local population. We are privileged to be well beyond that, but we should recognize that it is a privilege.

But, given what we do have to work with, Rebecca, there is an equal and opposite flip side to what you said. True, someone who would kill again may be released. On the other hand, someone who could live a valuable and productive life may never get the chance. I personally know people who are undoubtedly guilty of homicide, though perhaps not premeditated, who were denied parole when it was far and away the right thing to do, because the board just said "No" without considering anything but the original crime. That's not the point of parole. The point is, what has this person become.

Now I probably would not vote to parole Charles Manson, because from everything that's come out in the paper, he's as crazy and dangerous as when he went in. But I would parole some, if not all, of his followers, because they're not. I would have to read the file to know for sure -- which many parole boards don't bother to do, or do in the most cursory manner with their minds already made up.

Rebecca in ID said...

Yes, of course there is the flip side, but take a look at what I said: the consequences of erroneously releasing someone who appears to be okay now, who really isn't, are just too great, and that is why I think there are certain crimes (with attendant deliberateness) which should have a consequence of life imprisonment without possibility of parole. Because the safety of the state should come ahead of the life-ambitions of an individual. If it were not *just*, as well, I would not say so, but it is both just and protective, and society has a right, I think, to be certain that this man who deliberately tortured and killed twenty people, will never, ever, be able to do that again, will never be able to appear perfectly sane and good and talk about Jesus and then go kill twenty more people. And again, I say, a truly repentant person who understood the consequences of his actions, would not *desire* to do anything but live out his just punishment and seek his holiness there.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

Let's take another Texas case, Karla Faye Tucker, whom George W. Bush allowed to be executed. Unlike Willingham, she was unquestionably guilty of the brutal murders of three or more people. Unquestionably, she should, if not executed, have served a long time in prison before being considered for parole. But, she was already showing clear evidence that she would be an excellent candidate for parole, and, if left alive, that she was capable of doing excellent for the redemption of her fellow inmates.

There are people who do very well in prison who fall apart if released, and relapse. That is one factor that must be considered. Perhaps what we need for them is an ultra-low security facility, for people who will accept supervision, if it is offered, do very well with it, and simply can't make good choices when free of supervision.

But to keep someone who is ready for the responsibilities of free life in prison another thirty years is, in my mind, just as wrong as the death that results from releasing a person who, it turns out, will kill again. No human can ever be sure of all of the possible outcomes of the decision to release, or not to release, either way.

I knew a family in Sacramento many years ago, in which a man had committed a homicide, been paroled under the relatively loose standards California had in the 50s and 60s, lived a law abiding life for many years, then killed a neighbor who had threatened to rape his wife. An older lady who lived nearby observed that this killing was a good thing for the neighborhood. The deceased had a reputation for threatening to shoot his own mother, and for having forced incest upon his sister.

The local prosecutor saw nothing but "I can be the first to get a conviction under a new state law that allows life without parole for SECOND degree murder if he has a prior homicide conviction." I would say life, much less life without parole, was an unconscionably severe sentence for the circumstances.

The elder Gov. Pat Brown said that he had commuted twenty death sentences: one became a millionaire, one killed again, the rest went straight. Should those 18, or 19 if you're opposed to bashing rich people, have been denied that opportunity, to prevent the one additional murder nobody could have forseen?

Rebecca in ID said...

The question is, is it just. There are certain crimes which are *justly* punished by life imprisonment. I might agree with you on the particulars you mention--that those particular things did not deserve life imprisonment---but I have no doubt that some crimes do deserve it. No one who deserves life imprisonment should make a *claim* to the opportunity to try again, and I am opposed to anyone claiming it for them. There are so many cases of people being put on parole who obviously shouldn't have been, and I certainly would not trust a panel of psychologists or whatever to make a decision like that. I do think the safety of society is worth it, *given that it is also just*.

Geoff G. said...

Jeremy and MightyMighty, your arguments are well taken.

Regarding the juxtaposition of the taking of an innocent life versus the life of someone known to be guilty of a terrible crime, I would argue that the gravity of the act of killing another human being vastly swamps and outweighs any assessment we can make regarding the character of any individual.

Aside from the unborn and infants, who lack the ability to act morally, every human being alive is a combination of good and bad. Indeed it is tenet of most Christian denominations that we are all guilty to the point of meriting eternal damnation; a far more serious penalty than any earthly punishment. So it seems to me that Christians, of all people, should have difficulty with picking and choosing who deserves life and who deserves death.

It seems to me that the criminal justice system really is about two things and two things alone: protecting society from individuals who have acted to harm it, and, so long as it is consistent with the former, reform of the criminal (and treatment where necessary; much crime has its roots in mental illness) to allow him or her to take a productive place in society.

The death penalty achieve neither of these goals. As the Catechism points out, there are other, less radical means of ensuring society's safety. And the death penalty forecloses any possibility of reform.

Indeed Christians who hold out hope for the redemption of any human being, no matter how heinous his acts, ought to be the very first to cry out when that opportunity is lost by prematurely ending his life.

In that sense, executing the guilty is even worse than murdering the innocent, because it cuts off any possibility for redemption. It displays a lack of hope.

As for the question of states that fail to offer an adequate range of punishment to juries, that's not an argument in favor of the death penalty, but rather an argument in favor of reforming the other sentencing rules.

MightyMighty said...


I see what you're saying, but for your very last point, "As for the question of states that fail to offer an adequate range of punishment to juries, that's not an argument in favor of the death penalty, but rather an argument in favor of reforming the other sentencing rules," this doesn't reflect reality. Juries don't get to make the laws; their job is to punish the guilty and free the innocent. If a man guilty of horrifying sexual crimes and murder, something we know has virtually no recovery rate, could be paroled while still young enough to re-offend, the jury may be obliged to put him to death, rather than risk him being freed by a namby-pamby "it's been a long time" parole board. Yes, he's been in jail a long time, but it isn't just about punishing the man, but about protecting his possible future victims. And the recidivism rate for criminals, except for those who convert to Catholicism while in the slammer, is extremely high. (I just listened to a great Lighthouse CD on this. The recid rate for regular criminals in Alabama is about 80%. For converts to evangelical Christianity: 60%. Catholics? 2%.)

Rebecca in ID said...

"In that sense, executing the guilty is even worse than murdering the innocent, because it cuts off any possibility for redemption. It displays a lack of hope."

I disagree with that; a man could be more likely to repent, knowing he will die soon, than if he were given a lesser sentence. In fact I have seen many examples of repentant prisoners on death row, for whom I would have a great hope of eternal salvation. That argument doesn't cut it for me.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

I rather wonder what percentage of prisoners in Alabama convert to RC in the first place? It may be a rather small number. I do have a beef with evangelical Christianity: it places so much emphasis on "once you accept Jesus you are forgiven" that many ethically challenged individuals, whether criminal or not, feel they can repeat their lapses, because they are sinners, and will be forgiven, because they accepted Jesus as their savior. Austen Miles's "Don't Call Me Brother" is very illuminating on this point. So are the two men who murdered Matthew Shepherd, who smugly proclaim "I'm saved, because I repented, he's in hell," (because I killed him before he could do anything at all).

Back to parole decisions: there are two brands of "namby pamby." One says, oh yeah, everyone deserves a second chance. Let them go." The other says, "This was a horrible crime. Just say no." Neither one is willing to do the hard work they are being paid to do:

Carefully examine the record, speak directly to the prisoner, hear from those who interact with them on a daily basis, and THEN come a carefully considered judgement, knowing the awful consequences that go with ANY decision, yes or no.

What does anyone "deserve"? If you get into that consideration, you will quickly be back to "an eye for an eye, a life for a life." The only way anyone eligible for parole could possibly be paroled is to claim it. The only way to open the possibility is to demand that parole boards do their job, in the face of political pressure to take one of the two easy ways out.

Rebecca in ID said...

Well, Siarlys, if my child damaged property through negligent behavior, I would tell the child it is her duty to pay for the damaged property to the degree that she can. She "deserves" to pay for it. If people don't "deserve" their jail sentences, then why are they there? If you take justice out of the picture, it doesn't make sense. I do think it's kind of dumb just to incarcerate people; I do think they should really be doing more to positively contribute to the common good they damaged--but I don't have an understanding of punishment apart from some concept of justice and what a crime "deserves". The person whose property was damaged might *forgive* my child, and my child might show true repentance, but still, she needs to make amends. I would think that someone guilty of the most heinous crimes, though it is not possible to "make amends" in one sense, would at least want to make the kind of amends that tells society "You can sleep a little safer knowing that at least I am not around to stab you in your bed at night". And anyone who had understood the gravity and horror of such crimes, would understand the public's need to have such criminals incarcerated for life. I agree with you that the folks in charge of parole need to do their hard job and do it well; I disagree with you that no crime can possibly deserve lifetime incarceration if there is repentance and reform. I'm sorry, but if I got into some cult or drugs or whatever and found myself capable of kidnapping/molesting/murdering children, and I were to repent of such a thing, I would not dare to think of asking to be let out, because now I'm different. Although the relationship with God can be healed, human relationships can be irrevocably wounded, and someone who commits such crimes has on a natural level irrevocably wounded his relationship with the whole of society. I am open to being convinced otherwise, but you haven't convinced me. In your view, is the *only* purpose of punishment the reformation of the criminal, and is there *no* aspect of justice involved? An eye for an eye would be the state inflicting on that individual the same tortures he inflicted on others, both physical and mental...incarceration is far more mercy than justice, so I don't quite get your analogy.

Geoff G. said...

MightyMighty, I think Siarlys Jenkins points to the solution.

I'm cynical enough about the criminal justice system to believe that most prosecutors have zero interest in justice, that they will routinely "overcharge" defendants either as a negotiating tactic in a plea bargain or to maneuver a jury into convicting someone of a greater crime if the only other choice is acquittal.

So what should a jury do? As with conviction, where we are obliged to acquit if we find reasonable doubt, I think, in general, sentencing should err on the side of mercy and leniency. And other than that, judge each individual case on its own merits, to the best of your ability.

What could possibly be worse for your own soul than sending someone to their death when you do not believe they deserve it? To do that is to substantively agree with Rick Perry's constituent, that it "takes balls" to send an innocent man to his death.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

Rebecca, I've never taken a life, and I don't expect you have either, but I do know people who have, and I have no compunction in saying that some of them should be released. I care little whether they "deserve" release. They "deserved" to be convicted and incarcerated. Many cases are real tragedies, because a slightly different course of events, the crime would never have happened. They aren't all cold, callous, premeditated deeds. On the other hand, it is also true that someone who just can't control their temper DOES need to be in custody, PERHAPS for life.

Atoning ceases to be relevant when there is NO WAY to atone. But then, most Christian sects teach that there is no way we can earn salvation. I think even the Roman Catholic church teaches that, whatever it was Luther said on the subject. I'd say twenty years is the maximum without CONSIDERATION or parole. On that, you and I will probably never agree.

Rebecca in ID said...

Ack, as I said before, I'm not saying every murder deserves life imprisonment! Did you see the examples I gave? But a proposal that 20 years max w/o consideration of parole for cold-blooded, premeditated serial murder is a mind-boggling proposal for me. So yeah, I guess we may never agree on that.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

Rebecca, you still seem to assume that the parole board WOULD grant parole automatically after 20 years. A person capable of SERIAL murder is much less likely to be a good bet for parole, even after twenty years. In many cases, they would be a good case for transfer to a secure medical institution even if they got out of prison.

But after no more than twenty years, the parole commission should take a good hard look.

You may agree that not all murders merit life without parole, but the law has to be written in a manner that is consistent and even-handed. On the statute books, first degree is first degree. In my state, judges have the OPTION to set a first parole date at any number of years starting at twenty. Some of them do outlandish things, like 300 years. Even 60 years is wanton. After 20 years, consideration should be given. If parole is not warranted, then it can be denied or deferred.

Rebecca in ID said...

The thought that someone like the Zodiac killer, an intelligent person who might be really good at playing the system, appearing contrite, sane, etc., could actually be considered for parole after 20 years is horrifying. That would be the sort of thing that would probably not surprisingly cause the public to take matters into its own hands, if the man had been apprehended and were allowed to re-enter society. I have no problem saying that there are crimes which preclude re-entrance into society, just as I have no problem saying that a child who has been abused to a certain degree by a parent would have no obligation ever to be in the same room with that parent again, period, or to attempt reconciliation in this life.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

There are precedents for your concern. I remember in particular the man serving a life sentence for murder, who produced some good quality writing in prison, and caught the attention of Norman Mailer. With the famous author advocating for him and offering to help him get established, he was released. Within the first year, he stabbed a waiter to death at a restaurant because the waiter was slow to respond to some request. The perpetrator called it "showing me disrespect." Acting as his own attorney, during cross-examination of the deceased's wife, he berated her that her husband's life was worth nothing, which inspired the judge to intervene.

Poster child for your side: this man should never have been paroled in the first place. Possession of a skill, or even smooth manners, is not sufficient, and may even cover serious problems.

In fact, if could ever get this down right (but I don't trust psychiatrists to get anything right), we should have secured institutions where people who can do very well under supervision, but are dangerous outside, can do what they do best, earn a living, pay for their incarceration, and live with some degree of happiness. (These, again, are people a society with less resources and little surplus would simply have to kill, as a defensive measure, not because it is "just.")

Zodiac or Son of Sam would be in a similar category. But I suspect that the guy Norman Mailer interceded for, if anyone had looked, would have had a significant record of violence against other inmates. That is definitely one of the first things to look at.

Convicting someone who MIGHT be innocent (although probably not) is a weighty responsibility. Both the guilty and the innocent will have families crying to see them taken away. Dashing the hopes of someone who really IS suitable for release is, or should be, equally weighty. And of course, releasing someone who may (but may very well not) be safe to release is a serious responsibility also.

What I'm tired of is people who take a political position that ALL decisions should be made one way, or the other. When we take it upon ourselves to put someone in custody, we take ALL these weighty responsibilities upon ourselves. There is no way out.

Rebecca in ID said...

Okay, yes, and I think all I'm saying is that I don't agree with you that NO one should ever be given a sentence which would incarcerate him without hope of parole. Things should be decided on an individual basis, and that ought to be an option. I also would have to disagree with you that the worst criminals are more likely to be committing violence against inmates. Serial killers are famous for being very unremarkable without any history of violence. They think out carefully over years what they are going to do, quietly, and then they do it.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

Yes, there are those who coldly plot, and there are those with hot uncontrollable tempers, and there are those who have a ruthless drive to be in charge... they each need to be dealt with differently. I could probably imagine circumstances where life without parole would be appropriate, particularly if the defendant is older than 25, but it should be the exception, not the routine process.

Rebecca in ID said...

I agree with that (did I just say that?) Does this call for some champagne? :)