John Boyle’s recent column here.
An Open Letter to John Boyle of the Asheville Citizen-Times:
Thanks, John Boyle, for your willingness to re-think your position about something as important as the death penalty. You made several excellent points. I’d like to add some of mine.
When a person is charged with a crime, it’s the government that brings, prosecutes, and rules on those charges. So many of us don’t trust the government. How is it that we trust the government in this life-and-death arena?
It’s not all about guilt or innocence, either. It’s about getting the worst of the worst. We are trusting the government to identify the most heinous crimes committed by the most heinous criminals, and to do so with integrity. But are we paying attention to whether the government is trustworthy? Or do we simply throw people over the judicial and correctional wall, once the arrest has been made?
Do we know, for example, that the death penalty is only for aggravated murder, but a person involved in some lesser felony can be given the death penalty – even if he doesn’t kill anyone, never intends physical harm, doesn’t know anyone has a gun, and the actual killer gets less/no punishment? Do we know that savvier criminals often “cooperate” with the government, while those who have less criminal experience get the harsher sentences?
When we spend this kind of money on prosecuting and defending death cases, we have to spend less elsewhere. I’d rather see us put our limited government resources into solving other murder cases, helping victims and their families, and preventing the next murder. There are plenty of unsolved crimes out there. There are traumatized victims and family members who can’t afford the help they need to survive and heal. And we know some things about prevention. But we can’t do it all. We have to choose where we put our resources.
The race of the defendant is important, but not as significant as the race of the victim. A black person who kills a white person is statistically much more likely to get the death penalty than a white person who kills a black person, even when the crimes are similar. One study said this was twenty-two times more likely. This doesn’t mean that anyone is doing this on purpose. I don’t believe most prosecutors are calculating to condemn more black people or more killers of white people. But they bring cases they think they can win, and part of this decision is intuitive and based on what is going to seem more horrific to juries. As a society, we are simply more horrified by a white girl being dead at the hands of a black man than a black girl being dead at anyone’s hand. That’s racism, even if we’ve never thought about it this way. If there is racism in a community, it’s going to be in every jury.
In capital cases, the selection process removes potential jurors who are opposed to the death penalty. These days, that’s not a few “extremists” – it’s about half the population, depending on how you ask the question, and their removal affects the makeup of the jury. Using “peremptory strikes,” the government regularly keeps minorities off juries even when race is not directly at issue in the case.
It’s wrong to assume that all victims’ family members want the death penalty. Some do, some don’t. There are good reasons for this. Some are clear early on that another death won’t help. Others begin in understandable rage and vengeance, but then work through to a place where they can somehow move on and try to rebuild their shattered lives. They don’t want to keep reliving this in the courts. Some even forgive. It’s wrong to assume that the death penalty is the best thing we can do for victims’ families.
The death penalty begs the question of the purpose of punishment. Is it to protect society? If so, then life without parole will do.
Is it to deter crime? Most of us don’t need any kind of punishment to keep us from killing each other. We have a functional moral compass. Normal, mentally healthy people don’t murder. The ones who are likely to kill people are generally not rational – whether from blind rage, mental illness, drunkenness, or drug abuse – and are therefore not really thinking about the consequences at that moment. The more rational killers don’t believe they will get caught.
Is it something more primal – to somehow give vent to our outrage and attempt to right the wrong? This can never be done. Nothing we can do will right the wrongs when someone we love has been murdered. His life simply doesn’t have the same value to us as the life he took, so there is no way he—or we—can make this right using punishment. And when we try, we invariably give in to our baser, more violent instincts and find ourselves sinking dangerously close to the murderer’s level.
I know many people who support the death penalty from a moral perspective. They believe that some crimes deserve death. They also understand, however, that our system cannot be made to be fair and reliable when it comes to these cases. The many exonerations show us that nothing—not confessions, not eyewitness testimony, not government forensic evidence, not law enforcement testimony—is reliable enough to justify executing people. And even though there are cases where the evidence is so very strong, and the crime is so very horrific, and the defendant seems so very irredeemable, there is no way to design a system that catches only those cases. And even if we could, we can do more good using our resources other ways.