Death penalty: a personal dichotomy

I have recently been giving thought to the death penalty and find myself in two minds. Firstly, I am absolutely against the death penalty being imposed by a court of law except in the must unusual circumstances: it’s too easy for a court to get it wrong. Example. The exception being someone like OBL or Saddam Hussein - and there I would prefer them to not be captured alive.

On the flip side, I have no problem with someone shooting another in defence of life (their own or another’s) or property. Two examples: a householder coming up against a burglar, and a private citizen shooting someone who is shooting at kids. I can accept that the intruder may have been shot or stabbed in the back - qv the Tony Martin case - the intruder might have intended to circle and attack from his target’s rear. I can even accept the case of an adult killing an intruder who turns out to be a child. However, in many cases we have to rely on the survivor’s word as being a true account. It would be too easy for someone to claim a murder as self-defence.

So, dopers, help me square this circle.

What further questions should I be asking myself?

Here’s an element you left out:

Under the law, the killing of another person in self defense is justified when that person poses an imminent threat of death or serious bodily harm to oneself or a third party. (As a related point, killing another in defense of material property is never a legal justification.) The use of the phrase “immediate threat” implies that the actor defending himself has little or no time to evaluate evidence, deliberate over facts/opinions/testimony, and make a reasoned, well-thought-out decision as to the proper course of action. A jury, on the other hand, has the opportunity to do all of those things. A jury can take plenty of time to consider guilt or innocence, and, in the event of guilt, alternatives to execution.

As to the credibility of an actor’s claim of self-defense, well, that’s what forensic evidence is for. Most of the time, the working combination of experts, qualified judges, competent attornies, and careful, attentive jurors gets it right.

Right. Can we please leave legal specifics out of the equation? I’m not in the US and so US laws don’t apply to me.

Ah, you must be a Kerry supporter. :slight_smile:

I don’t see the problem. You’re defending yourself in this case. If the cops had the guys in cuffs, would you still shoot him? No. That is more analogous to the death penalty.

For me, my opposition to the implimentation of the death penalty isn’t derived from the possibility of error directly, but assumes that there will always be errors in any system of judgment and instead asks, “How can we acheive redress?” Clearly there is no redress the government can give to a dead person, so I do not feel it is appropriate for the government to have the power to kill its own citizens through the judicial system.

That opinion bases itself solely on the idea that a fair justice system is not one that is foolproof but rather is one that 1) has a mechanism for detecting errors and 2) has a mechanism for providing some form of redress. This would be a second approximation of a fair justice system (the first approximation being one that is never wrong) IMO. A justice system with a death penalty ignores the second in a certain number of cases.

The case of self-defense is not meant to approximate a justice system, so I see no conflict with permitting lethal force as self-defense. Since a killing in self-defense is still a killing, the justice system should, if it chooses, have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that it was murder. The defense would then simply have to put some reasonable doubt in by providing evidence or implication of the need for self-defense.

But self-defense is not used as a substitute for justice (like, say, a lynch mob), it is a recognition of a human’s right for self-preservation.

Ask yourself, “What system will allow the smallest number of innocent deaths?”

Suppose that we wrongly apply the death penalty, and the number of innocent men executed equals X. However, we prevent repeat murders, and therefore the number of innocents whose lives are saved equals Y.

If Y > X, the death penalty is morally justified.


Sounds pretty easy! Do get back to us when you find a way to predict X and Y that everybody agrees on.

Avoiding repeat offenders can be achieved by permanent incarseration of the found guilty murderer.
The immediacy of the act of killing for self defense makes it very different to the legal process. OP might consider his thoughts on revenge killing instead. If Brian was to kill the person who had just raped and murdered Brian’s daughter, would you feel that Brian should be charged with murder, or is Brian’s act somewhat mittigated by the circumstances.

That is an interesting measure of morality, and interesting take on the consequences of not adopting the death penalty.

Morality: I seem to sense a “good of the many outweighs the good of the few” mentality in your calculation. Sometimes I think that line of thought is morally proper, other times I think it is vastly inappropriate. The criteria I personally use isn’t really going to serve us here, but I would like to make it explicit that this, or something I haven’t discerned, is the reason for considering this kind of numerical comparison appropriate. I would agree that quantification is appropriate in, say, determining which brand of bagged rice was better, but not sure that it is a useful way to compare the loss of innocent life. Offhand, it seems you wish to exacerbate the problem of murder by permitting the state to do it as well as the people it prosecutes, unless you believe killing innocent people in this way is not only morally permissible, but just. So, help me out here.

Consequences: I’m not even going to try to tackle the preventative value of the death penalty. Instead I will consider its widespread application. If murderers are aware that they will almost certainly face the death penalty, then it becomes a matter of simple math to suggest that they will be no worse off if they kill more, especially killing the police that are attempting to capture them. I find that a very quick way to have more than just dead people on your hands in the gas chamber, but also to add to the killings on the streets of our boys in blue. If anything, over-applicaiton of the death penalty seems to encourage more murder, once any particular murder is committed. I’m not saying it does, or it will, but that there are plausible reasons why we might want to back off the death penalty.

More consequences: the opposite of the death penalty is not letting murderers go free to keep killing innocents, it is to incarcerate them for life without the possibility of parole. So I think you’d find that your “number of innocents we saved” number to be solely dependent upon the preventative factor. Personally, I don’t find it very convincing that the death penalty is all that preventative; I tend to think it encourages plea bargains for reduced sentences as a scare tactic… possibly scaring more innocent people into confessing! But again, I’m not arguing strict causality, just plausibility. Additionally, how would we measure this ‘Y’?

The laws on when deadly force is justified can vary from state to state. What might be legal in Texas may not apply to Oregon or Ohio.


I don’t see the problem. You can be completely against the death penalty and still believe it is acceptable to use deadly force in certain circumstances.


Does Y equal the number of innocents who would die if the murderers were simply set free, or does Y equal the number of innocents who would die if the convicted murderers were sentenced to life in prison without parole, instead of death?

One major question to ask yourself is this. Since you acknowledge that there is a possibility of making mistakes after a lengthy system involving a trial and many, many appeals, then why do you preclude this possibility if you suspect the victim is in the process of commiting a crime?

Surprisingly, in Texas deadly force to protect property is, under certain circumstances, a defense in criminal proceedings. Or maybe unsurprisingly.

I believe we even had a debate about this. Something about a guy shooting a car thief as he drove away… I’ll see if I can dig it up.

Good question. Discovery in the act? Killing is justified; if Brian had time to involve the authorities then not.

This is my position, but it’s how to maintain that position while avoiding abuse of that position.

I don’t. I’m concerned about abuse: “It was self defence, honest, m’Lord.”

So “honest mistakes” are OK in the heat of the monent are OK? How about turning the situation around. If (hypthetically, of course) one of your kid went trick or treating in a pirate costume and got shot by someone who sincerely believed that they were being threatened. Whose side would you be on?

Well, the belief has to be both honest and objectively reasonable. If he shot the kid because he feared that he was under pirate attack, I’d have my doubts, I guess…unless he was living in area subject to frequent attack by midget pirates.