Death penalty: a personal dichotomy

And how exactly do you determine “objectively reasonable” if you believe that some scarred sword wielding mainac is bearing down on you?

You mean “You” as in the person who is allegedly acting in self defense? I’m not sure I’m understanding your example (more elaboration would help). In your hypo, does the peron honestly believe that a child in a suit the rest of us would recognize as a Halloween costume is actually a cutlass waving criminal? If that’s the case, it sounds like he would more properly be asserting an insanity defense.

That’s from the OP.

That’s what I’m referring to.

Ahhh, okay. You mean, if I was a juror and I was in such a case, could I find that mistakenly killing a child was in self-defense? That’s a hard call, and would depend very much on the facts of the situation. If it was a child in a bright room in a pirate costume, no way, of course. If the child was an intruder into a private dwelling, it was late at night, dark room, realistic looking knife, and the person thought it was an assailant who ignored repated warnings, and so on ad nauseum, I might be willing to consider that they had an objectively reasonable belief that deadly force was necessary to protect their life or the lives of their family…

One of the main arguments against the death penalty has always been its arbitrary nature, and you see this sometimes even with those who mostly oppose the death penalty: “Executing [insert ordinary murderer’s name] is wrong, but I wouldn’t have a problem with executing Osama Bin Laden.”

If the death penalty is wrong (which I believe it is) it’s wrong no matter what the crime or circumstance. The “awfulness” of the crime, or the level of our moral outrage to it should not be the determining factor. It’s a dangerous thing when emotion rules the courts.

That said, I doubt if a case involving what is purported to be an accidental shooting would ever be a candidate for the death penalty. Prosecutors make that decision before the case goes to trial, and usually reserve it for particularly egregious offenses-- “ordinary” murderers are often sentanced to prison terms. Unless the defendant is a particularly nasty person with a record or the prosecutor is an all-around hardass, I doubt if the death penalty would be suggested.

This is where I get into difficulties and why I started the thread. There are two seperate scenarios here:

I think that honest mistakes are understandable, but may not be ok. How do you tell the difference between someone who’s running away and someone who’s going to come back and attack? We get into the realm of reasonable judgement. This is very difficult.

Acting in the heat of the moment is a key difference between self-defence and manslaughter or murder. The French have a term for it: crime passionelle.

I don’t think I’d be able to think clearly enough to make a judgement in the event. But in the abstract, I wouldn’t be on my child’s side. It sounds cruel, but the child’s death is a learning experience for the rest of the community. It’s no different from the child pissing over a bridge and getting electrocuted when the stream hits the live rail.

I actually missed this in my earlier reply. Children were, and still are, trained as thieves. As I stated in my OP, I have no problem with a lethal response when protecting property. Secondly, a post-pubertal child is perfectly capable of killing an adult. Thirdly, a child with a gun is all the more dangerous because they lack the maturity of judgement that an adult has.

This again is where I have difficulty. You’ll recall that I really didn’t want Saddam captured alive. Here we enter the realm of political expediency. History shows us that the ex-ruling house are almost invariably the first on the chopping-block, and there’s good reason for this.

I cannot yet answer this question.

Having slept on it, I can now answer this question: I’m willing to accept different standards in wartime.

You also trust the judgement of the average householder than that of a bureaucratic system.

Good impulse, that.

Not sure if this is relevant to your question, but my opposition to the death penalty is based around my feeling that I personally wouldn’t be able to execute the convicted myself. Or to put it another way…“Would I be prepared to flick the switch?”

On the other hand, I wouldn’t morally object if certain public figures were to meet their demise by way of a craftily fashioned and planted exploding toilet.

While these two statements are somewhat contradictory, I think it just illustrates that this issue is always bound to throw up such conundrums based around strongly held personal beliefs.

Sorry if this isn’t making too much sense, I’m pretty knackered right now but feel strongly enough about this issue that I wanted to respond.

Just to illustrate how tired I actually am, the above post (quoted section) is actually by me, but I hadn’t picked up on the fact my partner had logged herself in.
:wally (Me, not her)

I can’t accept your maths.

Look, suppose you execute 1000 human beings. You estimate that among those there are 9 innocents, but you have prevented 10 murders. So, overall you have saved 1 life, right?


You have not saved 1 person, you have killed 1000. The life of a human being, even a murderer is not totally worthless. The killing of a thousand people to save one is not justified, either morally or pragmatically.

Good point, as usual. Y = the number of innocent victims of those murderers who are able to commit repeat murders (and other violent crimes) for whatever reason.

The murderers may have been paroled, or escaped, or attacked guards or other prisoners, or were furloughed. Y = people who died because the murderer is still alive, IOW.

Not entirely. Murderers can escape, as did Ted Bundy and James Earl Ray, or furloughed (Willy Horton), or commit further murders while in prison, as did Robert Stroud, the Birdman of Alcatraz. Ed Wien is an example of a person sentenced to life in prison without parole, who was then pardoned and went on to kill again.

Saying we can avoid repeat murders by keeping them locked up is like saying we can avoid executing the innocent by having an appeals process. If either system worked perfectly, there would be less controversy over the DP.

My rationale is pretty close to the way you expressed it. I phrase it to myself more as the “least objectionable choice”, since there is no system devised by humans that can avoid innocent death altogether, since we will either unavoidably make mistakes in sentencing and execute some innocents, or unavoidably make mistakes in incarceration and some murderers will escape or be pardoned or kill while in prison.

But I don’t see how you can avoid the numerical comparison you describe. If you decide that even one wrongful execution is too much, you are unavoidably accepting that some non-zero number of wrongful victims of repeat murders is not too much.

But just as we cannot perfect the system of execution so as to absolutely guarantee that no innocent will ever be executed, we cannot devise a prison system so as to absolutely guarantee that no innocent will ever be killed by a repeat murderer. There will always be mistakes. No matter if we choose to err on the side of wrongful executions, or on the side of wrongful repeat murders, we are still going to err. Therefore, the morally relevant question is, which kind of error will have the least objectionable consequence?

Willie Horton is a notorious but illustrative example. He was sentenced to life without parole, for murder, just as is claimed will be the case if we outlaw the DP. But the decision was that it was better to chance what actually happened rather than execute him. And as a result, innocent people were horribly tortured and maimed. Certainly nobody intended that. But nobody intends that innocents are executed either.

We know for a fact, therefore, that some number of innocents are suffering and dying because we did not execute murderers. But, since the reinstatement of the death penalty in the US in 1976, no factually innocent person has actually been executed. The emphasis is important. Yes, I know about the DNA. But no factually innocent person has actually been executed.

True, but also true if we have no death penalty. I rob a liquor store and shoot the owner. I am therfore likely to be sentenced to life in prison with no parole. But that is the worst that can be done to me. I therefore have no incentive not to shoot the police who try to arrest me.

It is a consequence of defining anything as the worst possible consequence. Once you define that, and a criminal reaches the point that he is liable to that consequence, he no longer has anything to lose from committing further murders.


My husband works in a prison that houses over 2,500 inmates. They haven’t had a murder in over 25 years. They haven’t had an escapee harm a civilian-- ever. (Most are quickly recaptured.)

As for parollees re-offending, that’s a systemic problem which doesn’t have an easy answer. Prosecutors must plea bargain with criminals, else the system would quickly grind to a halt under the sheer number of cases before the courts. Criminals hesitate to plea to LWOP-- they want at least some chance of parole.

Because prisons are constantly facing budget cuts, prisons are grossly overcrowded, which makes them dangerous for both the employees and the inmates. (My husband’s prison is currently at 150% capacity with inmates forced to sleep on cots in hallways and in between “crash gates”.) Room must be made, and often, parole boards make this room by releasing inmates who have served at least their “minimum”. (This gets extremely complicated. There are “good time” laws and regulations that vary from state to state. now, some have gone to flat-time sentancing which simplifies things a bit.) For example, in my state, according to the old sentancing rules, an inmate sentanced to 25 to life can be released after 18 years.

According to U.S. Department of Justice 1.2% of released convicted murderers were re-arrested for homicide. Most murders occur because of a set of extreme circumstances which are unlikely to re-occur. As a co-worker of my husband puts it, “Most men only have one murder in them.” They’re not people who are looking for a chance to kill again.

Yes, it is tragic when an ex-con kills again, but it’s equally tragic when one is found not guilty because of a technicality, or just plain gets away with murder. I don’t see a statistically tiny number of re-offences as a reasonable excuse for killing convicted murderers, or the even tinier percentage of escapes.

Unfortunately, a free society must accept some risks. If we wanted to be relatively crime free, we should test children to look for propensities toward violence, and then lock them up before they got a chance to commit crimes. But we can’t do that. Nor should we kill people because we’re afraid they may have the infantesimal chance of escaping and killing someone, or a one percent chance of killing once they’ve been released.

Well, the most objectionable, to me, is to have their blood on my hands. If I must err, I will err in a way which leaves me innocent of the shedding of blood.

Don’t think I’m a bleeding heart. My husband works with these people. I have heard tales which made me weep bitter tears at how astonishingly cruel humans can be. I’ve visited my husband at work: I have looked into the true face of pure evil and it makes my blood run cold. It is not for compassion that I decry the death penalty, but because I deplore killing. I don’t want to be like them.

Why, then, isn’t there a glut of cop-killing in Canada, which has no death penalty? Or in England? Or in France? Or in Austrailia?

Killing a store owner and having a shoot-out with the cops are two entirely different things. You’re assuming that all murderers are indiscriminate killers who don’t care how high the body count climbs.

Cite? Given the fact that death-row prisoners are being found to be factually innocent all the time, and not just by the courts – have even been granted stays just days before their execution and later exonerated – how can you say, with any degree of certainty, that innocents have not been executed? That’s downright ridiculous!

Your cite seems to say that 1.2% of released murderers commit another murder within three years of release.

The percentage of murderers who re-offend over their lifetimes is likely to be higher.

In other words, we know pretty definitely that at least 1.2% of the time, not applying the death penalty costs innocent lives. Therefore, it needs to be demonstrated that at least 1.3% of all those who have been executed were factually innocent.

There we disagree. I don’t see a statistically tiny number of innocents executed - AFAICT, 0% - as a reasonable excuse for not killing convicted murderers.

True. I would hope, however, that those risks would overall be as low as we can manage.

Assuming the 1.2% figure is accurate, there were 16,204 murders and non-negligent homicides in 2002. Ergo, a little more than 194 of those can be expected to be from repeat murderers. Thus, we would have had to execute at least 195 innocent people to make the death penalty do more harm than good. But there were only 71 executions in 2002. Therefore, it isn’t possible that the DP cost more lives than it might have saved.

That isn’t possible. If you support the death penalty, you bear some responsibility for those innocents who are executed (assuming there have been any). If you don’t, you bear the same responsibility for those innocents whose lives could have been spared, but weren’t - 194 of them (at least) every year.


Thanks for your reply, Shodan, and sorry I haven’t had the chance yet to respond to it. Got caught up in other threads. But I won’t leave that hanging.

It seems to me you only need to execute one innocent person to do more harm than good. You just can’t calculate the effect of even one innocent execution. Are you saying that these people ought to be considered martyrs for a cause? Would you want to be one of these martyrs? Life should not be considered a zero-sum game. The killing of any innocent person, you must agree, is the ultimate form of injustice.

Those of us who do not support the death penalty keep telling you that they don’t condone willfully taking the life of another in any circumstance. You might as well say that we all bear responsibility for every murder that takes place in this country that may well have been prevented were it not for less restrictive gun laws, a criminal justice system that allows plea bargaining, ineffective social policies, and a host of other stellar examples of failing to reduce the likelihood of crime before it occurs. Inasmuch as I can’t paint you personally responsible for the death of Joseph O’Dell, you can’t paint me personally responsible for the death of Sami Hajibrahim.

I don’t see that. You execute one innocent person, and thereby save a dozen other innocent lives.

If you act, one dies. If you do not act, twelve die. Which does more harm?

Indeed it is. But I include the killing of innocent people by repeat murderers in my definition of injustice.

You say that we can’t calculate the effect of even one innocent execution. Can you calculate the effect of one innocent victim of a repeat murderer?

And those of us who support the DP keep telling you that we are faced as a society with a difficult choice. One option bears the possibility of a very few innocent deaths (although that possibility does not seem to have been realized over the last thirty years or so). The other option has already shown itself to result in hundreds of innocent deaths - 194 a year, by rough calculation. Failure to choose constitutes choice. What then shall we do? Should we choose the option that results in many innocent deaths, or the one that reduces the overall body count?

Why is one innocent execution so transcendentally important as to outweigh every other consideration - especially hundreds of other, equally innocent lives?

I don’t think we should allow ourselves the false comfort of wishing the problem away. I would like a perfect system, in which no one is ever executed unless he were factually guilty. You (presumably) would like a perfect system, in which murderers never escaped or were paroled or furloughed or committed murders of prison guards or other inmates. But neither of us will ever get their wish. Both the death penalty and life in prison are created and administered by human beings - fallible, often foolish or naive, occasionally venal, human beings. And therefore, no matter what, we will always find mistakes. We must therefore (in my opinion) choose the system under which our mistakes are least likely to end in the death of the innocent.

I would be very glad to hear whatever you might have to add.