Is the Death Penalty Indefensible?

I submit that the death penalty (in this case, in the USA) is absolutely unjustifiable. Am I forgetting something, or making a logical error? Here’s my thinking:

We have a court system that relies on convicting people if they are shown to be guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt”. Because reality is complicated, we will never be able to CONCLUSIVELY “prove” that someone committed a crime – there will always be the possibility of innocence.

When we find someone guilty of murder, they are incarcerated – but they have the ability to produce new evidence of their innocence. Thus, if we sentence someone to life in prison, they still have a chance to clear their name.

If, on the other hand, we execute someone, it becomes moot. We can’t ever take this back. People sentenced to death are automatically subject to a number of appeals (in the USA), and this is supposed to help prevent an innocent person from being killed.

I believe we have to accept the fact that there are “innocent people” in prison right now. The recent cases in which people have been freed upon DNA evidence coming to light reinforces the terrible fact that our courts have and continue to convict innocent people. In the past, confessions were sought – we believed a confession was absolute proof of guilt. New research on human psychology and other fields have demonstrated that confessions are NOT bulletproof. The confession, then, doesn’t save us from executing the innocent.

If we accept that innocents have been executed in the past, and that innocents are currently imprisoned, I believe its our duty to immediately halt executions. Putting someone in prison for a crime they didn’t commit is a terrible thing; executing someone for a crime they didn’t commit is far worse.

One can debate the rationale behind capital punishment; there may be good arguments for it (deterrance of crime, say). However, I believe any benefit is mitigated by the awfulness of executing the innocent, and simply not worth the (demonstrated) risk.

I realize this is a touchy subject, so I’m posting this in Great Debates. However, I’m actually looking for a justification of the Death Penalty – or a refutation of my logic. As I’ve come to view this issue, its become clear-cut; I believe its simply not justifiable. Thoughts?

I agree with the Catholic Church’s position on this (and pretty much nothing else) that the death penalty could be justified under certain, strict conditions, but that the US doesn’t meet them.

Aren’t you starting with the assumption that the death penalty can’t be justifiable if any innocent person is executed? Couldn’t you argue that there’s an “acceptable loss” of people wrongly executed?

Well, just glancing at your argument, you seem to make some assumptions.

It’s not a given that innocent people have been executed from what you stated. I seem to recall a case under investigation in Texas where they believe an innocent man may have been executed, but I haven’t heard anything about it lately.

Secondly, the execution of the innocent is certainly a bad thing, but is it factually and demonstrably true that the execution of one innocent person is a wrong that outweighs whatever debateable good that the execution of those who are in fact guilty does? That’s sort of a subjective call based on one’s own moral code, not a matter of fact.

With that second point, the Death Penalty is absolutely defensible, on a subjective basis. A reasonable person can believe it’s done more good than harm.

Personally, I think the death penalty should require a higher standard of proof than a simple conviction, because of the risk of taking an innocent life - if that higher standard of proof cannot be met, then life imprisonment suffices.

Yes. At least nobody’s ever been able to successfully defend it to me. YMMV.

For the sake on learning, I’d like a cite on the comment.

As a potential debate issue on the comment (in another thread so as to not hijack this one) I wonder how the Catholic Church could ever justify the death penalty when one of its basic tenets is all (human) life is sacred. If coming into the world is sacrosanct (abortion is wrong) why would going out of this world (death penalty) be ok?

I recently read a New Yorker piece on a man who’d been executed in Texas (I believe) due to an arson investigator; there was a strong implication that he’d been wrongly executed. Was this the case you were thinking of? I’ll try to find a link to the article, here.

Second the request for a cite; I was under the impression that the Catholic Church was adamantly against capital punishment.

Catechism, Part 3, Section 2, Article 5.1, under the heading “Legitimate Defense”, paragraph 2267

If there’s no safe way (safe for the population) to imprison someone for life, then the death penalty is acceptable. As I said, this doesn’t apply in the US.

Kill anyone in my family…then I’d kill the killer.

Revenge?? HELL YES!!!

What if he’s killing your family member in retaliation for one of his family being killed? What if one of his family kills you for killing him? Or is REVENGE only OK when you do it to other people?

And no, that’s not an unimportant point. Your REVENGE! philosophy leads inevitably to destructive Hatfields-and-McCoys feuds, and is one of the major things the rule of law was created to stop.

I’m not following the logic in this one. It’s impossible to be 100% certain that a person is guilty in all cases?

So no amount of evidence (large numbers of witnesses, video tape, arrested in the act, ect.) is good enough to convince you that a defendant had to commit the crime?

Promise me you’ll be on the jury if I ever have to go to court. :slight_smile:

I’m sorry you disagree with me Der Trihs!

Kill my family—FUCK’EM!

That’s it!

Don’t worry though! As long as you’re not the one who would kill anyone in family…you’ll be safe!

To my mind, yes, its impossible. You mentioned videos – while these are hard to fake, they aren’t impossible. Look how the widespread use of image-editing software has led to a reduced acceptance (at least, in Internet culture) of photographs; while this may sound nitpickey, its perfectly feasible to fake evidence.

I would basically say, while certain evidence creates a stronger case (hence “reasonable doubt”), you can’t ever be certain. Consider DNA evidence; there’ve been a number of claims lately that DNA evidence is less reliable than people have been led to believe. Take finger prints; theres no evidence that fingerprints are unique, let alone unique in the (30? something) “match” test we use. Handwriting? This has been heavily questioned lately.

My point is, a lot of accepted wisdom has been tossed out, and I would indeed argue that you can’t ever prove detinitively.

Whats this got to do with anything?

Possibility of innocence is not the same as reasonable doubt which is based on the idea of burden of proof. There has to be a preponderance of evidence that eliminates all reasonable doubt as to the guilt of the defendant. You could apply your argument to all cases even those that don’t involve the death penalty.

This is actually the biggest reason I’m not a huge supporter of the death penalty these days.

Incarcerate someone for 20 years and you can’t exactly take that back either.

Why should this argument apply only to the death penalty? Should it not apply to life sentences or decades long sentences?

Again, why does this not apply to long term sentences?

You brought up some good points and I’m happy to see you didn’t trot out the “it’s wrong to kill people” argument.

My problem with the death penalty in the USA is it is not uniformly applied. Women for example can commit much worse crimes and get off lighter. Blacks and Latino men get harsher sentences than White men.

Also is the fact we rely on juries who are incompetent. Lawyers present complex evidence to a bunch of people who can’t figur out where the world goes when you close the drapes.

So we get unfair application and unqualified people or people who will convict a man of murder without evidence, because he was cheating on his wife at the time.

Add to this nationwide 90% of all crimes are plea bargained. Would you risk the “chair” if you could plea bargain down to life imprisonment? Especially if all you will get is a legal aid defender you probably won’t see till a day or two before your trial

There’s too many variables to be fair.

But then aren’t you arguing against the entire legal system? If you go with innocent until proven guilty and the impossiblity of proving someone guilty, aren’t they all innocent? And if it’s really better to let a hundred guilty men go free then convict one innocent man then we should just scrap the whole legal framework.

From what I get of your opinion (and I’m probably getting it wrong) you don’t like the death penalty because of the finality of the punishment. Once it’s done, it’s done and there’s no going back if it turns out that the defendant didn’t do it.

But you seem to think everyone, everywhere, didn’t do it. In that case why bother with any punishment at all? How much of a sentence do you give out based on your perceived “oops factor” of the court? I just don’t see how you can apply your reasoning only to the death penalty and not to everyone who has ever been convicted, from jaywalking to robbery to murder.

As Odesio said, 20 years in prison is still 20 years you aren’t getting back.

Please don’t preach to me!