Morality of executing someone who cannot remember his crime

A death-row inmate in Alabama cannot remember the crime he committed decades ago (due to dementia) and now there is an argument that it be unethical to execute someone who cannot remember why they are being executed:

I find a couple of things troubling about this argument:

First of all, that if it is unfair to execute someone who cannot remember their crime, then further incarceration of him would also be unfair by the same logic. Yes, incarceration is a milder form of punishment than execution, but it is still the same principle - he would be being denied his liberty because of a crime he cannot remember. Should he be set free?

I also think it opens a legal can of worms if we say that whether someone should suffer consequences for an action is tied to whether they can remember their action or not. There are drunk drivers who hit people with their cars and then later on cannot remember doing so due to their inebriation.

If it’s a way to get out of it, then everyone will just pretend to have dementia.

Ultimately, the instant you decide to jail someone for a few decades rather than just off them good and fast, everything becomes a bit stupid. You’re spending decades ruining the person’s life, in a manner insufficient to compensate for the harm they have done to others, spending millions to accomplish that, and run into issues like this one.

It’s like eating meat. If you’re going to eat the cow, just kill it. There’s no value in standing it up on its hind legs, slapping it around, forcing it to do a dance by puppeting it with ropes, etc. before rolling a dice after a few hours to decide whether you’re going to actually kill it for meat, or just let it go back to the pasture and die of old age. That’s just cruel. Do the deed or don’t.

To get right to the heart of the question, I don’t think dementia is a reason to overturn a death sentence. He did the crime, he’s been deemed competent, the penalty should be enacted.

In theory, I support the death penalty. But in about 100% of the real world applications I have to wonder what’s the point. The morality of executing someone 30+ years after they committed a crime in the first place is questionable.

What’s unethical here is to have someone sitting on Death Row for 30+ years. AFAIC that’s double punishment, you get both the lengthy incarceration AND the terror of an execution.

In theory, part of the justification for imprisonment and/or execution is to remove the danger the convicted individual poses to society. If he’s too far gone to remember his crime, he’s probably no longer a danger to society, so that justification no longer applies.

Will his execution serve as a deterrent to others who may commit the same crime? That justification has been emphatically disproven.

That leaves punishment. If he can’t remember what he did, punishment is meaningless.

IANAL, and I oppose the death penalty across the board, but it seems to me there’s no justification whatsoever for executing this individual.

The assertion that this inmate “doesn’t remember his crime” is nowhere near established fact.

Actually, there are quite a few rationales for the death penalty that you have not mentioned. When I was taking Crim Law in law school, the professor had a list of nine different purposes accomplished by the penal system, all of which, of course, can be applied to the death penalty. Among them, not surprisingly, is what can effectively be considered societal revenge.

I oppose the death penalty in its entirety (I don’t believe in murder, regardless of who carries it out, individual or state). But IF the death penalty is part of the system, dementia certainly isn’t sufficient reason not to apply the penalty. And, as others have pointed out, the real sad part of the story is the fact that it takes so long to get around to executing someone. That fact alone suggests the penalty shouldn’t be used, period.

I’d be curious to hear those other rationales and how they apply to the death penalty, and to this case.

If societal revenge is a valid justification (big emphasis on “if”), then the 30-year delay would seem to negate it. Unless we’re all a bunch of Corleones who like our revenge served very, very cold.

Full disclosure - I am opposed to the death penalty and come from a country where we think it’s weird that it still exists in a civilised country.

Having said that, I think the answer lies in why you are imposing the death penalty at all?

Is it for the victims? Then perhaps ask them.
Is it a deterrent? Then it goes ahead.
Is it society committing vengeance? That seems quite fucked up to me, but if that’s your goal, then it goes ahead.
Is it to protect society from the risk of his release? Then arguably that’s not a reason.

The legal system takes so long that everyone will have dementia before their execution date. And it is not the inmates filing frivolous appeals.

Take, for example, Scott Peterson. He was convicted and sentenced to death in 2004 yet no appellate court has issued a ruling in the previous 14 years. Not one single ruling! So, if we assume for the purposes of argument that his trial was unfair, a person in California can serve 14 years and counting before he can get any relief.

He should have been executed 29 years ago when he did remember.

I don’t know if that is unethical - the ones responsible for the length of his incarceration are him and his lawyers (and DP opponents in general). And I don’t know if I would characterize their delays as unethical. The thirty years of incarceration are the price he assumed when he made his appeals. “Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time”. Also don’t do the appeals and then complain afterwards that it took too long.


The reasons I can think of for punishment:

1: Rehabilitation. You want the offender to change into the kind of person who won’t offend. The death penalty can’t even pretend to do this.

2: Deterrent. You want others to see the punishment, and decide on that basis not to do similar things. The death penalty could in principle do this, but studies have shown that it doesn’t actually work very well.

3: Restitution. You want to make the victims whole again. But the crimes to which the death penalty are applied are generally the sort for which restitution is impossible, and even for other crimes, execution doesn’t do anything for restitution.

4: Protection of the public. If you can’t change the offender, you can at least make it impossible for them to offend again. The death penalty does work for this, but life imprisonment works just as well.

5: Revenge. The only reason I know of why people actually support the death penalty, and it’s a bad reason.

Yes, people will say that “justice” is another reason, but there is no justice done by any punishment, unless you define “justice” to mean the same thing as “revenge”. Justice is the condition that exists when everyone gets at least as much as they deserve. Even if you decide that someone does not deserve to live, killing them still doesn’t further justice, because it’s no injustice for someone to get more than they deserve (thank Heavens, because a lot of us get more than we deserve).

If I may junior-mod a bit…

I am hoping this thread does not turn into a debate about capital punishment in general - we have many threads about the DP and whether it is right or wrong. I am hoping this thread is specifically only about whether it’s ethical to punish someone who can’t remember his crime.

I’ll drop the DP angle so as not to derail the thread.

When it comes to the realities of administering a system of justice, letting someone off with a significantly reduced punishment because they can’t remember the crime is going to do more harm than good. The failure to remember is a fact completely contained within the mind of the criminal, so it is impossible to know objectively. The moment it becomes clear that forgetfulness is a path to a shorter sentence, forgetfulness will become surprisingly common.

Well, before you can decide whether it’s ethical to capitally punish forgetful people, you have to figure out why any capital punishment is ethical. Only after you’ve determined that can you determine whether the reasons still apply to the forgetful ones.

For myself I’m not convinced capital punishment is ethical in the first place, but if it is I’d say that it doesn’t draw its justification from “keep him off the streets” reasoning, because capital punishment is chosen as an alternative to incarceration without parole, which accomplishes the person’s removal equally well. In my opinion the justification for capital punishment is a combination of “eye for eye” (an argument from justice), and a vengeance motive. Neither of these depend at all on the convicted’s mental state post-conviction, so I’d say that if we’re going to execute anybody, we can still execute amnesiacs.

I agree. The one solid moral reason for the DP is to make sure the killer doesnt kill again.

In this case, we have that.

That’s not really the issue here. The issue is “IF a inmate can’t remember the crime, should we still execute him?”

No, it does NOT. Inmates can still:

  1. Get released accidentally.

  2. Escape.

  3. Kill a prisoner (and sure some may deserve it, but why do foes of the DP blithely thinks it’s oK for a bad check writer to be die in prison, while a mass murderer should be left to live?)

  4. Order a killing from inside

  5. Kill a guard.

Or, even, not just that - if someone has no recollection of committing a crime, should he still get prison, or fines, or community service, or some sort of reduction in penalty?

I don’t buy into the social vengeance argument, but even if I did, I’m not sure I’d feel any sense of vengeance executing someone who doesn’t know why he’s being executed. It seems like the satisfaction of vengeance would come from knowing that, right when the drip was starting, the perpetrator would experience a feeling akin to “they finally got me for what I did, and now I’m paying an eternal price.”

Or, to go back to my Corleone reference – it just isn’t as satisfying to say “Michael Corleone says hello” right before you pull the trigger if the guy has no idea who Michael Corleone is.