The Death Penalty: What If We Make A Mistake And Kill An Innocent Man?

by John Hawkins | January 19, 2010 10:59 am

From an overhyped piece called, Anti-death penalty movement wooing conservative[1],

The effort has been backed by Richard Viguerie, a fundraiser and activist considered the father of the modern conservative movement. Viguerie, in a July 2009 essay in Sojourners magazine, wrote that executions are supposed to take the life of the guilty – but noted there are enough flaws in the system to fear an innocent person has been put to death.

Viguerie noted that death row inmates have been exonerated by DNA evidence, raising the prospect that prosecutors and juries made mistakes in cases without scientific evidence and in cases that predate the science.

“To conservatives, that should be deemed as immoral as abortion,” Viguerie wrote.

First of all, I have no idea if Richard Viguerie is actually suggesting to reporters that he’s “the father of the modern conservative movement” or liberals like to call him that of late because he’s turned into such a “I don’t like anything” sourpuss, but it’s a perfectly ridiculous title for him. He’s about as much “the father of the modern conservative movement” as I am the “father of conservative blogging.”

In any case, getting past that, let me tackle the two arguments presented there.

The death penalty isn’t remotely comparable with abortion. There’s nothing immoral, evil, or wrong about killing Ted Bundy and his ilk. To the contrary, it’s justice – and a deterrent. The same can’t be said of having your own child ripped to pieces because you think he’ll be inconvenient. One act is immoral. One isn’t.

As to the idea that an innocent man may be put to death, setting aside the fact that no one has ever proven that has happened, that’s the price we have for having a criminal justice system in the first place. If you’re going to make things illegal, put people on trial, and punish them, then no matter how many safeguards you put in place, a few innocent people are going to be errantly punished. The only way to avoid that isn’t to punish anyone.

The response to that is typically something along the lines of, “Well, it’s impossible to reverse a death penalty case. At least if we put these people in prison for life, we could theoretically fix the mistake.”

While that’s true, the chances of an innocent man being convicted, losing all his appeals, and then being later freed because of new evidence is probably less than that same man’s chances of winning the lottery. You can point to cases where it has happened, just like you can point to cases where people have become scratch-off millionaires, but the chances are still infinitesimal.

At the end of the day, we Americans buy into the idea that, “it’s better for the 1000 guilty men to go free than to send one innocent man to jail.” That’s why, as is, we have a system that’s heavily weighted towards the defendants — too much so, probably. Death penalty cases are even worse. Typically, there’s a decade plus legal battle involved in actually putting prisoners to death. If anything, given the number of people who “need killing” in this country, we should be talking about how to streamline that process, not looking for a way to stop it.

  1. Anti-death penalty movement wooing conservative:

Source URL: