Wednesday, December 14, 2005

In The Middle: The Death Penalty

From: Phillip Winn @ Center-Right
To: Eric Berlin @ Center-Left
Subject: The Death Penalty

This week, the state of California executed Stanley "Tookie" Williams. He was convicted in 1981 of murdering Albert Owens, Yen-I Yang, Tsai-Shai Yang, and Yee-Chen Lin. It is also widely reported that he was the founder of the Crips gang, although that fact is apparently not related to the two robberies during which the four murders took place.

I mention this only to introduce this week's topic: the death penalty.

Since I'm telling stories, I'll tell mine, too. As a young conservative, I was ardently pro-death penalty. I believed that it served as a deterrent, and that the punishment ought to fit the crime. It fit with my sense of "justice." But over time, I became less convinced. As a deterrent, the death penalty seemed to be poor. Perhaps, as some of my friends claimed, that was because there was generally too long between the initial conviction and the actual execution — 24 years in the case of Stanley Williams. Or perhaps it happened so rarely that it didn't even enter the mind of someone about to commit murder. I wasn't sure, but I softened in my support of the death penalty. Fast-forward a number of years to 1995 and I found that I was moved by a Papal document, which surprised me. I'm not a Roman Catholic, and was raised in a church environment that taught horrible things about Roman Catholics, but the Pope's Evangelium Vitae, which called for a pro-life emphasis, shook me.

Since then I've also read reports demonstrating that the death penalty is unevenly applied, with the wealthy able to avoid execution, while the poor cannot. Black people are sent to death row far more often than white people for similar crimes, and men more often than women. Statistically, I don't think that these disparities can be explained by any other combination of factors. For crimes of equal severity and horror and premeditation, a poor black man is far more likely to be sentenced to die than even a poor white man, let alone a rich white man. Shouldn't justice be blind?

And then there are the mistakes. The state of Illinois reinstated the death penalty in 1977, and between 1977 and 2000, 25 cases were investigated. 12 of those people were executed, while 13 were found, using modern investigative techniques, to be innocent of the crimes. Worse, other stories indicate that innocent people were put to death for crimes they didn't commit. How many innocent people have been killed in the name of justice? We will likely never know. No system that condemns innocent people to death deserves my support.

I supported, in theory, a system based on what I read in the Bible. According to that standard, nobody could be sentenced to death without at least two eye-witnesses. Updated to modern standards, I would say that includes video evidence only when it is essentially undisputed, and even then should be joined by one more "witness," for which DNA evidence could certainly substitute. But that wasn't the standard being used in courtrooms around America, and I eventually announced to my friends and family that I could not support the death penalty in America.

I could still theoretically support a death penalty under extremely limited circumstances, but I don't expect those circumstances to ever come about in the United States. And even then, I wouldn't demand it; I could only accept it reluctantly.

What about you, Eric?

From: Eric Berlin @ Center-Left
To: Phillip Winn @ Center-Right

Interestingly, I had a similar evolution on the death penalty, Phillip, but from a different perspective and for a few differing reasons.

Like you, I believed that the death penalty was "just" for those who had commit heinous and unredeemable crimes, first-degree murder obviously being the most frequent example. This was somewhat incompatible, however, with my relatively liberal position on most other issues (more liberal than I am currently, probably!). This caused a degree of tension within my overall political framework, but I took comfort at times with the thought that I couldn't be "pigeon holed" on one of the major issues.

Somewhere along the way, I shifted into a lengthy era of uneasy ambivalence on the topic. State-sanctioned executions somehow felt wrong to me, but the idea of an eye-for-an-eye was still strong within my heart. Arguments for one side of the other would sway me for a time.

Strangely, I recall that the film In the Name of the Father, a 1993 film starring Daniel Day Lewis as an imprisoned man desperate to prove he wasn't involved in an IRA bombing, had an influence on me. I think it was the dawn of a realization that most other "civilized" nations had long ago outlawed the death penalty. Here we live, I thought, in the United States, a place that purports to be the moral leader of the world, and we execute criminals? Would the Galactic Federation or whatever they call it on Star Trek ever execute a prisoner? So maybe "liberal" influence from the media (with plenty of other filmic fare thrown in, from Dead Man Walking to Stephen King-centric prison films like The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile thrown in for good measure).

I suppose I started to realize that justice need not come at the end of a needle, that civilized peoples could and perhaps should strive for something better than that. Not for necessarily for the prisoner's sake of course – though you make a fine argument about wrongful convictions, Phillip – but for the sake of the rest of us.

Other factors later helped to confirm and solidify this newfound conviction, such as a well circulated sentiment that executing prisoners actually ends up costing far more than feeding and housing over the course of a lifetime imprisonment, thus defusing an economic argument.

But it's the notion of what we strive to be as a society that stuck. I'm realizing just now that that very philosophy now informs my feelings on torturing prisoners as well as a host of human rights issues.

Since we're in rough agreement on the yes-or-no of the death penalty issue, Phillip, I'll ask:

Why do you think that the death penalty is legal in the United States when so many other countries have outlawed the practice? What does that say about us?

From: Phillip Winn @ Center-Right
To: Eric Berlin @ Center-Left

That is a fascinating question, Eric. I'm not sure I have any answer for which there isn't a counter-example somewhere, but I think there are a few things that combine in some way to keep the death penalty laws on the books.

One factor is the popular notion of the United States as a sort of barely-settled Wild West. Although Australia might serve as a counter-example here, given their relatively similar history and national identity, it is also worth noting that Australia is not as firmly against the death penalty as most of Europe! Still, I think the U.S. is uniquely tied up with the idea of John Wayne as a cowboy, and the shootout at the OK Corral, and so on. We grow up, or many of us do, with the idea that there are some criminals — cattle rustlers, say — about whom we can say, "hangin's too good for 'em!"

In fact, I would suggest that many Americans see Europe and deliberately seek to avoid settling into the "stagnation" found there. We relish our image as the brash young leaders of the world, breaking or bending the rules and refusing to settle into cultural torpor as so many other nations have. We're the inventors of the world, the source of the best music, the most popular fashion, all the good movies, and so on. We won't be like Wells's Eloi, stagnant to the point of death!

Of course, I doubt anyone would expressly state that the existence of the death penalty is part of what has made the United States a great nation, but I think it is considered to be part and parcel with our rugged past.

So another factor for our continued support is a certain amount of anti-Europeanism. We're not (yet) those who refuse to recognize evil when it confronts us, we think, or make excuses for even the worst behavior. As I write this, riots are engulfing Sydney nightly in a pattern reminiscent of the riots around Paris last month. The rioting is complicated, with no easy answers, but most Americans would, I think, not rush to say that the rioters should be excused because of an inequity in the social structure. We've too many Horatio Alger stories in our history, stories of people who started with less than nothing and the whole world set against them and managed to overcome it all. That's one of the things I love about the United States, but at the same time it may make us less quick to recognize that there really are inequities in our system that tend to hold people back.

All of this said, I believe that we will see the end of the practice of the death penalty in the United States within 10-15 years, though I suspect a law will remain on the books for unusual events and unusual crimes, such as the crimes that led Australian Prime Minister John Howard to entertain the idea of execution despite his country's opposition to capital punishment.

Here's another thought: The death penalty would be a much more effective deterrent if it were carried out far more quickly (within weeks or months, not years and years) and perhaps even not quite as painlessly. But I wouldn't want to live in the type of country we would be if we went in that direction.

As an alternative to the death penalty, I wonder how many people would seriously entertain the idea of re-introducing "hard time" for those sentenced to life in prison, by which I mean long hours of manual labor, like digging a natural gas pipeline from Alaska. Many people have an idea (not accurate in most cases) that prison is not so hard, and is in fact a step up for many people in the most desperate situations on the lowest rung of America's socio-economic ladder.

From: Eric Berlin @ Center-Left
To: Phillip Winn @ Center-Right

What's very interesting and what occurred to me while reading through our conversation is that we're treading on territory — at least in part — covered by Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine. That documentary focused on guns, gun control, and violence in America but it did dare (and some of course condemn the controversial filmmaker for daring whereas I give it a standing ovation even while I withhold the right to disagree with some of his conclusions) to raise some fundamental questions, as we have here, about the nature of America and why our society is imbued with certain particular and peculiar characteristics.

While I agree that acceptance and support for the death penalty likely stems in part from America's association with the notion of rugged individualism, I see it as more cause and less effect than you do, if I'm reading you correctly, Mr. Winn. In other words, I think the rugged individualism (or the whole shoot first, ask questions never 'cause there ain't no cavalry in these here parts type thing) in our national backbone causes many to accept the death penalty in 2005, but I don't think we accept it as a reaction to European stagnation or cultural torpor. In fact, I would contend that cultural and even informational provincialism (did I coin a new phrase just there? Quick, to the Lexis-Nexis, Robin!) prevents most Americans from having any real notion of what's going on in Europe or elsewhere one way or the other (above and beyond bumper sticker slogans such as "Eat Freedom Fries," of course). In fact, Americans tend to assume that American culture, as predominant culture, is the only culture.

I'll take a similar position with regard to your Horatio Alger story (and if you're getting bored with the somewhat intellectual tone of the discussion this week, kids, I'll give you a topic to toss about: is the Horatio Alger of the blogosphere… discuss!). Again, I think you're right on in saying that another root cause for support of the death penalty is the American exuberance for nearly pure capitalism and the great risk and great reward that comes with it. You shot someone while robbing a bank and managed to get yourself collared? Off to Old Sparky with you! But again, I can't associate this in any way with the contention of anti-Europeanism. I once again fail to see the connection there.

I agree that the death penalty will likely become increasingly rare in the United States over the course of the next generation or so. In fact, despite the fact that social conservatives currently have a firm grip on the levers of power in the U.S., there has been a general trend toward liberalism, tolerance, and social acceptance over the past 50 years. Indeed, I grew up during the 1980s, an era when a term like "gay marriage" would never even be uttered in polite company, let alone be discussed in any kind of serious way! It's this liberal trend, in fact, that has helped to whip a reaction on the right into such a frenzy. It will be interesting when and if this reaction crests and begins to falter.

The last of your remarks on this go round points us toward public policy with regard to prisons and potential reforms. The idea of reintroducing "hard labor" into prison life is an interesting one. It segues quite snugly to my next Big Question (I'm going Big Question instead of Big Picture this week):

Is the overall purpose of incarceration to punish or to educate and rehabilitate?

I suppose that the very fact that the death penalty is still around forces the answer toward the punishment side of the scale for the U.S.

From: Phillip Winn @ Center-Right
To: Eric Berlin @ Center-Left

Growing up in a conservative family and surrounded by mostly conservative friends, I can assure you that — at least among "my crowd" — there was definitely awareness of European views on issues like capital punishment, and the general opinion was not positive. You might underestimate the power of someone like Rush Limbaugh to put these issues in front of a large number of people. His radio audience has never been equaled, and is still quite large, while other die-hard conservatives have risen through the ranks to spread similar messages far and wide. Me, I'll still with NPR!

I do think, and this is based entirely on anecdotal evidence, that even hard-core conservatives do not see capital punishment as a core conservative value to be defended. Just as you once supported it while holding liberal views on many other subjects, and I generally rejected it while still holding conservative views on many other subjects, so too do many conservatives with whom I've spoken allow for variation on this issue above many others. Nobody, I think, wants to be seen as a bloodthirsty hangman!

You've got the last word this week, so I'll content myself with trying to answer your question. I think that the overall purpose of the justice system varies. The execution of Williams this week has ensured the topic comes up quite a bit, and I spoke to a moderate (he voted for Clinton and Bush) this week who said that anytime someone goes to prison, he wants to feel safer. So Martha Stewart should have been fined but not imprisoned, while premeditated murder ought to result in an automatic life sentence.

Certainly victims, or the families of victims, tend to expect a certain amount of punishment. The idea that a killer could quickly rehabilitate and end up on the street, while my loved one lies dead at that killer's hand, is repugnant on its face to most people, but most of all to the family of the murdered person. And yet there is a fine line between the punishment aspect of justice, and revenge. Even the state-orchestrated death of Stanley Williams didn't bring back Albert Owens, Yen-I Yang, Tsai-Shai Yang, or Yee-Chen Lin. Those who were lost can never be restored in this life. Did the execution of Williams bring comfort to the survivors of those four people? I don't know, but statements I've read from past victims' families indicate that the hoped-for closure is usually bittersweet at best.

In the Big Picture sense, I'll tell you: I think that certain crimes intrinsically involve giving up the right to live in American society. Premeditated murder, rape, and child molestation make that short list for me. Some people say that child molesters, for example, cannot be rehabilitated. I'm uncomfortable with a system that make such broad statements, and would prefer to see a bit more human involvement in such decisions. Even if most child molesters cannot be rehabilitated, there are probably exceptions. Will someone who has raped once necessarily rape again? I don't know the rate of recidivism among convicted rapists, but again, I suspect that there are varying degrees. A college student who rapes someone he knows after a party at which he has had too much to drink should spend a stretch of "hard time" in prison, but is he really likely to rape again after his release? Probably not as likely as an older man who prowls a college campus.

I'm trying to avoid introducing Christian theology into a discussion of politics, and it is turning out to be very difficult for me on this topic, because so much of my softening on this issue is tied up in my growing understanding of the place of mercy in Christianity. I can summarize a complex explanation in this way, I think: When someone commits one of those certain crimes, I believe that they give up the right to live in society, and should expect to spend the rest of their days breaking rocks and having a generally unpleasant life. But those of us on the outside should strive to exercise mercy, looking for opportunities to integrate people back into society if we can determine with reasonable confidence that they are not a continuing threat to society.

That would involve inequity, I think; perhaps more than the American public is willing to bear. One person goes free after only a few years, while another dies on the chain gang? Why?

And yet that's what I would like to see, in my American utopia.

From: Eric Berlin @ Center-Left
To: Phillip Winn @ Center-Right

I certainly see your point with regard to Rush Limbaugh and other pervasive media sources in advancing all manner of ideas and opinions. Of course, that doesn't make them accurate, but I can appreciate how a strand of thinking (European-style incarceration = bad; fryin' 'em = good!) can make its way into a subset or even across a wide swath of the American public. This brings up a related point that we could certainly do several columns on in the future: the importance of obtaining news and information from the widest possible spectrum of sources! Couple that with Mainstream Media Bias: Yea or Nay and I think we're talking a few months worth of ideas to play around with.

I also agree that there is some vacillation on this issue within party ranks. It's certainly not a "fatal flaw" for a Republican to be against the death penalty, for instance, whereas being pro-choice on abortion would not fly in many areas of the country (Rudy Giuliani's probable quest for the Republican nomination for president in 2008 will give this thesis a good test).

Reading through the comments from your moderately-minded friend, it struck me that the keyword with regard to public sentiment toward the prison system is security. If people generally feel safe, I don't think most really care what goes on behind prison walls: education, prisoner-on-prisoner shiv fests, country club-style HBO marathons, etc. When people don't feel safe, that's when politicians ratchet up the law-and-order stuff and up minimum sentencing standards and so on. It's often ignored that the best law-and-order program any society can ever have is a strong economy and opportunity and education for the masses!

It also struck me that the idea of revenge is most often sweeter than the actual feeling of carrying it out. Therefore, I would agree with you with regard to victim's families and the witnessing of state-sponsored executions. I also like your ideas concerning a philosophy underlying the point at which adults "give up the right" to be free to move and circulate within society. Certain crimes extinguish that right forevermore by their very nature, while others require subjective reasoning and may call on a certain amount of self-motivated education and redemption on the part of the criminal in order to literally earn his or her way back into free society. And I would argue that the very notion of having a free and "just" society allows for that second scenario to be upheld by our legal and justice system. Finally, I'll be the first to admit it's all in the details, for which thousands of people get paid millions of dollars everyday to wrestle with these things in an attempt to sort it all out!

Let me wrap up this week's topic before we let our esteemed commenting masses have at it. The death penalty is an expensive, time-consuming, and unethical response to heinous crimes. It's also very unlikely to deter anyone from plotting a murder, for example, and in any event lifetime imprisonment surely must be an equal or nearly equal deterrent.

Most of all, I believe that legally sanctioned executions send a poor message to ourselves and to the world about what we strive to be as a civilized people. This ties in quite snugly with other hot issues currently in the news, such as treatment of "enemy combatants" and torture of suspected terrorist conspirators.

Phillip Winn is a registered Republican, but considers himself independent. He lives in Dallas, Texas, and didn't vote for President Bush in 2000, but did in 2004. He is a co-owner, designer, and technical administrator for

Eric Berlin is a registered Democrat who currently lives in Pasadena, California. Pretty predictable voting record: Gore '00, Kerry '04. He is a co-owner and Executive Producer of

In The Middle is an attempt to focus more on what unites us than what divides us. Can two reasonable people from opposite ends of the political spectrum put aside partisanship and meet in the middle? We think so. A topic is picked, e-mails are exchanged, and the results are published here.

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Previous articles from the In The Middle crew have addressed Bill Bennett, Harriet Miers, Iraq as a "Media War," the CIA Leak Case, Samuel Alito, Jr, Vice President Cheney, John Murtha, and Joe Conason's Iraq War Plan.

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