The Watering Hole, Saturday, May 31, 2014: How Fine Is The Line Between OK To Kill And Not OK To Kill?

This post was previously posted on Pick Wayne’s Brain.

When the Supreme Court ruled in Ford v. Wainwright (1986) that it was a violation of the Eighth Amendment ban on “cruel and unusual punishment” to execute the insane, it was because it was felt a person who does not understand right from wrong, and would not understand their punishment or the purpose of it, should be exempt from execution. In the case of Atkins v. Virginia (2001) the SCOTUS ruled that it was unconstitutional to execute a mentally retarded person. From the link, “Moreover, the Court concluded that there was serious concern whether either justification underpinning the death penalty – retribution and deterrence of capital crimes – applies to mentally retarded offenders, due to their lessened culpability.”

I am an avowed opponent of the use of capital punishment. I do not believe it to be the proper retribution for any crime, even treason. If your justification is Genesis 9:6, you’re going to have to come up with a different one. Remember, we’re a secular nation, so what right do we have to use your religious texts to set our laws? No matter how many times I read it, I do not see the words “Judeo-Christian” in the First Amendment. You need another excuse to kill people. And make no mistake about it – if you support the use of capital punishment, then you want to see people killed. I don’t. I’m not saying there’s never a justification to take another person’s life. Self-defense where an actual danger of death or serious injury to yourself or to someone for whose protection you are responsible is one such justification. But the danger must be real, not imaginary. You can’t use deadly force because you thought the guy had a gun. Otherwise anybody could make up a story about a gun after the fact. The danger has to be real, not imaginary, and not theoretical. You can’t just imagine, or assume, that the guy has a gun and then use the fact that you observe nothing to the contrary as proof that you were right about him having a gun. If that is how you came to “believe” the guy had a gun, and the law allows that as an excuse, then the law needs to be re-written. Deductive reasoning, not inductive reasoning, must be the basis for your belief. There has to be evidence it’s true, not simply a lack of evidence that it’s false.

Unfortunately, the SCOTUS left it up the states to determine, for themselves, and as applied only to persons facing trial in those states, just who qualifies for being called “mentally retarded.” So Florida decided that you qualify for being mentally retarded if your IQ is 70 or below. No other standard required. If your IQ is 71, then you’re going to be executed. One point lower, and it would be cruel and unusual punishment to execute you. Fortunately, with Justice Anthony Kennedy batting from the left side of the plate, the SCOTUS ruled that Florida’s line was unconstitutional.

“Intellectual disability is a condition, not a number,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the divided court. “Courts must recognize, as does the medical community, that the IQ test is imprecise.”

In other words, you’re going to have to come up with another excuse to kill people. Tell me something. Have we advanced no further than the days of the Book of Genesis to tell us right from wrong? If you read Genesis 9 carefully, you won’t find any exemptions for the insane or mentally impaired. It took a secular Constitutional Government to decide that some people should be shown more mercy than even God demanded. Does that make our Founding Fathers bad people? [Answer: No, not that. Plenty of other reasons they weren’t the saintliest of men.] And I agree that they didn’t specify which types of punishment, or which types of people to whom it was applied, would be considered cruel or unusual. Being tarred and feathered and made to walk around in public was cruel, but certainly not all that unusual. Did it have to be both cruel and unusual to be unconstitutional? Yes, otherwise any kind of punishment could be considered cruel. That’s kind of the point of punishment, to do something at least a little cruel, like depriving them of daily contact with Society or their family members who aren’t in prison with them, in response to them breaking certain laws. But here’s the sick part. You can’t execute someone who’s insane or mentally retarded, but if they’re simply mentally impaired and that impairment can be overcome with medication so that the prisoner understands what’s happening, then it’s okay to kill him. As long as he knows you’re doing it and why, the state has no problem with executing him.

So if it isn’t an IQ point, where is the line between OK To Kill and Not OK To Kill? Why do some people deserve to be exempt from execution, while other people, barely any better in any meaningful way mentally, deserve to die? Where is that line? And why are we doing it? Is it suppose to deter others from doing that same crime? Is it working? The state of Texas not only sentences more people to die than any other, it actually carries those executions out. And it’s not a recent phenomenon, it’s been happening as long as capital punishment was constitutional. So it should not occur to anyone who wants to commit a capital crime in Texas that it’s unlikely they’ll ever actually be executed. They can count on it happening, sooner or later. So does the very fact that they could be executed for doing whatever they’re doing deter them from doing it anyway? Obviously not, as Texas continues to lead the nation in executions carried out. Even if you’re mentally retarded. Even if you’re innocent. So it’s not surprising that out of all the executions that have taken place since the Supreme Court lifted its ban on them, Texas has done about a third of them. It sounds to me like executing people has no deterrent effect at all. So why do it?

Retribution? Retaliation? A repayment for deeds done? If that’s so, then why execute a person just for passing state secrets to another nation? If no actual lives were lost because of the passage of that information, then why the death penalty? And if lives were lost as a result of the disclosure, I still ask why the death penalty? I do not condone what they did, and I probably don’t have a position on it one way or the other, no matter who it is. My point is that there are other, less costly ways to punish someone. I’ve had conservative friends say they supported the death penalty because they didn’t want their tax money to go to paying for them to spend their life in prison. Well, guess what? What with all the automatic appeals they’re entitled to, at our expense (both you and me), it often costs WAY more for the government to seek the death penalty than to seek life without parole. And it’s still going to take 15-20 years for that process to play out sometimes, which we’re both paying for anyway. So why bother with the added expense, which I know you hate, to the “overhead” costs anyway? How’s that helping the bottom line? If it’s money you’re looking to save, and you really don’t give a crap one way or the other if the guy’s innocent, then don’t bother with the death penalty and ask for life without parole. That way, if it turns out by some weird fluke that the guy really didn’t do it, then you won’t have the blood of an innocent man on your hands. That would bother you, wouldn’t it? I really hope so, because if the execution of a totally innocent person doesn’t make you hesitate even a little to execute the next one, then there is no hope for you. You are lost to the Dark Side, where Dick Cheney is your master.

So the threat of being killed for killing someone doesn’t deter people. And why should it? Do you think that killing people to make the point that killing people is wrong is really going to make people who want to kill people not kill people? What some of them (more than you might think) hope for is Suicide By Cop. Then they don’t have to face the rest of their life in prison. So what do you think would scare them more? Facing the death penalty, thus ending their “lifetime” in prison, or an actual lifetime in prison?

Given what you’re doing to people when you sentence them to death, given the costs both financial and spiritual, do you need to be so blood thirsty for revenge, or whatever, that you have to draw a thin distinction between someone who’s too mentally retarded to constitutionally execute, and someone who’s observably mentally retarded to some degree, but not mentally retarded enough to be exempt from execution? What about stupid people? Is stupidity an intellectual disability? Should it be a capital crime to be stupid? I’m not talking about doing stupid things, because we all do stupid things. I’m talking about committing horrible crimes because you’re just plain stupid? Do stupid people deserve to be executed more than smarter people? (I remember reading something in Reader’s Digest a long, long time ago in a bathroom far, far away. Two men were on trial for robbing a bank. The prosecutor asked an eyewitness on the stand, “Are the two men who robbed the bank in this courtroom today?” The two defendants raised their hands. Does their stupidity exempt them from execution?) Who deserves to be executed by a government willing to execute innocent people if it helps make their point? (Which, in that case, would be to keep quiet and you can get away with it.) Who are we to decide who lives and who dies? Who am I? Who are you? And if you think you have the moral right to decide who lives and who dies, where do you draw your line between those exempt from execution and those not? The answer to that, and the fact that you would allow anyone to be executed on behalf of the people at all, says more about you than you’ll ever know.

This is our daily open thread. Feel free to discuss capital punishment or anything else you wish to discuss.

8 thoughts on “The Watering Hole, Saturday, May 31, 2014: How Fine Is The Line Between OK To Kill And Not OK To Kill?

  1. this is a post on a blog i love to laugh at:

    pastorhayden – May 27, 2014 8:48 am
    I’m pro death penalty because the Bible is pro death penalty, but I think it’s wrong to say that no one is wrongfully convicted. DNA makes it harder, but it also shows us how many times people in the past were convicted, sentenced and even executed wrongfully. Beyond reasonable doubt is what the law requires, too often that’s been ignored.
    I also think far too many people are incarcerated for long periods of time.

  2. The death penalty serves no purpose. It does not deter, criminals are not prone to carefully weighing the consequences of their actions, and most do not believe they will be caught. It does not provide the magic “closure” to those who loved the victim, while we all grieve differently, I find it hard to believe that revenge would help anyone heal, it would just put another burden on my soul. I have long heard it argued that it would be cheaper to execute someone instead of maintaining them in jail for life, even if this is true, that’s a piss poor reason to kill someone. Finally, when the state kills, it does so in our name. Execution makes many of us into killers against our will.

    • I have long heard it argued that it would be cheaper to execute someone instead of maintaining them in jail for life, even if this is true, that’s a piss poor reason to kill someone.

      Actually, as one of the links shows, the opposite is true. people forget that those sentenced to death get automatic appeals for which the taxpayers pay, not the defendant. if you only seek Life Without Parole, the costs to run your legal system are reduced by millions.

  3. That’s a lot of questions, Wayne, and I wish people in favor of the death penalty would trouble themselves to think about a fraction of them.

    It’s just too easy — and not good enough — to say “they deserve it.” Deserve what? There’s another question for them.

  4. The death penalty is a deterrent, but it ONLY deters the one who is executed, who will never again do after he’s dead what he did when he was alive. Keeping him in prison for life accomplishes the same thing, but sans the dilemmas implicit in execution.

    Personally, I don’t support the death penalty, but not because I think human life is sacred or divine or any of that religious stuff. The legitimacy of execution was automatically disqualified the FIRST time an innocent person was wrongfully put to death, and every time thereafter.

    Now, if the accused is either a corporate executive or a member of Congress . . . well, y’know.

  5. With technology advancing in DNA profiling, many “convicted” killers have been exonerated through DNA evidence.
    Cops have a real hard on for putting people in jail and they have no conscience when it comes to lying on the stand to get them there.
    That’s how they climb the ladder of their career.

    • True – especially during an election year! (D.A.’s “need numbers” and can “encourage” round-ups)

  6. Zooey, sorry for the delayed reaction.
    I’d love to try one of your new creations for shaving soap.

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