Death and the Conservative Guest

Hello, all. Big Dan here, guest blogging thanks to an invite by Dave! Um, so blame him.

He gave me pretty much a carte blanche in terms of topic, so I’ve settled on my cause celebre, the death penalty. Read, enjoy, let me have it when you’re done.


Kelsey Patterson is dead. He died on May 18th of this year.

I doubt, however, that most will mourn him. Indeed, even among those of us who did not want him to die, most would readily admit that the world is a better place without him. He was a brutal killer and not one with whom anyone would easily sympathize.

But, you see, Kelsey Patterson did not just die – we killed him. More specifically, officers in a Texas prison injected him with lethal chemicals, and quietly he met eternity. There are many more who are in a like fashion scheduled to die. Moreover, the relatively new federal crime bill imposes death as a penalty for 50 more crimes, despite recent court-of-law uncertainty about the cruelty of lethal injection itself.

“There is no doubt that Kelsey Patterson shot Louis Oates and Dorothy Harris, and there would appear to be little doubt that mental illness lay behind this tragic crime. He made no attempt to avoid arrest – after shooting the victims, he put down the gun, undressed and was pacing up and down the street in his socks, shouting incomprehensibly, when the police arrived.”

The answer to the question of appropriate punishment comes when we know why we punish and why we killed Kelsey Patterson, mental health issues aside. There are three means of criminal punishment available: probation, incarceration and death. And we rely on only four justifications for those punishments: rehabilitation, deterrence, containment and retribution. Let us look at how the death penalty compares to the four justifications.

First, one can easily reject rehabilitation as an aim. If there is one thing the death penalty surely does not do, it is rehabilitate the person on whom it is imposed. It simply takes that person’s life. The score is now 0 for 1.

The second purpose, deterrence, is trickier. Statistics uniformly show that the condemned on death row did not consider the possibility that they might die for their crimes. In fact, murder rates actually dropped in Canada after the death penalty was repealed and states with the death penalty have higher murder rates than those without (same source).

Interestingly, not even police chiefs themselves think the death penalty is an effective deterrent, in fact ranking it lowest among the tools at the government’s disposal:, bottom of page four.

It is also worth noting that one thing we can’t do with those we’ve executed is STUDY them. A better form of deterrence would come in the form of studies done on those found guilty of capital offenses. We could research their motivations, their histories and their methodologies. You can’t do any of that with a corpse.

On an individual level only, I will admit that the death penalty is a wonderful deterrent. That is to say, 100 percent of those executed never committed murder again. The issue there becomes how necessary and worthwhile the death penalty is.

All current statistics show that it is first of all more expensive to execute a person than imprison them for life, even requiring the added cost of creating federal cost-cutting procedures which certainly won’t help the accused get a fair shake. Secondly, as an individual deterrent, life imprisonment serves just as well as execution.

In just 15 years, for instance, Florida spent an estimated $57 million on the death penalty to achieve 18 executions. (Miami Herald, July 10, 1988)

Need more cost-related stats? Let me know. I didn’t want to spam the screen with all the links I could provide. Suffice it to say that the death penalty now rates 0-2.

Let’s move on to the third purpose, containment. Killing for the purpose of containment (the idea that the death penalty will keep criminals from ever killing again) is problematic because it punishes someone for a crime not yet committed. While killing for a future crime may make great theater, and Tom Cruise may be handsome, in real life, you can’t consider someone guilty because they “might” or “probably will” do something wrong in the future.

Since we can keep someone safely behind bars without resorting to the final, irreversible act of killing them, why add the expense of capital crimes costs?


This leaves only retribution. Revenge. The ultimate payback. Revenge is the area that provides the most difficulty for a reasoned debater. Given simple logic, refuting the death penalty is a no-brainer, since it is, at its heart, based on this logical fallacy: We will teach people that killing is wrong by killing them.

However, the compulsion for revenge is at the heart of every execution, and humans find ways to justify what they want. Ever talked yourself into buying a certain car, or eating that fatty meal, or sleeping with a certain member of the opposite sex you knew was bad for you, or killing millions of Jews in the name of racial cleansing? We tend to view our own skewed logic as reasonable when it supports what we want, especially if that is at the core of our being in the way the impulse to exact revenge is.

We need to be sensitive to the feelings of the victims’ families, to be sure. Family and friends of murdered loved ones invariably say that they want the murderer executed so that they can achieve a sense of closure and move on with their lives. But many people who’ve seen the murderers of their loved ones executed say that, after the execution, they are left with that same anger, that same emptiness, and that the void that they thought would be filled by the “justice” of the execution was still there. Not surprisingly, killing the murderer doesn’t make you miss your loved ones any less. Entire books and collections of essays have been written by the families of victims making this point.

The reason for this is simple: if revenge is a dish best served cold, as the Klingons say, then it is also a dish that never satisfies. In fact, it feeds on itself. Gaining revenge only creates the need for more revenge, more acts of seemingly righteous anger.

I remember seeing a mass of what can only be called party-goers at the Ted Bundy execution. A gathering of celebrants danced all night, cheered when the switch was thrown and held signs saying things like “Fry, Bundy, Fry.” These people were not there expressing reasoned opinions on the justice system, they were there celebrating revenge. They were partying. It was remarkably like the scene around the campfire near the end of The Lord of the Flies.

It is common animal nature to resent a hurt done to us, and to want to lash out in return. Just as the kids abandoned on the deserted island in William Golding’s novel reverted to their animal natures, so too did the party-goers celebrating Bundy’s death.

However, a reasoned justice system requires better logic for its executions than the Texan “he needed killin’” response. Official, state-sanctioned revenge is no less evil than me taking a club to a rival’s head in a fit of passion. Revenge is, simply put, antithetical to our ideas about civilized society.

The problem is that “pay back” is politically popular. It reaches to the animal inside us. It gets ratings. It is our country’s dirty little secret. Perhaps instead of banging the cages of the animals inside us, the government would do better to cater to justice for individuals, not the bloodlust of the masses. 0-4.

Having laid that groundwork, we can finally move on to what I see as the real issue surrounding the death penalty. The unfair system would be bad enough if it worked correctly.

It does not.

This product of the Justice System is patently unjust. We won’t ever know if the death penalty would have been a fair punishment, because it has never been utilized fairly.

With word count in mind, I’ll hit these next points speaking to the unfairness of the current system quickly.

The first and most obvious failure of the system is that, inevitably, innocents die. It is presumptuous and, well, silly to pretend it doesn’t ever happen. Since 1973, 114 people in 25 states have been released from death row with evidence of their innocence. (Latest release: Gordon Steidl, just a few months ago on March 28, 2004)

The question then becomes: Is it worth killing a few innocent folks to make sure we get the really bad ones? The answer? Ask the families of those executed. I’m fairly certain they would rather shut down the unfair system than kill their undeserving loved one.

Secondly, the death penalty is systemically unfair to certain members of society. For instance, the poor can’t afford to hire the legal team O.J. Simpson did. Listen to the words of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

“People who are well represented at trial do not get the death penalty. . . . I have yet to see a death case among the dozens coming to the Supreme Court on eve-of-execution stay applications in which the defendant was well represented at trial.” (Associated Press, April 10, 2001)

The ACLU reports that in Illinois alone, at least 33 times, a defendant sentenced to die was represented at trial by an attorney who has been disbarred or suspended. These are sanctions reserved for conduct so incompetent, unethical or criminal that their license is taken away!!

Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, states have executed 486 prisoners and have exonerated 75 others. “How can anyone say these are anything but horrible odds,” says famed defense lawyer Barry Scheck. “Divide 75 into 500, it means almost one in six times, we are dead wrong. If you got the wrong results at a hospital one in six times, you’d have no faith in the system,” he says. “You’d demand the hospital be shut down.”

Speaking of O.J. lawyers, it is also clear that not everyone can play the race card the way Johnny Cochran did. In fact, race is part of the problem making the system criminally, fatally and irreversibly unfair.

The Death Penalty Information Center reported as recently as May 19 of this year that over 80 percent of completed capital cases involve white victims, while national numbers also show that 50 percent or less of all murder victims are white. It’s not a long leap to realize that you’re more likely to fry if you kill a white person.

The same study, echoed in research by both Amnesty International and the ACLU, shows that a whopping 42 percent of death row inmates are black. Care to compare that to the percentage of the American population?

While you’re there, just so you don’t think I am personally playing the race card only, take a look at the rates of death as punishment among women, juveniles (yes, kids on death row) and those with mental health problems.

What we have, at the heart of it, is an unjust system, administered unjustly.

A system that will take life must first give justice. –Former ABA President John J. Curtin, Jr., discussing the current movement to reduce the number of appeals, adding to the possibility of innocents executed.

I will believe in the death penalty when you will prove to me the infallibility of human beings. –Marquis de Lafayette

I think they’re a bunch of ignorant, backwoods, redneck clowns bent on vengeance. –Freddie Pitts, who spent nine and a half years on Florida’s death row before someone else confessed to the murders he was convicted of committing. Pitts was asked his opinion of state legislators who want to speed up the pace of executions.

As one whose husband and mother-in-law have died the victims of murder assassination, I stand firmly and unequivocally opposed to the death penalty for those convicted of capital offenses. An evil deed is not redeemed by an evil deed of retaliation. Justice is never advanced in the taking of a human life. Morality is never upheld by a legalized murder. –Corretta Scott King

I have observed that it never does a boy much good to shoot him. –President Lincoln on Roswell McIntyre, sentenced to death for desertion

Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. –John Donne

Evidence of innocence is irrelevant! Mary Sue Terry, former Attorney General of Virginia (replying to an appeal to introduce new evidence from a prisoner sentenced to death).

Respectfully submitted,

Big Dan