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Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Battle Death Penalty - Challenger - First Rebuttal

I chose to challenge Rosemary intentionally. I have found her AND Dean to be witty and charming, with a delightfully sharp edge. I chose to challenge her because I knew she would give me just that: a challenge. I have not been disappointed.

At the same time, Rosemary and I share many of the same views on proper debate etiquette and I knew that any debate with the Iron Blogger Republican may include occasional witty jabs and underpants gnomes references, but nothing snarky or unkind.

Since Rose hasn’t had time to properly address my opening points yet, I will (mostly) let them stand on their own for now, restrict new sources and information, and turn instead to the Iron Blogger’s statements.

In a wide open topic like this, it’s interesting to see who puts emphasis where. For instance, Rosemary chooses to put much weight on the “it’s not cruel” argument, claiming that lethal injection is the most harmless way to kill someone guilty of a capital crime (does it strike anyone else as odd that we are talking about “harmless” ways to end human lives?)
I, on the other hand, care very little for arguments about which form of killing a person is most honorable and least painful. I am against the system as a whole. Even if they were killed by lethal doses of supermodel sex and chocolate, I would still stand against the death penalty.

Yes, there are cases where the death scene was torturous and the switch had to be pulled a few times, prompting fun descriptions like this one:

“The first jolt was followed by 240 volts for 60 seconds, and then the entire cycle was repeated. A small stream of smoke wafted up from his right leg during the second cycle. He was certified dead 5 minutes later.”
And yes, there have been questions even recently about the decency and swiftness of lethal injection, causing the Georgia Supreme Court to declare lethal injection unconstitutional.

But mostly I’ll let Rose have these points. It doesn’t matter to me that we tend to use the nicest methods of killing prisoners. It doesn’t even matter to me that we used to be a lot worse, as Rosemary quite correctly points out.

Saying that we’ve come a long way and no longer kill people quite so viciously is like me saying I no longer beat my wife with metal pipes anymore, preferring the less scarring wooden stick instead. Gruesome, isn’t it? It chills me just to make that reference, but the fact is that the death penalty is just that: gruesome.

I agree with much of what Rosemary says. She speaks eloquently and accurately about the safeguards in place to protect those tried for capital crimes. Of course, those are the same safeguards I spoke of when I pointed out:

(1) The safeguards (appeals, court costs, etc.) ultimately make the death penalty more expensive than the equally-effective option of locking people up forever. The belief that execution costs less than imprisonment is false. "The cost of the apparatus and maintenance of the procedures attending the death penalty, including death row and the endless appeals and legal machinery, far outweighs the expense of maintaining in prison the tiny fraction of criminals who would otherwise be slain" (Draper, Thomas. Capital Punishment. New York: H. W. Wilson, 1985)

Did a prisoner kill another one time? That is truly tragic, but the answer is not just to start killing prisoners. That’s like saying that since my heart was broken by a girlfriend, I should have given up women altogether. The answer is to provide better security for everyone. If sparing the criminal’s life doesn’t make him play nice with others in prison, solitary confinement will do the trick – no others to worry about. Maybe if we took the millions of dollars spent on death penalty cases and put them into security measures at prisons…

(2) The safeguards Rose speaks of are under attack and reduction even as we speak. On the anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing, Congress passed the Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (as Rosemary herself helpfully noted), which had little to do with terrorism but much to do with speeding up state executions. The law is already restricting inmates with new evidence of innocence from obtaining review because of its stringent time limits and barriers to conducting evidentiary hearings.

(3) Not everyone has access to those safeguards. If you’re the wrong race or income level, you may not have a chance at all to gain the safeguards O.J. Simpson had. In fact, you probably won’t. Here I refer you to my opening statements.

Simply put, a system that doesn’t work for everyone doesn’t work. I find it puzzling that Rosemary pointed out how the safeguards had allowed some who were innocent to find justice and be freed. In essence, she makes my argument that innocents die for me. She accurately points out that there have been (are?) some wrongly accused folks on death row. Are we to believe that these amazing new safeguards not only saved the folks she mentioned, but somehow made sure that everyone claiming innocence today on Death Row is lying? All the safeguards did, in her argument, was point out that innocent folks had been dying all along and now, maybe, not as many of them will die.

And (4) since innocents slip through the system and into the electric chair, the only logical solution is to end death as a penalty until Rosemary’s safeguards can be perfected. When we’re all convinced that no innocents will die wrongly, maybe we can talk again. Could be I’m a romantic, or maybe it’s just that my job as a pastor asks me to leave the ninety-nine to go in search of the one, but any ONE who dies unjustly is enough for me to want the system shut down until we know it won’t happen again.

Life in prison punishes the criminal and protects society from them. It also allows for the possibility of reform and some quality of life for the falsely accused. After all, look at all the good that has been done from prison – the Apostle Paul wrote many of his letters to churches from prison, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote many of his famous discourses against Nazi Germany while in prison awaiting his execution at their hands (another innocent killed by a death penalty verdict), John Bunyon , the author of Pilgrim’s Progress, wrote extensively from prison (serving time on a preaching charge no less) and Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote his timelessly classic “Letter from the Birmingham Prison” while, you guessed it, in prison.
Is the death penalty fair and just? Rosemary’s answer is “yes and no.” My answer is that being a little unfair is like being just a tad pregnant. It is or it isn’t. If any part of the system is unfair, you have to call the whole thing unfair. I call the whole thing unfair anyway.

Rosemary concludes with a striking claim: “Yes, the death penalty has a place in our society if used swiftly and justly.”

While our debate is in no small part about our difference of opinion on the first half of her statement, I find it tragic and unarguable that we will never be able to prove the last part. My statement would be “The death penalty has no place in our society, even if it had EVER been used justly.

Trial lawyers as a group recognize that the system is unfair and should be halted at least until we can get it right.

“In its February 1997 mid-year meeting, the American Bar Association House of Delegates passed a resolution calling for a halt on executions until courts across the country can ensure that such cases are ‘administered fairly and impartially, in accordance with due process,’ and with minimum risk of executing innocent people. The resolution was adopted by a margin of 280 to 119 votes.”
I should point out that if there is uncertainty about the fairness of the system (and why shouldn’t there be uncertainty about the fairness of an inherently unfair system?), NOW is the time to act. There are 81 juveniles on death row as we speak, as well as 9 women on death row in Texas alone and several prisoners with mental health issues.

I’ll spare you the boring re-iteration at this point. My first post listed the ways I feel the system is inherently animalistic and unfair, as well as the ways this unfair system has been used, well, unfairly. I remind you again that the death penalty system failed the four tests regarding the purposes/justifications for punishment, often losing out to the less expensive option of life imprisonment. Even if Rose is correct, there is still no viable PURPOSE for killing folks to teach them that killing is wrong.

One final point of interest relates to the reaction a friend of mine had to reading my opening statements. She pointed out that comparing the death penalty in the United States to the Holocaust was “over the top.” I’m with her. If I had done that, I would think it was over the top, too. It’s silly and stupid to equate the two.

I DID, however, point out that the Holocaust was an example, an extreme one compared to the others I also gave, of what can happen when we base national and personal policy on the urges of our hearts only. The Holocaust’s justifications, which we are all well-versed in, simply gave false support to the vengeful and violent urges inside the hearts of those with the bigger weapons.

The danger, again, in talking about the death penalty is that it speaks to our base urges. There is a lot of proof-texting going on in the pro-death penalty quarters. By “proof-texting,” I mean simply starting with a conclusion and then collecting and arranging statistics and opinions that point to that conclusion.

Hence, we read the Iron Blogger’s statements more sympathetically. She is, after all, speaking to our hearts, to the dark corners where we keep our urges for revenge. I really do suspect that if we could magically eliminate the animalistic desire for revenge, the death penalty would go away just as magically. If we could start from a desire to find truth, rather than to justify our own views on justice and revenge, things would be very different.

I find it noteworthy that Rose (and PBS) mentioned the 1690 capital offenses. They come directly from the Old Testament’s Levitical codes (specifically Exodus 21:15+24 and Leviticus 24:16). This is also where we find the old “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” chestnut that I expected Rosemary to dust off.

Death penalty advocates are most often subscribers to the "an eye for an eye" principle and feel that execution is the only way to satisfy the public as well as themselves. Who doesn't enjoy it when, for example, someone steals a hundred dollars from you and then the person who stole your money has the same thing happen to them? Death penalty advocates feel much the same way about murderers who are sentenced to die.

The problem is that if a criminal steals 100 bucks, and we make him pay 100 bucks back, we’re even. If a criminal kills, and we kill him in return, the scales aren’t even. A killer remains, and it is us.

Gandhi, later quoted by capital crime victim Martin Luther King, Jr., said it best: “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.”

With respect,
Big Dan


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