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Saturday, June 19, 2004

Battle Death Penalty - Challenger - Closing Arguments

After re-reading previous rebuttals and opening statements, I feel the need to ask a simple favor.

Imagine I’ve been hit by a car. I am facedown in the street and you can’t tell if I’m alive or dead. Please do me a favor and call an ambulance, not a mortician. Assume that I’m alive. That doesn’t seem like too much to ask, does it?

See, in this country, we give the benefit of the doubt to life over death.

For instance, when the mad cow disease scare hit, did the FDA decide to leave the meat out on the market shelves until we could be certain it was tainted? Heavens, no. They yanked that meat faster than (insert your own Pee Wee Herman reference here).

In short, they had a reasonable doubt that this pile of hamburger was safe, and some as-yet unproven claims that it could make you sick or kill you. They blessedly took action to shut down the system until it could be cleaned up. Rose wants a token effort at cleaning the system up (saying in her closing rebuttal we should “fix it up”), while STILL killing folks in the meantime.

My claim is that if we could stop killing long enough to get the taste of blood out of our mouths, we would objectively see that the system ITSELF is unfair.

See where I’m going with this?

Rose sides with death on this issue.

If you took all of my arguments and all of Rose’s arguments (these debates sometimes feel more like “Google vs. Google,” don’t they?) and lined them up, it is a tragic (and in this case, fatal) fallacy to think that my arguments HAVE to be more persuasive than hers, even though I think they clearly are.

My arguments, ultimately, don’t even need to be the equal of Rose’s, although, again, they are that and more.

At the end of the debate, all I really had to do was show a reasonable doubt about the fairness of the death penalty system for us to have a compulsion to shut it down until it can be cleaned up so nobody else dies unfairly. In this country, I say again, we give the benefit of the doubt to life.

So my task was to show a reasonable doubt that the death penalty system was fair. I thought it would be a piece of cake, since the death penalty is, after all, inherently unfair and vengeance-based at the heart of it. After all, the best appeals system means zilch to a man who’s dead. However, that task turned out to be even easier than I expected.

Rose did it for me.

In essence and in word, in the opening notes of the debate she gave me the only point I needed to win: she admitted the death penalty was unfair. To save you the anxiety of unnecessary scrolling, let me quote four excerpts from her otherwise credible statements.

“Is it [the death penalty] fair and just? Yes and no.”

“How about this answer? Not always.”

“Yes, it is true that the system sometimes fails and innocent people are convicted of crimes that they didn't commit.”

“I don't believe the death penalty is perfect, but, is any method of punishment perfect?”

I say a system that kills (killing being an irreversible act) HAS to be perfect.

Her words could have just as winningly been posted in my opening to great effect. See, in a country that reveres life, as I have mentioned before, a system that will take life must first deliver justice. Not partial justice, not occasional justice, not justice that feels good… justice. Occasional justice is fine for a system that hands out reversible punishments.

If you have a perfectly fine punishment that doesn’t kill, as well as a punishment that does, along with a system that is ADMITTEDLY imperfect and unfair, you MUST shut down the death-dealing system until it can be fixed. To call back into mind Barry Scheck’s point in his hospital example: You’d demand the system be shut down.

Again, when lives are on the line, being “a little unfair” is like being a tad pregnant. Rose admits the system is unfair right off the bat, when even reasonable doubt on that point would win the debate. Folks are dying. Shut it down.

It’ll save us money, anyway.

The good news for me is that even if you leave the benefit of the doubt argument aside, (which you really can’t do, but there it is) the arguments against the death penalty are simply more convincing than those for death.

Rose made an interesting analogy to Chewbacca in the OJ case, and made a particularly witty jibe at Clinton’s expense (by the way, he WAS unethical, so my definition – incompetent, unethical or criminal – applies), but never really addressed the issue at hand, which was that the poor simply can’t get the kind of legal representation it takes to get a fair shake in a capital crimes trial. Regardless of WHY lawyers got disbarred, many of the now-deceased “criminals” had lawyers who had been, or later were, disbarred for improper conduct.

My personal favorite lawyer on that site (and by favorite, I mean, “most repulsive”) was this one:
“Nigger” -the word used by Eddie Lee Ross’ court-appointed attorney during his capital murder trial in Georgia. Ross later learned that his white attorney had been the Imperial Wizard of the local Ku Klux Klan for 50 years. Ross was sentenced to the electric chair.
The system is unfair.

I mentioned the many families who had written extensively on the way that seeing their loved ones’ killers executed didn’t satisfy the need for revenge or make their sadness go away. These families decry the vengeance-based death penalty system. They, and I, claim that any system based on revenge is by definition unjust. Rosemary’s response to the list of books: silence. The system is unfair.

I argued that murder rates in states with the death penalty were higher than the rates in states without it. I also argued that murder rates dropped in Canada after the death penalty was repealed. Rosemary’s response: silence. The system is unfair.

I gave four responses, very neat and ordered, to Rosemary’s claims that her safeguards would make sure the death penalty system was fair. I did so because I thought the safeguards she mentioned were, yes, a joke. A very bad, very tragic joke. She responded to only one of those four claims against her safeguards directly. Part of that response was quoting folks who want us to think nobody can ever die wrongly again thanks to the miracle of DNA testing. Her response to my four dismissals of the current safeguards: silence, response, silence, silence. The system is unfair.

I claimed that the death penalty system is much more expensive than the equally-effective life imprisonment option. Her response to the compared expenses: silence. The system is unfair.

I claimed, and provided sources to prove, that killing and revenge escalate until society is out of control. Her response: silence. The system is unfair.

There is ONE claim Rose did respond to in a way I felt satisfactory. This response came in her final rebuttal. Remember her definition of murder from the first rebuttal? She said it was “To kill another human unlawfully. To kill brutally or inhumanly.”

On that point I agree, and I call the death penalty murder for its brutality and reducing death row prisoners to sub-human. So does Rosemary, I note. This is from her second rebuttal:

“Okay, Jesus didn't think adultery is a crime worthy of MURDER (emphasis mine). I'm pretty sure that in this country we agree.”

Since she was the one who insisted on the definitions, and since the woman in the act of adultery was tried by proper authorities, I have to assume she agrees that the death penalty is murder.

AND there’s a point I’m willing to give in on completely. That point is the Biblical defense of the death penalty in her second rebuttal.

There are of course the Old Testament rules she quoted, but nobody really follows those anymore. I mean, do any of you forbid your kids (on penalty of death) from wearing blended fabrics? Do any of you refuse to sleep in the same bed with your wife when she’s having that special time of the month? Do you avoid eating pork (Mmmmmm, pork!)? Did you stone your neighbor the last time he said “Oh, my God”? Of course not. The Old Testament laws are outdated, even for Christians, thanks to Jesus.

I give in completely on her quotes from Jesus himself, though.

Rose astutely quoted a parable of Jesus which uses a vineyard owner as an analogy for God’s return, and two quotes of Jesus pointing out that death is in God’s hands. I agree totally. In my book, God can go ahead and impose the death penalty whenever He chooses.

Um… just not fallible humans. That’s been my point all along: human failure. Human weakness. Human compulsion for revenge.

Ah, revenge. Despite her brilliance in so many other areas, Rose never really convincingly dismissed the claim that revenge is what drives the death penalty. Honestly, you can’t blame her for not doing so, since the claim is true. That’s why I made it the centerpiece of my argument all along.

As a retributory tool, death works wonderfully. The desire for revenge is the dark secret in all of us. It has, I suppose, been so since the beginning of time. It is human nature to resent a hurt, and each of us has a desire to hurt back. This is why Rose relied so heavily on two rare, extreme cases (Matthew Shepard and Lemuel Smith) – they more violently trigger our desire for revenge.

THIS is why I claim that the death penalty system has “an eye for an eye” at its heart, because the concept is “taking a life because one was taken”… exactly the equation I claimed was unfair and NOT a one-for-one affair, with Camus’ help. Remember this?

Capital punishment is the most premeditated of murders, to which no criminal's deed, however calculated, can be compared. For there to be an equivalency, the death penalty would have to punish a criminal who had warned his victim of the date at which he would inflict a horrible death on him and who, from that moment onward, had confined him at his mercy for months. Such a monster is not encountered in private life. -Albert Camus


Care to take a guess at Rose’s response to that point?

By exacting revenge on criminals as a society, that society drops to the social stratum of its dregs. We are then playing on the murderer’s terms; by their rules: and we cannot win. Official revenge is no better than Hatfield and McCoy revenge, and the results are no less odious. And so it escalates.

Vengeance requires a victim. The government gives us one. “Payback,” although destructive to culture and family alike, is undeniably politically popular. It gets ratings. It has commercial value. It feels good. Hence, it is the law.

This is why debating (and, I suspect, judging) the topic is so hard. It’s difficult to be fair, to step back and to look at rational arguments when killing bad guys feels so right.

I say vengeance is not a proper motivation for a rational “justice” system. And I’m not alone.

People are willing to concede that it (the death penalty) is just pure revenge and they’re willing to live with that.
-Hunter Labovitz, my new favorite backwoods Southern (Florida) attorney, quoted on Rose’s new favorite site, the Death Penalty Information Center

Well, I’m NOT willing to live with that. How many more won’t be ABLE to?



With thanks, and newfound respect for Rosemary’s spirit, talents and wit,

Here’s to a classic battle and a classy lady,

Humbly submitted by Big Dan

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