31 December 2006


Death Penalty Thougths

Saddam's execution gives me excuse to foist my latest thinking on capital punishment on my few readers. It's a pretty simple syllogism:

  1. There are crimes -- e.g., murder, treason, genocide -- where the perpetrator, by nature of his or her acts, relinquishes their right to existence.
  2. Determining whether or not such has occurred is difficult and always involves the risk of error. The error can be minimized but not eliminated.
  3. It is within the purview of governments, as legitimate representations of the individuals living collectively in communities, to impose the death penalty for the crimes mentioned above, even though such can't be done with certainty.
  4. Communities that acknowledge the reality of capital crimes, deserving of death, yet practice mercy, by commuting death sentences to life imprisonment, are the ones I'd rather live in.

So that last one seems a cop out? Maybe. But I prefer it to the beliefs that capital crimes don't exist, that judicial systems are intrinsically so unfair that capital punishment is never justly meted out, and that imposition of capital punishment by whatever means doesn't coarsen all of us a little bit.

Some, like Saddam, clearly (to this one) deserve to die, but not killing is likely (in my opinion) a better path.

There is an old tradition of seldom used Death Penalty in the Jewish tradition. The rules for sentencing were extremely strict and restricting. An interesting aspect is that a unanimous decision to impose death was one way to keep the sentence from being carried out. I don't remember the number... I think it was 23... "judges" met to decide whether execution was warranted. One, and only one, of the panel had to vote no in a secret, or the sentence could not be carried out. With all of the restrictions, even requiring multiple eye-witnesses, it was/is believed that death was so serious a penalty that there ought to be some doubt... Something was deemed wrong if all 23 voted for execution.

I think there is much wisdom in that principle.
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