Sunday, February 15, 2009

State should suspend death penalty

State should suspend death penalty

Sunday, February 15, 2009


On Jan. 29, the Law School at Samford University showed and discussed the documentary "At the Death House Door," about the Rev. Carroll Pickett's experience as a chaplain on Death Row at the Huntsville state prison in Texas. Pickett became convinced several innocent people were wrongly put to death, and after I saw this documentary and heard Pickett, I started to think whether such a system could be just.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, it's believed eight executed people were innocent of the crimes, and that since 1973 at least 130 people on Death Row have been exonerated. The recently deceased Ernst van Haag of the Fordham University Law School was a well-known proponent for the death penalty. He argued we uphold the law of the land and honor the victims by executing the capital offenders. However, he admitted the system fails occasionally and states execute innocent people. Yet, according to van Haag, that is a price we must pay to properly render capital punishment to criminals. The logic of his argument is the end justifies the means.

He gave an analogy that though many people die in the trucking industry, it's not illegal to make and drive trucks and cars. In other words, in any system or social endeavor, mistakes happen. We should try to eliminate them but not stop the system to keep the mistakes from occurring altogether.

However, van Haag's analogy is faulty. If a company knowingly makes trucks that fail and cause accidents, the company is guilty. Automakers and drivers are liable for their mistakes. The goal to drive trucks does not justify making trucks that we know might cause fatal accidents.

The same reasoning goes for capital punishment. If we have to accept a system that occasionally executes an innocent person so we can be certain we execute the guilty, we are liable for making a faulty system. In this case, the end cannot justify the means.

If the end is to rightly execute the guilty but we have to tolerate an ineffective judicial and penal system that mistakenly executes innocent people just so we can be certain the guilty are given the death penalty, the means contradicts the end. That is, we cannot justify both executing the guilty and allowing a mistaken execution of the innocent in order to make sure the guilty are duly punished. This is contradictory and irrational.

Once an innocent person is put to death, obviously there is no way to rectify the wrong done to him or her and the families.

It would sound strange and offensive to any of us to have the state of Alabama say to us the end would justify the means in such a case, that to assure the punishment of capital offenders, the state has to excuse these mistakes.

In fact, Alabama Attorney General Troy King even opposes using DNA testing to help determine the innocence of those convicted of capital crimes. Such a decision increases the possibility of innocent people being executed. The state does not even try to do all it can to make the system just. The attorney general seems more than willing to allow mistakes to happen in order to keep the death penalty strong.

The famous 20th-century philosopher John Rawls once said justice is fairness, and this seems intuitively right to us. The test for fairness is whether we would be willing to put ourselves in the place of the people who are benefited the least by the law or policy and still keep the law or policy.

When it comes to the justification of the death penalty as the end justifying the means to punish the guilty, Rawls' notion of justice would have us ask this question: Would we be willing to put ourselves or maybe our innocent children into a judicial and penal system in which we or they might be mistakenly executed so that society can be certain all the truly guilty people are put to death?

The question sounds absurd, because it is absurd. No one in his right mind would take such a chance. Can any of us rationally justify a system that tolerates the wrongful execution of innocent people (perhaps our children) so the state can put to death the truly guilty? In a way, that is exactly what the state of Alabama is asking of the families of the executed innocent. The families should just take it; their suffering is necessary in order for the guilty to meet their fate. However, this justification is irrational, unfair and, frankly, morally repugnant.

Therefore, until the state of Alabama can guarantee no innocent person will be executed, we should suspend the death penalty.
Dennis Sansom, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy at Samford University. E-mail:

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