Machan's Musings - Death Penalty for a Reformed Man

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Submitted by removed on Mon, 2005-12-12 22:32

The decision by California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger not to commute the death penalty sentence of multiple murderer Stanley “Tookie” Williams was as right and it could be under the circumstances. The case had attracted much attention because the man had been something of a model prisoner though not because he had asked forgiveness—he never admitted to the crime—but because he had become a rather well-regarded children’s book author.

Whatever the details of this case, there should be no death penalty, however. Not because some people do not deserve it or it’s cruel or barbaric but because we ought to reduce the chances of a mistake as much as it is possible. It’s a matter of prudence, not justice. (If we had infallible knowledge, it would make sense, though. But we do not.)

Since, however, my good idea is not the law and we do have a death penalty for certain crimes, I think it bears considering that writing children’s books, even many of them and good ones, simply doesn’t cut it to get a pass on murdering four people. Never mind that one can be murderous as all get out and still write nice books. Some of the nicest people, in certain contexts, have also been some of the most vile ones in human history, recent and past. But even if one has genuinely reformed, atoned for one’s vicious deeds, even confessed and all the rest, a crime that is so heinous cannot be wiped out by subsequent good deeds. Maybe in “God’s eyes,” but that’s something I nor any other human being, not even the Pope, knows about. The point is, an evil deed is an evil deed and if it does deserve a certain punishment, acting nicely, decently and productively afterwards just has no bearing on whether that punishment is due.

Perhaps this will appear heartless to some, and so be it. But this isn’t a matter of the heart—one hasn’t the luxury and privilege to introduce one’s feelings when it comes to justice. Just as those who haven’t been proven guilty must not be punished however urgently some of us may feel they need it—such as, quite often, the suspect’s alleged victims—so however good a convicted rapist, murderer or traitor has turned out to be, it hasn’t anything to do with what he or she deserves in view of the crime done.

There are, of course, exculpating considerations even in some of the worst crimes. Serious mental illness or brain damage would be a candidate in my book, as would—or at least would warrant reducing culpability—being coerced to commit the crime (say by someone threatening to kill one’s child unless it’s done). Crimes are not simple deeds, which is why the law has been developed to involve all kinds of gradations of culpability as well as punishment and why a trial is so involved and often prolonged. But in the end, once a verdict has been reached beyond a reasonable doubt, the result needs to be accepted.

Because it is a judgment beyond a reasonable and not a shadow of doubt, it is not difficult to understand that at a later time discoveries could be made that would warrant changing it. That is one reason no sentence should be irrevocable, as the death sentence is. True, in other context we often act in ways that cannot be taken back or corrected or compensated—if we are defending our lives with violent force, we can kill an assailant. But that’s because in such cases there is often no other alternative or we are taking worthwhile risks (as in surgical procedures).

Nonetheless, it probably would have been wrong for the governor of California to make an exception with Mr. Williams—although had he commuted the sentence for the right reason, such as having realized at last that no death penalty can be justified, it would have been a good judgment indeed. As it stands, however, the decision he made was fair enough, maybe even just, but also ultimately misguided because of the system that imposes such a penalty that cannot be corrected in light of evidence that would require that.

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