Friday, May 23, 2008

Which is Worse?

In the wake of the Quintero verdict, there has been much discussion over the appropriateness of the punishment. Clearly, a Life sentence was not punishment enough for the State or for the family and friends of Officer Rodney Johnson.

Of course, Life without the Possibility of Parole (LWOP) is a punishment, and a significant one at that. I certainly don't disagree with that principle and I don't think anyone else does either.

What I do disagree with is the theory set out by some that Life in Prison is a worse punishment than receiving the Death Penalty.

Although a person may be spending the rest of their natural life in prison, that doesn't mean that they won't learn to adapt. They will develop a new routine and social structure. They will go on. There are many plus sides to being alive as opposed to dead -- even in prison.

A long time ago, I had the rare experience to be back in the holdover with a young kid who had been convicted of capital murder. He was still a teenager and I wasn't all that much older than he was.

When we spoke, a jury was back in the jury room, deliberating over what his capital punishment would be.

"If I were in your shoes," I told him. "I don't know what I would want the jury to do."

He made a face and then nodded.

"That's what I kind of thought when this all started, you know," he said. "I was like, I don't know whether I would want to live or die."

He paused for a second and then said: "But trust me, when you've got those twelve people back there deciding what to do with you, you want to live."

I've never forgotten what he said to me that day, and ultimately, he did live. I bring it up now, just to point out that, although "LWOP" is certainly a serious punishment, I don't think anyone can really make the argument that it is more severe than the death penalty.

28 comments:

Michael said...

I want to clarify, again, and for myself (I'll let Grits speak for himself) that, while it's debatable whether death or LWOP is worse, that is not the reason I oppose the death penalty. The teenager you spoke to (as what? A juvey prosecutor or a young capital DA? You weren't doing God's work as a defense lawyer once, were you?) surely felt sincerely that he wanted to live, but that's anecdotal, not demonstrative of everyone. Still, I'm willing to grant that a supermajority would choose life, boxcar murderer notwithstanding.

But the Bible doesn't say "Capital punishment? Baah. Why not sentence them to life in prison forever instead?" (Though, now that I think about it, that "forever" word comes in a few times.)

The Bible says:

Thou
shalt
not
kill.

That's the alpha and omega of my rationale.

Anonymous said...

michael--I'm sure the victim in that young capital murderer's crime wanted to live too, but some piece of crap murderer took that away from him.

pro.victims said...

Actually, the commandment literally translated from Hebrew says:

You shall not murder.

As you deftly noted the other day, there are instances in the Bible where the faithful are directed by God to render death sentences on people who break the law.

So, Biblically speaking, "killing" isn't prohibited by God, but one subset of killing - murder - is prohibited.

Thomas Hobbes said...

I'm kicking in my two cents worth, even though stepping off a cliff ultimately may be preferable.

I don't particularly like to discuss comparative views of punishment seriousness, because it's a bit pointless. What you, I, or anyone else thinks is much less important than how the transgressor perceives the punishment, which also varies from one convict to the next. Succinctly, is it more punishing to take an inmate's life in a literal or an abstract sense? The answer depends on what the sentence means to the individual being punished, not what it means to those who set or impose the punishment. Your juvenile, for example, had experienced only life, which, at the time, seemed preferable. He had not had the opportunity to grow old behind bars, where he might live long enough to only hear about the lives and deaths of those he once held dear. Be careful what you wish for . . ..

Q: When all is said and done, does the transgressor feel punished?

Leviathan

Michael said...

Anon:

I don't know what logical conclusion you're trying to make. Shall we kill the juvenile because he killed someone else? (Well, not any more, says SCOTUS.) What if he raped someone -- shall we rape him? If he blinded someone -- shall we blind him?

Or was your point just that he is a piece of crap?

Pro.:

I'm familiar with the "kill/murder" translation controversy over the Commandments. As a subscriber to "Dwindling in Disbelief", I'm familiar with all sorts of Scriptural support of God telling man to kill (or murder).

So what's the difference? "Kill" means to take a life. "Murder" means to take a human life, with knowledge, intent, and usually some sort of premeditation. Which of these is missing from Texas's executions by lethal injections? We know the man is going to die; we intend for him to die; we planned it ahead of time so he would die. Isn't that a murder?

pro.victims said...

Michael,

I guess I see the point you are making - any intentional killing is murder. But I fear we slide into playing definition games, and rather than using the terms as they are defined strictly, I think if we defined "intentional killing" as murder, we are ascribing moral meaning to the term rather than literal meaning.

Generally, I think we'd agree that "kill" means to take human life (intentionally, recklessly, negligently - whatever mental state of the actor - it's not the intent that makes it a killing, it's the end result that makes it a killing). Murder would be intentionally kill, without legal justification.

So when you shoot a home intruder who is attacking you, you've killed him, but you haven't murdered him, since you had a legal justification. Probably didn't want to kill him, but it had to be done. This is what we call self defense or perhaps defense of property. The bad guy doesn't get much "due process" in this scenario, true. But it's a legally justified killing.

When we give someone the needle, we are intentionally killing them, but with legal justification, so again, it isn't murder.

Brother, I am totally with you when it comes to being against killing. In a perfect world, we should never have to do that to anyone. Whether it's war, self defense, execution, or whatever. I wish we didn't have to have a death penalty. But personally, I feel like there are people who, for what ever reason, refuse to leave us realistic, viable options. I know some people think the death penalty isn't a necessary option, and I respect that. Maybe one day that law will come to be. But it isn't murder for the State to execute someone.

Anonymous said...

And the truth is, when a murderer gets LWOP, he is still a danger, but just to a different set of folks. He's a danger to the fellow inmates and particularly to the guards.

He has no good time to earn, and very little can be taken away from him in the name of discipline.

There is no argument at all that death is worse than life, even than a life spent in prison with no hope of reprieve.

I know I'm not going to change anyone's mind that is opposed to the death penalty. Likewise, I see no reason to debate why I support it in cases like the killer of Officer Johnson.

But the fact remains: we have the death penalty and it works. It makes absolutely certain that the offender will never victimize anyone ever again, neither fellow inmate or guard.

Tex

Michael said...

I'm pretty happy with the definitions of "killing" and "murder" I originally started out with (including, by the way, limiting "murder" to human life). I don't think I'm ascribing any more moral meaning to the term than God did.

You're moving the goalpost again. First you said that the Commandment meant "murder", not "kill". Then you said "murder" meant "intentional killing of a human, without justification". Of course, I can live with that definition because there is precious little justification that keeps an intentional killing from being unjustified. I'd say shooting an armed intruder would be justified, as would the Dalai Lama. I would not say capital punishment is.

And again, it's not that the death penalty isn't a necessary option, though I don't think it is. It's that the death penalty is immoral.

PJ said...

pro.victims wrote: "But personally, I feel like there are people who, for what ever reason, refuse to leave us realistic, viable options."

Herein lies the moral dilemma, does it not? For whatever reason? Isn't it an ethical prerogative, before you choose to extinguish a human life, that you understand the reasons (causes) of those whose actions presumably leave you no option? Is it enough justification to kill that you have feebly thrown your hands up in the air?

A word of advice: try to understand the reasons, then try to fix them. Only upon failing at the latter can you even begin to advance an even arguably ethical proposition for extinguishing human life. It is not enough to lazily label a person as "evil," at least not without painting your God (if there be one in your world view) with the same brush. It may just be that the actions of the murderer are rooted in broader human failings rather than those of your God who created the murderer.

pro.victims wrote: "Murder would be intentionally kill, without legal justification."

In other words, Hitler's extinguishing of 6 million Jews was not murder--and hence was justifiable by the Bible--because it was legally justified, Hitler being the legal authority. Is this really the argument you want to be making?

(Sorry, AHCL, for violating my excommunication, but these ideas required expression. And I've never been one to heed arbitrary authority anyway.)

Gritsforbreakfast said...

How do you know, AHCL, the afterlife isn't entirely glorious and we do every executed offender a tremendous favor by hastening their arrival? Perhaps the streets are paved with gold and all our deceased friends and family will be there to greet us on the other side. Many Christians believe some version of that to be the case, and more than a few offenders turn to Christ during their travails, just like the thief on the cross before he expired.

To repeat my earlier reasoning, everyone dies but not everyone stays locked up in a cage for decades. Death is perceived as a relatively more severe "punishment" because we don't know what comes after, so people fear the unknown. But death is also a sentence to which we're all condemned - everyone's entry card to the human condition bears an unknowable expiration date - which makes it at once as un-extraordinary as it is exceptional. That sounds contradictory, but that's because death as a punishment creates a paradox that's just not there for LWOP. With LWOP, society knows EXACTLY what punishment the offender is getting, because we're all here on earth to see it. With death, at most one can "hope" it's enough. And since vengeance cannot bring back the victim, it never is.

Michael said...

When I was in college, not a small set of my Christian friends didn't believe hell existed.

pro.victims said...

PJ sneaks in, and suddenly we remember why he was gone.

No, PJ, Hitler's national directive to kill an entire race, though "legally" justified, requires us to introduce another word into our dictionary: genocide - the intentional killing of an entire race, without regard to the constituent individual members having done anything immoral or illegal. They die, simply because of who their parents were.

Since you can't execute the Third Reich, you have to go to war and destroy it. Which means killing lots of individual soldiers and probably lots of civilians, which is not murder either. In a general sense. There would be specific instances of murder within the context of war, where soldiers do bad things to folks - I'm sure you will come up with lots of examples for us yourself.

Ultimately, morality is what should drive our laws. That's why I don't really have a beef with Michael's position - he is simply saying that he is morally opposed to killing anyone. If that's the moral paradigm we work with, then the death penalty is by definition immoral. My disagreement with Micheal (if we really have one on this point) is that Biblically, there is some contradiction in the idea of a moral death penalty, and God's commandments.

Michael, again, you've made some assumptions about Christianity. The Bible doesn't so much describe hell as a place, as a state of being - being absent from the presence of God. There is one reference in the Bible to a lake of fire, and popular public imagery has taken that to be a description of what hell is. The Bible doesn't really say that hell is a lake of fire though. So when a Christian says hell is not a place, they aren't saying they don't believe the Bible. It's kind of like saying "I'm cold." You aren't describing a location. You're describing a condition. To say someone is in hell, isn't to say they've gone to Austin. It's to say that they have decided to live alone, away from God. Who, if you believe the Bible, is the source of all things. So a person who is in hell, is away from all outside spiritual sustenance.

Anonymous said...

I never cease to me amazed at the pontification of those who perceive themselves to be so much more socially "evolved" than the majority of the people in this country because they've somehow allowed themselves to psychologically rationalize the "forgiveness" of those who take an innocent person's life under the most heinous and vile circumstances imaginable. Personally, I can live with myself thinking in less abstract terms. I'm pretty much okay with the concept of vengeance. If someone were to commit a murder of a member of my own immediate family under circumstances that made the killing capital, I'd much prefer to trust the government with the ability to exact vengeance on my behalf. In a way, I feel that we, as a society, contract to not engage in vigilante justice as long as the government can be entrusted to pursue such vengeance. However, if the government could not be counted on to fulfill its part of that contract, vengeance by vigilante justice would not bother me at all. Some people, because of their actions, simply deserve to die. If Michael, Grits and other like minded souls want to view me as less "sophisticated" because I feel this way, that's fine. I'm comfortable in my own belief and sleep quite well at night.

Anonymous said...

Anon 11:07 and pro-victims:


+1

Doesn't Michael live in another State? Why the hell (yes, a joke) would he care who we kill in Texas?

Tex

Michael said...

It's not that I view myself as more sophisticated, but as less barbaric. Your position appears to be based on the idea that murder in the name of vengeance is okay. If that's the case, I admire your ability to sleep at all.

PJ said...

pro.victims wrote: "No, PJ, Hitler's national directive to kill an entire race, though 'legally' justified, requires us to introduce another word into our dictionary: genocide - the intentional killing of an entire race, without regard to the constituent individual members having done anything immoral or illegal. They die, simply because of who their parents were."

All true, yet still insufficient, of course, to escape your hyper-technical construction of the biblical commandment. If you are resorting to peremptory norms of international law to make your case, then you may just have to concede that the death penalty is itself murder.

I notice you didn't bother to address the real substance of my post, which was how your view of the unsalvageable and irredeemable human is reconciled with your view of your God and whether you consider it an ethical obligation to attempt to fix broader human failings before raising the scythe against one of your God's creations.

I won't address your ad hominem, although I will wish you a pleasant day.

jigmeister said...

I won't argue with either side of this issue. Both may be right. I don't want to personally find out.

However, I have become frustrated by the time and cost of death penalty litigation. It now costs an average of $2.3 million that the taxpayer foots over the life of a sucessful capital case. Those are only the documented costs. As a prosecutor since I was in diapers, I can't remember a time when there weren't 6 or so DP cases being tried at the same time. I understand that figure is now down some. I also remember when we became shocked at the backlog in answering PC writs and had to dole them out to division chiefs during the last year of JBH's tenure though we were certainly not qualified to write the briefs.

Also of the 11 sucessful capitals that I handled, along with more able co-chairs, only 2 are gone now. The rest are still being litigated. That's about 15 years. All of them have or had appointed lawyers.

I can't find a total yearly cost in Texas, but did see them for Ill. and NY. Ill. has a fund expending approximately 50 million over 6 years. NY has predicted 110 million. Not sure of the period of time covered.

I am torn when hearing the argument that cost should have no place in the decision because of the loss of life and destruction of the lives of the survivors. But everytime a DP gets reversed, because either the rules get changed or we made a mistake, telling the victims is a miserable task, and the do overs are extremely difficult.

In sum...the hell if I know...

Michael said...

Let the record reflect that I live in Austin, and have for nearly 25 years. So while it SEEMS like I live in a different state, apparently I don't.

A Harris County Lawyer said...

PJ,
I didn't object to your politics. I objected to some of your personal attacks on my friends whom you didn't know. Quite frankly, I enjoy your counter-points and insight to the issues, even if I disagree with them. If you can lay off my friends (and at this point there isn't really any need for you to attack them), you are more than welcome back.

Michael,
Shoot me an e-mail. I'm going to be in Austin in the near future and I'd like to get together with you and Grits if y'all can stomach being seen with a conservative in Austin. (Isn't that a Class C?)

Michael said...

Actually, I think appearing with a conservative is a state jail felony, but no one knows for sure because it's been so long since we've seen one, but I'll send you an email, what the hey. We can eat in the Capitol cafeteria -- no Travis County jurisdiction...

dudleysharp said...

Of course death is worse. The evidence is overwhelming.

What percentage of capital murderers seek a plea bargain to a death sentence? Zero or close to it. They prefer long term imprisonment.
 
What percentage of convicted capital murderers argue for execution in the penalty phase of their capital trial? Zero or close to it. They prefer long term imprisonment.
 
What percentage of death row inmates waive their appeals and speed up the execution process? Nearly zero. They prefer long term imprisonment.
 
This is not, even remotely, in dispute.
 
Life is preferred over death. Death is feared more than life.
 
Furthermore, history tells us that "lifers" have many ways to get out: Pardon, commutation, escape, clerical error, change in the law, etc.

In choosing to end the death penalty, or in choosing not implement it, some have chosen to spare murderers at the cost of sacrificing more innocent lives.
 

Michael said...

The statistics you give prove that virtually all capital murder defendants believe the death penalty is worse than life in prison. The statistics don't prove that they're correct.

Of course, people who oppose the death penalty are also interested in sparing innocent lives.

And again, my opposition to the death penalty is that it is wrong to kill another human being, not that death is or is not better than LWOP.

The verification letters are "xahha". Cute.

Anonymous said...

I have been succesfully involved in the prosecution of multiple murderers that received a death sentence. ALL of them would have accepted a plea to life in prison. The State said "no" to each offer to plead. ALL of them were willing to waive ALL appeals to accept a life sentence. They obviously agreed with AHCL. My response to Micheal and company is much simpler than pro.victim. I simply believe that some people deserve a death sentence. Nothing biblical about it, just what I consider to be justice.

Anonymous said...

I think the death penalty is hard on society (feelings of the convicted murderer notwithstanding).

It is hard on judges, juries, attorneys and on taxpayer's pocketbooks.

It is hard enough to get involved in the criminal justice system as a juror or attorney. Hard awful cases are not good on your sleep. It's worse when the stakes involve killing somebody.

LWOP is a serious thing. And if it turns up that years later, it is proven that the defendant didn't do the crime, well then, it isn't an irrevocable oops.

Defense attorneys who work these cases get to know the families and defendants better than you can known them in the imperfect trial by battle setting. Sometimes the clients are scumbags, but sometimes you like and believe them, and a death penalty case in that context will make you lose weight because you are so nervous that you won't be able to do your job on their behalf.

I just think that civilized societies don't have apparatus in place to kill people, even in the name of vengence and justice. And of course, everyone who believes the same as me gets kicked off of juries, so you have only hang em kind of jurors on your panels, which is why the prosecutors like the death penalty.

Anonymous said...

I think the death penalty is hard on society (feelings of the convicted murderer notwithstanding).

It is hard on judges, juries, attorneys and on taxpayer's pocketbooks.

It is hard enough to get involved in the criminal justice system as a juror or attorney. Hard awful cases are not good on your sleep. It's worse when the stakes involve killing somebody.

LWOP is a serious thing. And if it turns up that years later, it is proven that the defendant didn't do the crime, well then, it isn't an irrevocable oops.

Defense attorneys who work these cases get to know the families and defendants better than you can known them in the imperfect trial by battle setting. Sometimes the clients are scumbags, but sometimes you like and believe them, and a death penalty case in that context will make you lose weight because you are so nervous that you won't be able to do your job on their behalf.

I just think that civilized societies don't have apparatus in place to kill people, even in the name of vengence and justice. And of course, everyone who believes the same as me gets kicked off of juries, so you have only hang em kind of jurors on your panels, which is why the prosecutors like the death penalty.

Michael said...

The only question is, are you the arbiter of "deserves"? That's the way you've phrased your comment ("I believe", "I consider", e.g.).

Anonymous said...

thomas hobbes might just have a point: http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/headline/world/5820368.html

Anonymous said...

LWOP is worse on the taxpayers, because WE are responsible for the prisoners Room, Food, Entertainment, Education, and FULL medical treatments. I feel we either apply the death penalty or else we allow the prisoner the opportunity to rehabilitate and be eligible for parole.