There are no good reasons for the death penalty, a point New York Times‘s columnist Ross Douthat drove home yesterday in his article in support of the practice, “Justice After Troy Davis“:
Abolishing capital punishment in a kind of despair over its fallibility would send a very different message. It would tell the public that our laws and courts and juries are fundamentally incapable of delivering what most Americans consider genuine justice. It could encourage a more cynical and utilitarian view of why police forces and prisons exist, and what moral standards we should hold them to. And while it would put an end to wrongful executions, it might well lead to more overall injustice.
From the Salem witch trials of 1662 to Casey Anthony’s acquittal in 2011, Americans have long found evidence that our laws and courts and juries do not always deliver genuine justice. Heck, in 2007 Antonin Scalia—from the Supreme Court bench no less —described the O.J. Simpson murder trial as “a case in which a man killed his wife with a knife.” O.J. ,of course, had been found not guilty of that offense.
The public, from Nancy Grace watchers to Supreme Court justices, is well aware that our legal system is imperfect. There’s no need to risk executing the likely innocent—as Georgia did with Troy Davis and Texas did with Cameron Todd Willingham—to preserve a mirage of perfection. Thinking that the American public expects its legal system to render perfect justice every time isn’t just wrong, it’s disrespectful.
The American Law Institute acknowledged that the death penalty is too broken to fix in 2009 when it withdrew the model death penalty laws. Sixteen U.S. states acknowledged that the death penalty is too broken to fix when they abolished it. There is no way to fix the death penalty other than abolishing it.
It’s reasoning like Douthat’s—putting the preservation of faith in institutions before the lives of the people those institutions were designed to protect—that undermines the justice system. Best to acknowledge its infallibility and abolish the death penalty, a verdict that can never be overturned. Eliminating capital punishment won’t fix all of the problems with our justice system, but it would be a significant step towards improving a system that can never be perfect.
Photo: Courtesy New York Times