1991-01-31: The Death Penalty – Society’s Revenge


 31 January 1991 – Copyright © Mark H. Goodrich

Right-wing columnist James J. Kilpatrick is so close to understanding the real issue at the core the American Love Affair with capital punishment, and yet still misses the point. [“Execution Would Serve No Purpose,” Universal Press Syndicate, January 31, 1991]. He correctly observes that Virginia Inmate Joe Giarrantano is no longer a threat to society, and ponders over what “useful purpose” would now be served by his execution.

The point missed is that no useful purpose is ever served by capital punishment. The death penalty is about neither deterrence nor protecting society. Criminal science can show no evidence that anyone is deterred from committing capital crimes by the fear of capital punishment, and lifetime incarceration renders moot the issue of any threat to society.

Capital punishment is about satisfying our collective desire for revenge – the same desire that that drives public outcry and political pressure upon the justice system to quickly indict and assess guilt for the most heinous crimes. As a society, we are still more like a lynch mob than different from it, issues of presumed innocence in the absence of evidence giving way to calls for vengeance while the public blood runs hot.

The truth is that many innocent people are convicted of crimes, and the more heinous the crime, the more likely that an innocent person will be caught up in the process. The justice system is more about “system” than it is about “justice”, and the fact that it legitimizes a guilty verdict against innocent people makes it no more right or less wrong. Even before DNA technology sometimes made the determination of innocence a matter of scientific fact, professionals inside the system knew that the conviction of innocents was a regular occurrence. Prosecutors and judges who chose to honestly meet their professional duties under law in a high-profile case were often defeated at election time, forcing them to weigh not only the evidence before them, but also their livelihood as balanced against doing the right thing. And, in this process, the weakest link of all is the jury system itself. Although frequently characterized as a pillar of the justice system, the true facts are that juries often fail to follow the admonitions and instructions of the court, and react emotionally rather than logically in circumstances that are often, by their very nature, highly charged.

Mr. Kilpatrick may yet see this archaic exercise of governmental power for what it is, and we can hope that his enlightenment will be followed by that of politicians who shamelessly sail on any political wind that garners votes, even by appealing disingenuously to the basest elements of human emotion.