Afternoon InquisitionScienceSkepticism

AI: Thinking Critically While You Read

I came across this very compelling story this morning in The New Yorker online, and even though it is quite long, I couldn’t stop reading until I was finished. It’s a story that details the events that sent a man to Death Row in Texas, the circumstances of his incarceration, what took place with his case while he was behind bars, and eventually what ultimately happened to him.

As I read, I was struck by the fact that every aspect of this story triggered my critical thinking skills. As an observer of the events through the narrative, I was not only interested in the details of the story, but I was exercising skepticism the whole way through. Not only that, but the story itself contains wonderful elements of skepticism and demonstrations of the differences between good investigation and sloppy investigation, as well as good science versus no science.

I enjoyed this item on so many levels, I thought I’d share the link with you, and urge you to read it as well. As I mentioned, the story is fairly long, so you may have to carve out some time to get all the way through it, but it is well worth it. And afterward, share your thoughts about it in the comments here. Tell us if it stimulated your critical thinking. What did you think of the investigations? Were you cycling through the possibilities yourself as you read, like I was?

In the meantime, we need a question for the AI.

Now, we’ve discussed punishment for crimes before, but to keep with the theme of this article, I’ll ask you this for today’s Inquisition:

Is capital punishment a reasonable sentence for those convicted of certain crimes?

The Afternoon Inquisition (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Skepchick community. Look for it to appear daily at 3pm ET.

Sam Ogden

Sam Ogden is a writer, beach bum, and songwriter living in Houston, Texas, but he may be found scratching himself at many points across the globe. Follow him on Twitter @SamOgden

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83 Comments

  1. Part of me says no, and part of me says yes. I am STILL so torn about this.

    I have some personal experience in it, though, which doesn’t help my confusion any. I think I’ve mentioned this before, but do a google search for “Tina Marie Cornelius”. At one point, they were considering trying for the death penalty. It didn’t happen, but it was a very real possibility.

    I am going to read that story tonight, when I have time, however! And I look forward to reading the thoughts of others on this subject, because I’ve found that it tends to help me sort through my confusion.

  2. NO.

    Aside from the fact the government backed killing deminishes all of us, as a detterant it doesn’t work and the number of police stitch-ups that have taken place over the years are legion.

    Most of the “last” few capital cases in the UK are well known not least because they were misscarriages of justice, along the lines of “local simpleton fitted up by police”

    And there are plenty of cases where people were convicted of crimes that had formally carried the death penatly who were later found to have been innocent, The Birmingham Six “terrorists” (who were fitted up by Thatcher’s government no less) and Stefan Kiszco[sic?] a man with the mind of a child whose life was comprehensively ruined (but not taken, at least) by being fitted up.

  3. I don’t think that capital punishment is reasonable except in very extreme cases where a murder continues to escape prison and murder more people.

    This is something that I used to feel very differently about. What really changed my mind is finding out that capital punishment just is not effective at stopping crime. It really makes sense if you think about it, because it’s not likely someone would think “Oh, I’d be willing to murder someone if only I were guaranteed life in prison rather than execution”.

    Of course, there are disagreements as to the purpose of punishment in general.

    Of course execution is effective in that that specific murderer can’t murder again, but life imprisonment is also effective, and most murderers only murder once anyway. Serial killers are the minority.

    I don’t personally agree with using the death penalty for revenge or “justice”. Killing that person won’t bring the victim back to life, and it may or may not bring some sense of relief to the victim’s family. It’s not like life in prison would be letting the murderer off the hook.

    Then there’s the problem of wrongful convictions. Even with DNA evidence and modern technology, it’s still possible to convict an innocent person. Since the threat of the death penalty doesn’t reduce murder rates or save lives, it’s not worth risking executing even one innocent person.

    On my non-rational side, I have to admit that I like the idea of killing murderers and it’s hard for me to be sad when certain people are executed.

    I’ve heard of some places that will allow the death penalty only in cases where someone commits a murder while serving a life sentence for murder. I think that’s a reasonable compromise. In those cases, it really does come down to stopping that one person from murdering again and protecting other people.

    I’ll read the article you posted and I might have some more input later.

  4. My wife told me about this story the other day and I’ve been meaning to read it. So I’ll wait til tonight to comment on it.
    As for capital punishment, I’m in the NO camp as well. When I was younger I was much more wishy-washy about it, but now I feel that the possiblity of accidentally killing an innocent person is just not worth it.

  5. I am generally opposed to capital punishment, on the basis that despite fulfilling our emotional desire for revenge, it makes a whole new class of victim: the family of the executed.

    No parent should be forced to endure the killing of her child, even if her child was himself a killer. The killer’s family are innocent victims. I don’t think that my need for vengeance is strong enough or righteous enough to inflict additional pain on someone who wasn’t directly involved.

  6. Yes/No.
    Yes, because I think that some crimes are so heinous that the criminal has forfeit their right to life by committing them.

    However, our system (and really, ANY system) is 100% incapable of fairly & properly administering justice and the Ultimate Punishment is too much to leave in the hands of this imperfect system.

  7. I’ll make a distinction – some people DESERVE to be executed, but I am against the death penalty, for the following reasons:

    1) Errors cannot be corrected. Incarcerate an innocent, and at least that person can be released and maybe compensated. Execute an innocent and its game over.

    2) I simply do not believe that the state should have the power to take a person’s life in that manner. Don’t get me started on wars, though.

  8. No. Never. I think the entire prison system is in need of serious reform and we need to take things away from punishment and deterrence toward recovery and producing people who can become constructive members of society.

    On a side note, if my understanding is correct, admission into the EU requires the elimination of capital punishment?

  9. Yes, I think capital punishment is a perfectly reasonable punishment for certain crimes. There are even crimes for which capital punishment is not remotely sufficient.

    We should never use it though because:

    1) Any justice system designed and run by humans will be imperfect.

    2) As a species, we should be beyond that.

    3) It doesn’t work.

    4) It costs more.

  10. I think the death penalty is a good idea, but only in certain extreme circumstances. There are some behaviors that a civilized society simply cannot tolerate, such as wearing cotton-wool blend fabrics or eating cheeseburgers.

    I am a Hedge

  11. Here’s the thing about capital punishment: it’s entirely permanent. If you imprison someone for a long time, and eventually find out you did so in error, there are things you can do to compensate that person for the error (it may not ever be *enough*, but at least you can do it).

    When you end a life, and later find out it’s an error, there is nothing you can do to compensate for that. Bear this in mind.

    If we could absolutely guarantee that someone was guilty of intentionally destroying human life – and it was not a result of a mental disorder of some kind, either current or yet to be discovered; nor self-defense, etc. – then I think the death penalty is entirely justified. (And save the pithy replies like “why kill someone to teach that killing is wrong” – no one does, they kill people to teach that murder is wrong).

    As a matter of practicality, though, we can’t ever be entirely sure, especially of intent. Therefore, I’m opposed to all forms of capital punishment on pragmatic grounds. The cost of erroneous guilty verdicts is way too high if capital punishment is on the table.

  12. No.
    While I have no moral objections to the death penalty, and think it is perfectly suitable for many crimes, as stated by many other already there is not enough certainty in many death penalty cases for the sentence to be reasonable across the board.

    @NoAstronomer: and what you said.

  13. I do not trust the government enough to give it the power of life and death over people.

    I also do not trust insurance companies enough to give them the power of life and death over people, in case some wag wants to take this in that direction.

  14. NO.

    It is a question of balancing our innate desire for vengeance and a rational committment to upholding certain basic human rights, the right to life being at the top.

    My semi-humurous alternative for people deemed to be deserving of capital punishmetn was neutering followed by their being dropped in a deserted island where they could do whatever they want to each other, but could never escape.

  15. @davew:

    The only reason in favor of capital punishment I can think of that is logical and internally consistent is revenge.

    Oh, it has certain “pros”. A serial escapee like Ted Bundy makes a pretty compelling case; death proved an effective deterrent to his recidivism when imprisonment did not. And as we saw with that PanAm bomber, you really can’t count on “life in prison”–there will always be some chance of an offender being sprung before they die in prison.

    I just don’t trust the government that much.

  16. @Zapski:
    Okay, think about this. What if some deviant monster absolutely refuses to take at least one day off each week? What are we going to do, just let this kind of beast roam free, corrupting our children?

    What about some woman who gets ‘raped’, but mysteriously fails to scream? Should we just let her live to seduce get raped again?

    I think the death penalty is the only just response for these things. But for most stuff, probably just a good long prison stay is going to work .

    I am a Hedge

  17. @apfergus: “On a side note, if my understanding is correct, admission into the EU requires the elimination of capital punishment?”

    Yes, but only since 2003. By this time the death penalty was restricted to, I think, treason when tried by military courts during wartime, with only the UK actually having it still on the books if I recall correctly.

    To answer the question – no, no, a hundred times no. All the reasons given above are all ones I agree with, but to put it simply, and to paraphrase the Penn & Teller Bullshit episode on this, whatever spin you put on it, it’s still killing a human being.

  18. When asked about this I always remind people that “convicted” is not necessarily the same as “guilty.” I can almost guarantee you that at some point, at least one innocent person has been executed by the justice system in the United States. I will never consider that an acceptable risk.

  19. Life is, after all, the only thing we truly have. I think if I were tortured, violated, abused, yet remained alive, I’d be able to gain some measure of solace. From death, however, there is no return. Once you’re dead, it’s over. Exit on the left.

    Perhaps, if there were some way to have certainty of the criminal and the act, and that the criminal poses such a threat to the community and its well-being that his or her remaining alive would endanger others in a significant way, and the crime committed were sufficiently abhorrent, only then should the criminal’s permanent removal be considered.

    These are difficult conditions to meet. We are faulty, faulty judges. We tend to vilify and damn. As long as we feel that the judgment was right, then we think it’s fine. Truth optional.

    I read the story. I’m a grown man, and my eyes welled up in frustration at this man’s impotence. All his choices were taken from him. Perhaps the author is just a good writer, but I thought the man innocent.

    So much for innocent until proven guilty. We have a terribly skewed sense of justice.

  20. I read the article about a week ago. The gentleman involved was not a victim of the death penalty. He was a victim of a “justice” system that practiced as a science what is barely an art. Further, he was the victim of people who had their minds made up, damn the facts.

    I approve of the death penalty. As has been pointed out above, there is the chance for an irretrievable mistake to be made. This is, for the individual involved, his/her family and society as a whole a tragic thing. Equally as tragic is the loss of innocent life at the hands of a murderer. As also pointed out above, there are examples of serial escapee murders killing more innocent victims.

    So, the question comes down to this: Which form of collateral damage is more acceptable? Is it the possibility that an innocent life will be taken by the state? Or the possibility that an innocent life will be taken because the state failed to act? I have no statistics to quote, but I’m guessing as many or more innocent people have been killed by prison escapees as have been killed by the state.

    Execution is a deterrent when it prevents a murderer from killing again. It may or may not be a deterrent the first time around. There are sociopaths who could not care less about the outcome. There are gang leaders who happily hand a gun to a 14-year old, knowing that the kid wouldn’t be punished as severely as if he did the killing himself.

    Perhaps what we should be focusing on is the quality of evidence that constitutes a certainty of guilt. Further, perhaps we should be considering a punishment that is appropriate for ginning up evidence without regard to outcome.

    A prosecutor once told me that the difference between him and the defense lawyer is that the defense lawyer is there to get his client off. The prosecutor is there to ensure a fair trial NO MATTER THE OUTCOME. This duty seems to have been lost on many prosecutors and certainly is unheard of in Texas.

  21. I say definitely no. As others have pointed out, our justice system is far from perfect, and executing innocent people is not an acceptable risk.
    On another note – people talk about others “deserving” to die. I understand that that there are crimes so heinous that we can think of no other response. But this brings up the question about the purpose of our justice system. Is it here to provide some type of systematic revenge on criminals?
    I remember as a child reading about a situation in which a mother was on trial for killing her children, and the defense was going for an insanity plea, and I thought, “Well, obviously she’s insane”. Killing your children definitely passes the insanity litmus test in my book. Some people are mentally ill, and this includes psychopaths and sociopaths.
    You could almost make a case that most criminals are mentally ill. It’s not like the only thing stopping me from a tri-state murder spree is the threat of jail time.
    What I am trying to say in a long-winded fashion, is that I wish our criminal justice system was more focused on treating those who could respond to treatment, and protecting society from those who can’t be rehabilitated. Anything else is punitive, which doesn’t really help the situation, just provides some satisfaction from offended parties. It makes us lesser people to take satisfaction in the suffering of others.

  22. Among the very few things I have little or no doubt about, is the immorality of capital punishment. Though I have never heard a convincing argument for its efficacy in combating crime; even if one existed, I would probably not change my position. Capital punishment is just plain wrong. It gives to the state a power that no person or institution should have and it is irrevocable.

  23. At one point in my life I intended on a career in criminal forensic science with a specialty in serial crime. I’ve poured over serial case files and dug through autopsy reports (including those compiled for the previously mentioned Mr. Bundy – who was a far sicker puppy than the media ever mentioned.) There are images I doubt I’ll ever scrub from my mind and I’ve a very strong opinion that there are individuals too “wrong” to ever be trusted to society – in some cases, not even what little society is available in the context of an open population prison.

    All that being said – I am absolutely against the death penalty. First of all, as has been mentioned many times, human beings determine guilt and human beings are woefully imperfect. Secondly, every time we execute a prisoner we lose a chance to better understand their “damage” and the opportunity to apply that knowledge toward the future safety of our communities. Lastly, death does not punish the criminal – it punishes those the criminal leaves behind, the workers charged with caring for their needs while they’re alive, and those charged with performing their executions.

    The last thing I’d like to mention is for those who are ethically opposed to the death penalty – you may wish to consider adding an advanced directive to your will stating your opposition along with your wishes that this directive be read aloud before sentencing should you become the victim of a crime “worthy” of capital punishment.

  24. No. Capital Punishment is not something that we as a society should be engaged in. We only get one life, if someone chooses to go down the wrong path, it is not for me to judge that person and take away their life.
    As this article demonstrates and as many people have already agreed upon, humans can make mistakes. I don’t want to make a mistake with someone else’s life.
    I do feel the very real feeling of revenge and would like child murderers, rapists and abusers to be killed. But then the reasonable part of me reminds myself that I am not ruled by emotions. It would be easier, but I want to be better than that. Having them sit behind bars is good enough for me.

  25. I couldn’t find the source of the quote, or the exact quote, but one of the best arguments against the death penalty was in regards to “cruel and unusual” and went something like this:

    “The only way to humanly administer capital punishment is to make the convicted believe that they have been acquitted, then shoot them in the back of the head.”

    So, no, I am not for capital punishment. It’s abused, racist, irreversible, inhumane and archaic.

    I believe the prison system needs to be change to not only create a deterrent, but also to actually reform and give back to society. Every prisoner works 10 hours per day, with two 15 minute breaks and 45 minutes for lunch. They all get healthy food, a clean place to sleep and adequate medical care. While some would be performing administrative and housekeeping duties (based upon behavior and level of crime committed) , most would work in our landfills, properly protected for safety. They would sort all garbage into recyclables, organic composting, and whatever is left that can be used for fuel. The more heinous your crime, the nastier the stuff you have to work in.

    I believe this would reduce recidivism (who would want to go back to separating diapers?), eliminate prison crime & violence (they’ll be too tired at the end of the day), and benefit society and the environment.

    Finally, there would be two hours a day and another full day each week spent on education/therapy/whatever towards reform, and one day to rest.

    Vote for me in 2012/16!!!

  26. I guess I’m going to be the dissenting voice here. I believe in the death penalty and I think it should be used more often. Prison itself isn’t a deterrent and neither is the death penalty. It’s not meant to be. Nor should prison be considered just a polite way of removing “bad” people from the general population. Sure there are a few innocents caught up but that’s what appeals are designed to stop.

    I guess I don’t hold human life so high. We’re born, we live, we die. What’s important is how we live amongst society and if we choose to cross certain lines we should be removed – permanently in some cases. You steal and everything should be taken from you. You kill and your life should be taken from you. Maybe if we all stopped trying to be so politically correct and just wrote most of those people off we’d actually have a better/safer world. How many criminals are career criminals?

    How many chances should a person get? A first offender is possibly reformable, but if someone has a proven track record of being a blight on society we should just get rid of them.

    Scientists keep telling me we’re technically animals so I say it’s survival of the fittest.

    And I’m a tough old bat.

  27. While I have no moral objections to killing someone who committed murder, I am against the death penalty until our current system of justice is overhauled from the ground up, and even then the death penalty should be reserved for VERY bad people; terrorists, serial killers. Not for deterrence or for revenge or even punishment for their crimes. Killing one serial killer, terrorist, etc is not going to deter others, and is not going to elicit remorse from them or from others. The only reason to kill someone is to make 100% sure that they never get away to do it again.

    That having been said, I do NOT think it shows a superior cultural morality to ban the death penalty, at least not at our current global maturity level. It is the height of hypocrisy to ban the killing of one’s own citizens while condoning the killing of another country’s citizens in a time of war. The argument that in war, you can’t avoid killing citizens by accident doesn’t strike me as any sort of justification, only one more reason never to have a war. When was the last time the generals or politicians in a victorious war were ever brought to trial for war-crimes? EVER? I’m asking because I truly don’t know. Does anyone?

  28. Zapiski: “Deserves” is the wrong word. I will gladly explain to the parents of a serial killer, who was convicted on substantial evidence and a confession and a declared lack of remorse should die. You want a conviction with 100% certainty , sometimes, you can get there (however, maybe not so often with the current state our judicial system is in). Whether they “deserve” to die is a judgment call.

  29. Spellwight: Having said what I said to Zapski, I have to say I have a big problem with your perspective. There’s no such thing as JUST an animal. We have an awareness of the concept of right and wrong. To do the right thing when you feel like it isn’t noble. To do the right thing when you DON’T feel like it is.

    I hear studies reported in the news where they’ve discover that men have a tendency to do this or a predisposition for this or that women do some things because of their gender, or statistic that say certain social classes do things that seem strange because of how they live. Too many people look at those studies and say “Well, I’m off the hook. See? It’s not my fault.” I see those things and want to say “See? Now that you know this behavior isn’t coming from rational thought, why don’t you try to stop doing it?”

    That’s how we improve ourselves.

    Say you’re against the death penalty or say that you are for it, but don’t bring up the fact that we are JUST animals like someone asked you if you’re hungry.

  30. To sort of echo Swordsbane at comment 41, with my own opinion liberally salted in, Yes and No. I don’t have a moral problem with the death penalty or, essentially, the range of offenses in which it is currently applied (in various states of the USA). I do have a huge problem with the standard of evidence that is used in death penalty cases. Obviously I don’t have a 100-word summary of what is a good standard of evidence to present here, but basically it amounts to: peer-reviewed, good science. Specifically not solely based on eye-witness testimony, particularly when such “testimony” is from prison snitches ((really? Juries fall for this s**t? I may be called to serve on a jury next week–never yet have done so–and I’ll tell you now that the value of a prison snitch’s testimony is as close to zero as is indistinguishable from zero…).

  31. These have all been wonderful comments, and I’m glad this thread has remained so civil, when this topic can often heat things up. But I wonder if any more of you had a chance to read the story in full. And if you did, were you as intrigued by the skeptical implications of it as I was?

    I mean, the writer presents the facts of the case in a way that allows the reader to see it through the eyes of Willingham, his lawyers, the judge, his wife, and the jurors. A subject that most people don’t know a lot about, is covered by supposed experts in the case in a way that seems to be perfectly in line with reality. And the players involved had no real reason to think that those men were anything but accurate in their assessment of the physical evidence. An unquestioning individual would be inclined to accept their findings with quite a bit of confidence.

    My skeptic sense was tingling the entire time, though I’m not an expert in arson investigation either and would probably be prepared to accept their findings as well were I in their position. And of course we find out later that being skeptical is exactly the approach Willingham’s lawyers should have taken. Because when we meet Hurst later in the story, who by the way, is one guy who knows how to do good science, we find out the experts weren’t so expert to begin with. Hurst’s investigations and experiments show that a lot of what the experts presented as damning scientific evidence could have been, and actually most probably was, incorrect.

    Not only that, but one wonders early on about the testimony of the witnesses, and Willingham’s behavior on that fateful day. Was it normal for an innocent person in that situation? The witnesses and the jury believed it wasn’t, and the prosecutor used that against him, even turning neighbors originally in Willingham’s corner (not to mention his own wife) against him.

    Of course later, we find out that there are multiple similar cases where completely innocent people behaved exactly as Willingham did. But again, an unquestioning person would not seem crazy for accepting the prosecution’s position with confidence.

    I enjoyed reading the account, because I found so much in it that allowed me to exercise my critical thinking abilities, in addition to the intrigue and controversy of the capital punishment angle. Maybe you guys did, too.

  32. About a third of the way through, the end of the story ceased to be a mystery. I read a couple of articles recently that said that the whole institute of forensics is in need of a complete overhaul. About the only thing that works right is DNA evidence, which frequently get misused in court. (We all saw the OJ trial, whether we wanted to or not)

    So this story was not a surprise to me. I was particularly fascinated by how certain everyone seemed to be about his guilt, yet even when new forensic techniques are out there, no one questions the people who appear confident. I had plenty of questions about the case that the story never adequately answered, but it was largely irrelevant because most of those questions were about the prosecutions argument. The one thing that I kept coming back to was “Wow, if this guy’s guilty, he’s apparently putting on one hell of a performance.” How does one reconcile ones self with the knowledge that someone goes to their death proclaiming their innocence, knowing they will still die?

    It didn’t change my outlook on the death penalty, but it highlights the fact that people faith in the justice system isn’t as well placed as they would like to believe and that most people who are part of the system are ignoring simple questions that no one seems to have the answer for.

  33. NO, a million times no, for all the reasons stated before and because I don’t think anyone should have the power of life and death on anyone.

    In the immortal words of Gandalf the Grey (Lord of the rings, The fellowship of the ring… yes I am a BIG geek!):
    “Many that live deserve death. And some die that deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then be not too eager to deal out death in the name of justice, fearing for your own safety. Even the wise cannot see all ends.”

  34. I absolutely oppose the death penalty in all circumstances.

    Even if we could be absolutely sure that somebody committed a heinous crime and could execute them quickly without great cost, I would still oppose it, because I don’t think anybody should have the right or power to decide to kill people against their will. I think killing somebody against their will is murder, regardless of what that person has done.

    I liked the comment earlier about the families of the criminal. Often the strongest supporters of a particular person getting the death penalty are the family of the victim – but what gives them more rights than the family of the criminal? Surely the family of the criminal is just as innocent as they are, and doesn’t deserve to be punished in essentially the same way. Being related to the people in the case just means you’re biased and your opinions should be discounted because they’re not objective.

    The closest I am to supporting the death penalty is in the case of people like Martin Bryant – a guy who carried out the worst mass shooting in the history of both my state and country (Tasmania, Australia). Recently he has attempted suicide a number of times, and clearly given his 35 consecutive life sentences, his situation isn’t going to change much. While he is clearly obviously mentally unwell, pending the approval of psychologists, I think he should be allowed to kill himself in some humane manner if he chooses to.

  35. I read the whole story. At the outset, it seemed like the guy was innocent, then evidence showed up that “someone” (no concluding evidence is given as to why the father would have to be the one to start the fire) set the place on fire. The rest of the story just had me wondering when an alternative explanation for those supposed signature arson signs would pop up, and lo and behold.

    As most commenters, I too can think of many situations in which capital punishment would seem like the only possible punnishment that suffices. Yet my opinion is that capital punishment is the type of punishment that needs to be performed within moments of commiting the crime or not at all (i.e. the murderer who was caught red-handed gets shot while trying to escape the police).

    Once you start the whole procedure of looking for a culprit and finding someone who you think may be it, or who plenty of people seem to “feel” is the right guy, too many things can mess up the objectivity needed to take a person’s life over it.

    Many people still point to the movie “twelve angry men” as a testament of the power of a jury trial. How many guilty people walk away rather than risking one innocent person to be wrongfully convicted. But clearly, when all the jurors are suffering from the same prejudice and viewing the same flawed evidence, they will clearly all come to the same misguided guilty verdict.

    One would think that in order for the death penalty to be carried out, the level of certainty would be exponentially increased, but apparently, once you’re on death row, it works the other way around. You are considered guilty until you can find something that can cast enough doubt for perhaps a stay of execution, or some other sliver of a chance.

    Clearly, in Texas, something is very wrong. I think since the 50’s, over 100 innocent (and clearly proven so, although until now all posthumously) people have been executed in the south, possibly just in Texas alone. The exception here is that this person had clearly been legally proven innocent by the time he was on the gurney getting his lethal shot.

    I think the problem is the legal system here.

    But apart from that, I still oppose the death penalty, for the very simple reason that the innocent life you save might be your own …

  36. exarch: “One would think that in order for the death penalty to be carried out, the level of certainty would be exponentially increased, but apparently, once you’re on death row, it works the other way around. You are considered guilty until you can find something that can cast enough doubt for perhaps a stay of execution, or some other sliver of a chance.”

    That’s the problem then. Even in this case, a travesty of justice if there ever was one, Willingham would still be alive and probably free if the system only worked as intended. He’s not dead because he was convicted of murder. He’s dead because once substantial doubt had been raised, it wasn’t seen by the right people.

    If you’re worried about innocent people being put in jail or executed, then THAT’s what needs to change.

    I think we need to stop the death penalty, fix the system and then reevaluate how many innocent people we convict. Only then can we come to a sane (and yes… compassionate) decision on whether the death penalty is correct or not. Until then, everything is colored by the plight of the innocent, and we’re not talking about what to do with the innocent. Everyone is of one mind with that. We’re talking about what to do with the guilty.

  37. mikespeir says:
    “One of the complaints against capital punishment is that perhaps the convicted person is actually innocent. Well, if the person is actually innocent, then any punishment is unjust.”

    That is certainly true, but there is a huge difference between capital punishment and other forms of punishment. Capital punishment is irrevocable. If you send someone to jail, and you find out later that she was innnocent, you can release her, give her some money…do SOMETHING to make it up to her, but if you kill her, there is absolutely NOTHING you can do to make up for the injustice.

  38. I agree with those that think the death penalty should not be used (for all the reasons discussed). My only provision would be that a life sentence should be just that, not 20 years which turns into 10 years for good behavior. Also I think prisoners should be required to work doing such things as growing their own food,etc to help defray costs.

  39. As a Canadian, I am happy that my country has eliminated the death penalty. We have had too many men of late given life who were then found innocent (I call them the three M’s although there have been others: Milgard, Marshall and Morin). Milgard especially would have been executed in a previous time in Canada……..Further, the catalyst for Canada eliminating the death penalty was an innocent 14 year old boy, Steven Truscott who has finally been redeemed. Any talk of the death penalty should be informed by reading his story first – cover-ups and lies by police, witnesses with differing accounts, the whole nine yards of bad investigation/prosecution/conviction.
    I remain staunchly against the death penalty and I think even if you think we are animals, that animals deserve better treatment than that.

  40. So I just read the article in full.

    You’re right, it’s very good and I confess I shed a little tear at the end.

    In terms of critical thinking, and I don’t even think this is particularly “critical” – I was amazed at psychological testimony against him – in particular the Led Zeppelin posters and the tattoo skull being evidence that he is a sociopath. There must be so many people in the world with similar posters and similar tastes in music.

    I couldn’t help but wonder how I would be judged on the posters in my room – I have an awesome macro of a wolfspider and 4 fairly disturbing Ralph Steadman prints from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I’ve also considered getting a tattoo of a Cthulhu on my arm. It’s pretty shocking that things like that could be used as an argument about whether somebody is a unrepentant murderer of their children or not.

    Hurst is awesome though. People like that should be the role model for children, instead of people with such trivial roles in society, like actors, sports people and musicians.

    This article expressed well my feeling that science is the only good tool for questions of truth. If a question can’t be answered with science, I don’t think it can be answered.

  41. agashem: I can’t justify pointing to a broken system and using that as an excuse to be against capital punishment, only to be against it as it is applied today. When a whole family is killed on the road in some terrible accident, we don’t say “My God, how can they let people drive such huge chunks of metal?” No.. We say “How can we make the roads safer?”

    It’s not about the danger of killing an innocent person. It’s about doing all you can to make sure the chances of killing an innocent person is as small as humanly possible. Obviously, that hasn’t been done with the current system (in Canada or in the US) I’m not in favor of THE death penalty, but the concept of A death penalty doesn’t bother me.

  42. I just read the story, and as soon as the witnesses started changing their testimony (memories) I knew what was going to happen.

    I’m against the death penalty. Since so many have given several very good reasons I won’t go into rehashing them all. However, my main reason is the inability to be 100% certain that the person who the government is going to murder is guilty. If they are eventually found to be innocent then everyone who was in that person’s circle has to deal with the loss.

    Not to mention, as in the case of the Willingham’s (sp?) wife Stacy, the guilt of feeling the person was guilty and deserved their fate to only find out later that you were misguided and doing your own punishment for a crime that wasn’t commited.

  43. >continued
    The only arguments against Capital Punishment I think make sense are if you are against putting ANYONE to death, even the guilty. I respect that even if I don’t agree with it, but the mere possibility of killing an innocent person isn’t enough. As a society we accept risk in everything we do. We do it because in exchange we get what we think is a better society. Anyone out there who drives a car, rides in a car, flies a plane, crosses the street, walks on a sidewalk, shops at a convenience store, uses an ATM has already accepted that risk for themselves and society, so obviously the certainty that someone will die from these activities and others doesn’t keep people from doing them. We see capital punishment as different because it’s an overt act, we see it as agonizing because it’s (mostly) slower than a car wreck, and we see it as a guilty necessity because there are fewer steps between our actions and the results, but it is fundamentally the same as all those other risks out there that we have accepted almost without comment.

    It’s not an accident when a government employee sticks a needle in the arm of a condemned prisoner, but it IS an accident when that prisoner is innocent. If you accept that some criminals deserve to die, then the POSSIBILITY of killing an innocent shouldn’t bother you. If we can get the probability down below that of… say…. someone dying in a car crash, where’s the difference then?

  44. @swordsbane:

    I might agree that the risk of executing an innocent person is worth it, if capital punishment actually accomplished something other than satisfying an emotional need for revenge. I don’t believe that two wrongs make a right, and I don’t think it’s worth the risk of executing an innocent person if no people are saved because of it. The reality is, capital punishment simply does not lower the murder rate. There is the tiny chance that a murderer could escape prison and kill again, but that’s an argument for better security. I do actually agree that capital punishment may be warranted in the case where someone commits murder while serving a life sentence for murder, simply to stop that specific person from murdering again. However, I think it’s wrong to execute a murderer just because there’s a tiny chance that they might escape and kill again. Most murderers don’t kill more than once, and convicted murderers are only slightly more likely to murder than people who have never murdered before. A previous murder conviction isn’t necessarily a good way to judge someone’s risk to society.

  45. The only possible rational argument for the death penalty is as a deterrent to crime. Every other argument is simply emotional pleading. Putting someone to death for murder will not in any way undo the wrong done. Consequently if it can not be demonstrated conclusively that capital punishment deters crime better than its alternatives, then there is simply no rational excuse for its existence.

    Now I have to say that if someone murdered my wife and daughter, my emotional response would be to want to have that person killed in the slowest and most painful way possible. However, this is not a rational response and we as people who call ourselves skeptics and rationalists should feel no obligation to cater to my desire.

  46. What @swordsbane mentions is something I was thinking about earlier.

    We accept the risk of being wrongfully accused, wrongfully condemned, wrongfully punished and potentially even wrongfully executed. But how high is that risk?

    I’m sure the risk of being innocently executed is probably even lower than that of being killed by a serial killer who escaped death row. and much, much lower than being killed in a carcrash, or a freak wardrobe malfunction with lethal results.

    At the same time, I’m also convinced that the day I find myself on Death Row, a lot of legal mistakes must have happened to land me there. We depend on the justice system to increasingly reduce the odds of innocent people slipping through the cracks at every step. But clearly, in some cases, depending on who you are (and what you’ve done before), where you live(d), and what precisely you supposedly did to warrant such a punishment in the first place, those steps seem pretty small and all too easily taken. The safeguards don’t do much, as they didn’t in Willingham’s case. In fact, when you’re too far through the system, it seems even having been proven innocent beyond all doubt was insufficient to get him out of this course toward certain doom.

    In my opinion, there should be some sort of scale to objectively rate convictions, going from a dead certain open-and-shut case (the cops walked in on someone in the process of stabbing a person to death, the killer then confessed, etc…) to most tenuous I-can’t-even-believe-he-got-convicted cases (the cops just barely made more effort than picking some random passerby off the street and sending them to court and his to-be-disbarred-tomorrow lawyer fucked the case up beyond recognition).
    We could call it the Willingham scale, from 0 to 10, rating all the evidence objectively using a predetermined value, and deciding what the odds are of some new evidence surfacing or some new understanding in one or several fields of science and forensics occuring and overturning the verdict.

    I’d say that if more than half the cases on Death Row rate 5 or above, you’re in big trouble. Not to mention that if any cases rate 8 or more, they shouldn’t even be on Death Row to begin with. They should have their sentences reduced due to a lack of evidence alone.

  47. @exarch:

    I’m sure the risk of being innocently executed is probably even lower than that of being killed by a serial killer who escaped death row.

    Either you have much for faith in the fairness of our justice system than I do, or you have grossly overestimated the number of murders committed by serial killers who are on death row.

    Most murderers are not serial murderers. Most serial murderers do not escape prison. However, it’s fairly common for people to committed of all kinds of crimes based on weak evidence, or even forged evidence.

  48. I do not know how anyone could read that article in full and still support the death penalty. It surprises me that some skeptics (@spellwight) could be so callous as to the value of human life. As a skeptic, I think that I value this life even more than a believer knowing that this is all we have and there is nothing else.

    To the victim’s family, what is the difference between having the killer sent to prison for life (which can be reversed) or having the killer killed (which cannot)? There is no difference except for a sickening revenge.

    @swordsbane

    You say that we accept the chance that we could die at any time and that living in this society we should accept the chance the we could be wrongful convicted of murder. I can’t help but call that a totally pathetic statement. Yes, I accept the fact that I could die driving home from work but this is totally different from my risk of being wrongfully convicted of murder and executed. There would be no risk of this if we simply got rid of the useless death penalty. This is something that we as a society can control. Here is a pretty childish but effective argument: what if it happened to you? Would you be so callous then and say that we should execute you because hey, life is cheap and you accepted that risk?

  49. I would answer your last question first. If we KNOW someone innocent is being put to death, then obviously something is very wrong. This is why I don’t believe in the death penalty that we have.

    As for the rest, yes it’s something we can completely control. If we halt the death penalty, then we can be 100% certain that no innocent people will die from it, but that’s the same with anything. Get rid of it and no one will die from it. That isn’t an argument for or against anything. If we lived our lives that way, we’d sit at home and do nothing, but then we’d still die of things that we might have lived through if we weren’t scared to leave our houses and go to the hospital. The question is and always will be: Do you feel it is right to execute someone who is guilty of murder? AFTER you answer that question, then you tackle the question: How can we make it so that the risk of killing an innocent person is the lowest we can make it. If the risk is too high: like it is now, then you re-evaluate it.

    But saying that the price of ONE innocent life is too high is clearly not true. We don’t apply that reasoning to our own lives and we don’t apply it to the lives of others. We can’t function as a society if we did.

  50. Yeah swordsbane you are right you remind of Sam Harris in the End of Faith when he says that when we unleash the US Army on a country we accept the fact that innocent civilians will die. Therefore, if we condone a war then we should also condone torturing terrorists because they are probably *more* guilty than at least those innocent civilians and could yield information that could save lives.

    That being said war, it could be argued, is necessary. This is clearly up for debate.

    So that is how I think of the question “Do you feel it is right to execute someone who is guilty of murder?” I think that it is unnecessary and wrong. Like I said before, the only difference between jailing someone for life and executing them in the victims eyes is a sense of revenge. Revenge has been acceptable in many societies throughout history, but in most areas of American society today, it is no longer sanctioned by the law. We no longer have legal duels to settle disputes. The death penalty is an anachronism in this respect. This is one of the only places that revenge is still allowed.

  51. I couldn’t read the article. I had heard about the story, and that’s all I can manage right now.

    I am against capital punishment, for pretty much the same reasons previous posters have noted. It isn’t a rational response. If someone killed my loved ones, I would want that person to die, but that would be my initial gut reaction. Life imprisonment seems far more effective/practical for the particularly heinous cases.

    One other thing that affects my attitude towards capital punishment is my opinion regarding life in prison v. death. I would rather die than be imprisoned for life. So, for me, death would be a lesser punishment than a life sentence–almost getting off easy.

    I’ve spent time in several prisons (three to be exact: two men’s and one women’s). I occasionally teach college classes there. I’ve taught murderers and sexual offenders, and lots and lots of casualties in the War Against Drugs. I can look up specific records if I wish, but I don’t want to know. But I had one student that was very well know for his crime. The first day when we were all introducing ourselves, I almost blurted out “OMG! You’re THAT John Doe?” Fortunately, I didn’t.

  52. alex g: If you’re talking about torturing for punishment or pleasure, I have to disagree with you. Torture is ostensibly to get information, and it is already been widely discredited as ineffective for those purposes. Killing civilians in a war is purely a side effect (or at least should be) of war, not the aim.

    On the other hand, the relative effectiveness of the death penalty is still being debated with rather smart people coming down on both sides. The thing that keeps me from dismissing the death penalty as ineffective is the absolute fact that if you execute a murder, there is no chance that he will murder again. There are many murderers who have stated publicly that if they were let out or manage to escaped, they will kill again, and still others who say they are reformed and might be able to convince a parole board that they are, but what if they aren’t? If that happens, I certainly don’t want to be the ones explaining to someone’s father, mother, wife, husband or child that we could have kept them safe, but chose not to. That is ENTIRELY within our power to prevent with 100% certainty… unless you believe that their spirit will come back for revenge like a bad horror movie.

  53. im talking about torture for information only.

    and i think that is a much easier thing to improve the security of prisons so that escape is ever a more distant possibility rather than to prove without a shred of doubt that the convicted is *actually* guilty so we can execute the person with a clear conscience.

  54. alex g: Then torture can’t be compared to civilian deaths in war. Whether we accept one has nothing to do with accepting the other.

    “and i think that is a much easier thing to improve the security of prisons so that escape is ever a more distant possibility rather than to prove without a shred of doubt that the convicted is *actually* guilty so we can execute the person with a clear conscience.”

    Possibly, but there ARE people in prison right now who we know are guilty with such a degree of certainty that it’s less more likely the sun will not rise tomorrow than they are found innocent, so even if you limit the death penalty to those cases, you’re not talking about ending an innocent life. You’re dealing with the question: Should the guilty be executed?

  55. That was awful. That last paragraph should be:

    Possibly, but there ARE people in prison right now who we know are guilty with such a degree of certainty that it’s more likely the sun will not rise tomorrow than they are actually innocent, so even if you limit the death penalty to those cases, you’re not talking about ending an innocent life. You’re dealing with the question: Should the guilty be executed?

  56. — If you can justify killing someone who is helplessly in your power, why can’t the other person?

    — One purpose of any justice system is to hold people accountable for their actions. Institutions also must be held accountable. As long as a death penalty exists, the justice system cannot be held fully accountable. The death penalty is contradictory to the purpose of a justice system.

    — The so called ‘fail safes’ built into the system seem to have a lot more to do with helping those involved in the execution feel good about what they are doing than in actually catching mistakes arising from the investigative and trial processes.

  57. “If you can justify killing someone who is helplessly in your power, why can’t the other person? ”

    For the same reason that the police are legal but vigilantes are not, or that it’s okay for Congress to pass laws that apply to your state, but it’s not okay for you and your friends to do the same..

    “Institutions also must be held accountable. As long as a death penalty exists, the justice system cannot be held fully accountable. The death penalty is contradictory to the purpose of a justice system.”

    That only makes sense if you decide that the death penalty is wrong. You’re saying that the death penalty precludes us holding the justice system fully accountable. If you hold the death penalty as legal and justified, they you can absolutely hold them fully accountable, and they can be allowed to continue their job. If the circumstances under which you put someone to death didn’t matter, then self-defense would be no argument either and anyone who killed anyone for any reason would have to be put in prison. THEN you would have a justice system that didn’t work.

    “The so called ‘fail safes’ built into the system seem to have a lot more to do with helping those involved in the execution feel good about what they are doing than in actually catching mistakes arising from the investigative and trial processes.”

    That’s a problem with how the system functions, NOT with the concept of capital punishment.

  58. If you’re looking for the ultimate in cruel punishment for these sort of crimes, I think life in prison is the way to go.

    Think of it…would you rather spend the next 50 years of your life in a cramped cell getting beaten and butt-raped? Or just end it altogether?

  59. I’d like to add some statistics to Old Geezers post.
    These are a bit old and subject to my failing memory as I have lost the original source.

    In 1999 in the U.S. there were approximately 3600 death row inmates. Of those one in twelve had a prior conviction for murder.This represents about 300 innocent murder victims who would have been spared had the offender been executed for the first crime.
    It seems cold to think this way,but I think the number of people killed by escaped or paroled murderers is probably much greater than the number of innocents executed.

    Bill

    Bill

  60. @bromac:
    Not criticising your numbers here bromac, but once people are on Death Row, chances are slim they’ll ever get out and kill again (I would assume).

    Unless anyone has any concrete numbers on how many former DR inmates have been released and subsequently killed again, that point of discussion is basically just everybody’s best guess.

    So unless you are suggesting we kill every person who ends up in jail on murder charges (think of the number of wrongfully accused and/or convicted people you’d have in the general prison population, assuming it probably happens more frequently because the consequences are far less severe than on DR) your 300 lives saved would most likely not outweigh the number of innocent lives ended by execution.

    This is of course assuming that anyone who ends up on Death Row twice is unlikely to have ended there by a freak mishap more than once. The odds of it happening once are already relatively slim.

  61. As to the value of human life, why should humans be any more important than every other living creature on the planet? Because we can think more creative thoughts?

    Look at the stars, stand on the edge of the ocean or the Grand Canyon and realize how little our time here means in the scheme of things. When it’s all said and done, how we live the lives we have is the only thing going for us. And if you choose to waste that life committing crimes or killing people, why should the rest of us spend another moment caring for/about you? Why waste resources on people who choose not to contribute?

    Not that I’m some tree-hugger or PETA fan, but we’re all here together and need to make the best of what we have. I’ve no patience for people who live lives of bad choices. Everyone is entitled to a couple of mistakes but serial killers, mass murderers, and repeat offenders are a waste of time, money and resources.

    And innocents are run over by drunk drivers every day. It happens. Luck of the draw. I do what I can for those who are trying to better themselves and step over bloodsucking leeches without a spare thought.

    I’m sorry if that sounds callous. I think of myself as more… pragmatic.

  62. Except we’re not talking about mass murderers. We’re talking about innocent people who by some accident got mistaken for a mass murderer. Whose life is on the line because somewhere along the line, somebody convinced a judge or a jury they had absolute certainty of their guilt, which was clearly not the case.

    Perhaps one single human life isn’t that important in the grand scheme of things, but it’s important enough not to waste them needlessly. Not to treat them that cheaply. And personally, there’s one life that is more important to me than anything else in the universe, and that’s my own. And I’d like to leave the universe in charge of ending it when that needs to happen, or myself if that choice would ever seem the better one. Definitely not another human, someone whose life is at least not more valuable than mine anyway. Someone who has no right to make that choice for me, whether they’re the killer trying to get me, or the jury trying to hang me …

  63. @JOHNEA13, please read my post properly, I’m assuming one thing only, and that is that people are pulling their “statistics” from their asses. Further more, @bromac was talking about repeat offenders on Death Row.

    Whether or not a person is sentenced to death after their first murder is irrelevant to this discussion, as it’s about people who have already been sentenced to death (rightfully or not). Or alternatively, about executing all murderers and not just those just on DR (as bromac seems to be suggesting).

    I’m still waiting on statistics of the non-ass variety concerning people who were on DR, were released, and subsequently killed again. Because bromac‘s numbers don’t say whether the prior murder conviction held a death sentence (it seems unlikely).

    I am making one other assumption though: I’m not even sure whether someone could be facing a death penalty without having been tried for murder? I’m assuming that at least one person has to have died, directly or indirectly, as a result of your actions, before this type of punishment is even an option? Can anyone clear that up for me?

  64. @exarch:
    Bromab does NOT state that they were originally sentenced to death for their first murder. He specifically mentions parole which would typically NOT apply to people on death row ( a pardon yes; parole NO: maybe a commutation of sentence and then parole). The only reason I bring it up is because some argue that the death penalty should be used because too many who murder get sentenced to “life” but still get out on good behavior after a short period and then murder again. I do not agree with the death penalty but if a murderer gets life they shouldn’t get out in 10 or 15 years. Also I am not trying to say the stats given were true.

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