More horror from the Trump administration: federal government to resume executions after a sixteen-year hiatus

July 25, 2019 • 10:30 am

Given the lack of evidence that capital punishment is a deterrent, the fact that it’s more expensive—given the appeals system—than life without parole, the ineluctable fact that innocent people have been executed and, if the death penalty were abolished, they could have been freed, and the fact that capital punishment is barbaric and often painful, it’s a no-brainer that it should be abolished in favor of other punishments. These alternatives could include life without parole (or, as they do in Norway, 25 years with a reassessment for parole). Every first-world country save Japan has abolished capital punishment.

And the federal government hasn’t executed anyone since 2003. Remember that the federal death penalty differs from state death penalties: the former is limited to a narrower range of crimes and is used much less frequently. While 60 inmates are on death row in federal prisons (most in Terre Haute, Indiana), only three have been executed after the federal penalty was reinstated in 1988 (see below). Now, thanks to Trump’s attorney general, they’re set to kill five more. Here are the three executed in the last 31 years.

a. Timothy McVeigh,  executed 2001 for the Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people.
b. Juan Raul Garza, Latino male, executed 2001. Garza, a marijuana distributor, was convicted and sentenced to death in August 1993, in Texas for the murders of three other drug traffickers.
c. Louis Jones, executed on March 18, 2003 for the kidnap and murder of a young female soldier.

The Death Penalty Information Center notes this:

The federal death penalty was held unconstitutional following the Supreme Court’s opinion of Furman v. Georgia in 1972. Unlike the quick restoration of the death penalty in most states, the federal death penalty was not reinstated until 1988, and then only for a very narrow class of offenses. The Federal Death Penalty Act of 1994 greatly expanded the number of eligible offenses to about 60.

According to many sources, including the Springfield News-Sun and Reuters, the Trump administration has just now re-started these executions.  From the former source:

For the first time in over sixteen years, the federal government will resume using the death penalty, as Attorney General William Barr on Thursday announced that five federal inmates would be put to death for their crimes, with the first execution scheduled for December 9, 2019.

“Congress has expressly authorized the death penalty through legislation adopted by the people’s representatives in both houses of Congress and signed by the President,” Barr said in a written statement released by the Justice Department.

Five execution dates were announced by Barr for five inmates convicted of murder, starting with Daniel Lewis Lee, a member of a white supremacist group, who murdered a family of three in Arkansas, and was found guilty in May of 1999.

“The Justice Department upholds the rule of law—and we owe it to the victims and their families to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system,” Barr added.

Of course they didn’t have to do this; it’s up to Barr whether these people get executed or not—and when.  I of course favor punishments, and very stringent ones for murder and other horrific crimes. But I don’t favor capital punishment for the reasons I gave above. It’s purely vindictive and offers neither rehabilitation nor deterrence nor rectification of false convictions. I see no reason save vindictiveness to kill someone rather than letting them stay in prison for either life or for a very long time.

Here’s where we stand relative to other nations in our use of government executions. The red ones are the bad ones, and we’re red:

This recent decision bespeaks a lack of humanity, of empathy, and of a failure to realize that criminals had no choice about what they did.

h/t: Ken

180 thoughts on “More horror from the Trump administration: federal government to resume executions after a sixteen-year hiatus

  1. I have to admit this is shocking — I would have thought the Trump administration would be trying to bring back public executions.

    Think of the ratings.

    1. I think it’s more accurate to say the Trump administration would be more about stockades and medieval torture favoured by many Christian groups.

  2. Why, seemingly out of the blue, did Barr just now announce this policy? Is it his own idea or is he acting on Trump’s orders? Is this an attempt by Trump to give the base what it wants – cruelty? Whatever the reason, it is another incident in the daily descent of the country into an authoritarian hell, with half the country applauding Trump’s every move.

    1. “Is this an attempt by Trump to give the base what it wants – cruelty? ”

      Yes. They’d have public hangings if they could. People will be encouraged to share videos of executions on Facebook. We’ve basically become ISIS.

      1. Yes, his base would love it! But they need a nice, three word chant to match “Lock Her Up!” and “Send Them Back.”

        “Kill! Kill! Kill!” doesn’t have the same gravitas.

  3. I wonder how many demanding the end of the electoral college would favour a referendum on capital punishment. Let the majority rule?

          1. It makes sense to me. The thesis is that a referendum on the death penalty would come out in favour of keeping it and that people who want to do away with the electoral college – i.e. select the president by popular vote – are also the ones that want to do away with the death penalty.

            The flaw in the reasoning is that the USA is a representative democracy. The people vote for the government and the government makes policy. Who the president is selected is a selection of government issue. Whether the USA has the death penalty or not is a policy issue.

    1. Damn, haven’t encountered a disjointed question like that since overhearing a neighbor ask my dad “does he walk to work or carry his lunch?”

      We would need a constitutional amendment (or at least an interstate compact) to do away with the electoral college — either of which would require broad popular support among the American public.

      The Eighth Amendment in our Bill of Rights already prohibits “cruel and unusual punishments.” It makes no more sense to propose a vote on the interpretation of that clause than it would to take a vote on the interpretation of the Free Speech or Religion clauses of the First Amendment.

      1. Then I guess to do away with the death penalty definitively, you’d need a constitutional amendment as well.

        1. Don’t see how that follows, Rick. SCOTUS has the authority to interpret the Eighth Amendment to prohibit capital punishment. There are four sitting justices ready to do it right now, I think, and the Court itself came pretty close in 1972 in Furman v. Georgia.

          It’s a fait accompli that the American death penalty is moribund; just a matter of time till we’re rid of this barbarism for good.

          1. I don’t think execution per se is cruel and unusual. It certainly wouldn’t have been considered unusual at the time the eighth amendment was ratified. However, I suppose you could argue that it is unusual now, in the USA.

            All the methods of execution that the USA does use are IMO cruel but that doesn’t mean there aren’t methods that could be used that aren’t cruel.

            Executions as performed in the USA right now are unconstitutional in my opinion.

    2. Your first two repliers aren’t trying hard enough to understand your point, which I take to be that the majority shouldn’t have its way in all things. It is not about the mechanics of addressing either issue.

      The Constitution prevents majority rule on the electoral college issue. On the death penalty, the Constitution has been interpreted in their favor by both sides. The Supreme Court has validated it, after first setting it down under certain circumstances.

      1. Oh, I got his point, Carl. But under our constitutional scheme, some matters are left to majority rule, some aren’t. The freedoms enshrined in our Bill of Rights fall into the latter category.

        We’ve no more business putting “cruel and unusual punishment” to a vote than we would the self-incrimination privilege or the right to trial by jury.

        1. Agreed Ken, and I think Pelmon would agree too. If you got the point why change the subject?

          What makes America great are the safeguards barring majorities having their way over individuals just because they are a majority.

          1. Pelmon does agree. However Pelmon is quite shameless in his unconcern for the “will of the majority” and supports all kinds of anti-majoritarian features of our legal and political system.

    3. Why would anyone in America favour a referendum on anything? The US is a modern democracy; and it doesn’t hold referendums to decide major policy changes.
      You know this perfectly well, so your question is just a kind of passive-aggressive attempt to imply hypocrisy where there is none.

      1. The US is a modern democracy … it doesn’t hold referendums to decide major policy changes.

        I take it you haven’t spent much, if any, time in California.

        1. Ah yes, a veritable Sodom. I believe they eat nothing but soy, avocados and gay marriage over there.

              1. As much as I occasionally enjoy this forum – and the enforced civility is a a big part of the reason, a ban seems ironic in the context of an anti-death penalty discussion. Yes, this is Prof. Coyne’s web site to do as he pleases, and I dearly don’t seek being banned myself, but the penalty here does not fit the crime (which might better be seen as a joke that some might not find funny).

            1. If California conduct referendums that determine governmental policy decisions that affect the whole country I’d very much like to see Matt’s evidence for this.
              I haven’t heard about it, but maybe it happens.

              I’ll wait for a link. If I’m wrong I’ll be perfectly willing to admit it, but as far as I understand it America is a representative democracy. National policy is not determined by direct votes and no-one(or next to no-one) on my side argues that it should be.

              Therefore the implied hypocrisy doesn’t hold.

              1. I live in California — you’ll just have to take my word for it. IIRC, you don’t even live in the US, yet you have no compunction about making uninformed assertions on how our political system works.

                And how about a ‘thanks, I didn’t know that’, instead of shifting goalposts?

              2. Your word for what? That California referendums determine government policy decisions that affect the whole country? Because that’s what the comment asked for evidence of. Of course there isn’t any evidence because California referendums affect California. Only.

              3. In other words, your claim made no sense and you can’t defend it, so you’ll just claim to be above it all. Okay.

              4. ‘You don’t live here’ is not an argument. Unless you want to refrain from commenting on the UK from now on? Or anywhere outside of the US? You can make a commitment to do so if you like, but please don’t tell me not to comment.

                As I said I don’t believe your comparison holds water: a single state’s vote on a particular issue is not equivalent to a nationwide decision to abolish the electoral college.

                …But worse than that is the fact that most red states in the US also have votes on single issues, just like California.
                You didn’t mention any of them of course, but by _your own_ logic their existence would make conservatives who oppose a vote on whether to abolish the electoral college just as big a set of hypocrites as the people on the liberal-left you criticise.

                These conservatives are okay with red state referendums, but not with a hypothetical referendum about the electoral college?
                Funny…that seems like the exact equivalent of your own argument, only turned against the conservative-right, and it completely undermines the thrust of your original post.

              5. @ tomh – yes, that was my exact point. The comparison doesn’t hold.

                What I also missed when I first replied is that Matt’s logic completely undermines his own argument: he singled out California, but pretty much every red state has the same kind of circumscribed votes on single issues that California has. Those red state conservatives oppose a vote on the abolition of the electoral college.
                So if Californian liberals are hypocrites the same applies to the aforementioned red-staters – who went conspicuously unmentioned by Matt.

                Anyway, I’m off to try and catch Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, see if Tarantino’s improved after Hateful Eight. So no more of this delightful, good-faith debate for today, tragically.

        2. Washington state also has an active, often used referendum system. At least it isn’t conducted via instant online voting.

          1. We’re still watching the blood drip from those self-inflicted wounds. 97 days to the next self-flagellation exercise.

            1. And in reference to Matt’s ‘keep your nose out of my country’ comment, the reason I opine on US politics quite often is because it’s so much more light and breezy than what’s happening in the UK.

            2. The big problem with referenda is that the great unwashed public get to give an unequivocal directive to their politicians, which makes it very difficult for the politicians to get on with the business of implementing their own agenda as usual. The political classes have nobly fought to put the intransigent British public back into their box, but to no avail. Bastards just won’t listen to their betters. Must be racist bigots.

              1. Must be racist bigots.

                Having been trading half-bricks and blows with Britain’s Nazis since the late 70s, I’m perfectly at home with the contention that a lot of Britons are racist shits. I’ve seen them spitting on my friends, my family, no small number of my colleagues. There is no shortage of Nazis in Britain today.

              2. I’m sure you mean well, but it devalues the full horror of the historical Nazis to use the term so freely today. People you disagree with, who are perhaps racist and intolerant of other characteristics may well be shits as you say, but they are not Nazis. That’s the way to start forgetting the lessons of history.

    4. Democracy does not decide everything. Some things rise to the level of higher principles outlined in bills of rights and constitutions. If a majority ruled that slavery should be legalized, it still shouldn’t be legalized. Murder should also never be legalized, including not by the state, as retribution, punishment, entertainment or otherwise, regardless if the majority of people want it. Modern societies look back in horror at the norms of the past. We make moral progress and see in the map above a overlap between countries espousing human flourishing and lack of capital punishment.

      1. Well, everyone has their own set of morals. The religious believe theirs to be issued by a deity. From what source do yours derive? Why is your path to “moral progress” the one, true path?

        NB: The term “murder” only legally applies to unjustified homicide. Your definition of “murder” appears to be a tautology.

  4. If ever one needed a microcosm of the Trump administration’s policy incoherence, look no further than criminal justice.

    On the one hand, Donald Trump touts himself as a champion of sentencing reform, and not long ago commuted the sentence of a grandmother serving life for drug dealing (at the entreaty of Kim Kardashian, wife of Trump’s other Oval Office advisor, Kanye West). On the other, in addition to scheduling five new federal executions over a two-month stretch, Trump has lauded the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte and China’s Xi Jinping as models for how to alleviate this nation’s own drug problem — by executing accused drug dealers.

    A similar (and I think not unrelated) incoherence plagues Trump’s policy regarding the use of military force. He campaigned as an “isolationist” (one who wouldn’t start “stupid wars,” like certain Bushes he could name). But since taking office, when not parading tanks around the National Mall and bragging about his yooge military budget, he’s threatened to use his “big button” to deploy nuclear weapons against North Korea and (just a couple days ago) Afghanistan. And, by his own report, he was recently within 15 minutes of launching a bombing raid on Iran (until being warned by “his general” that he might get his hair mussed by actually killing some actual Iranians).

    1. I don’t see Trump’s “use of force” strategy (meaning the policy that develops around his impulsive thought process) as truly hawkish. It’s the bully writ large: posture, bluff, take no risks. My fear is that our global opponents see this and do as they like knowing there won’t be consequences.

      1. I agree with you by and large, Carl. My fear is there will be bluffing without consequence until … there is a really BIG consequence somewhere (with preeminent warhawk John Bolton growling through his mustache into Trump’s ear to “show the little brown bastards who’s boss, sir”).

        I also wouldn’t put it past Trump to “wag the dog” by starting a splendid little war if he’s far enough down in the polls come 2020.

        1. I have a funny feeling that he may have organised some kind of timed PR coup with Kim Jong Un just in time for the elections. Some kind of big, grand agreement that he can yell about in front of a helicopter.

          I can imagine a lot of stuff like that ‘coincidentally’ occurring in the months before the election.

          1. As one wag timely put it regarding Trump’s trip across the border during his recent visit to the DMZ — one short waddle for a president, one giant leap for the world’s worst dictator.

            1. Now I’m saying it out loud it feels like someone somewhere will have made this joke before…but are we sure that Trump didn’t confuse the DMZ with TMZ, the trashy gossip website/channel that reports on the world’s gaudiest celebrities?

          2. You think he’s sufficiently organized? You think he could keep his mouth shut for long enough?

            Like, I hope it’s true, it’s better than starting a war somewhere, particularly for the innocent Iranians who are going to get killed…

            cr

      2. I agree. Personally I think the USA should never bluff. One of Trump’s biggest failings IMO is that I think he does and will.

        1. It’s his mouth. It runs away with him. He hasn’t managed to lock ‘her’ up yet, has he?

          cr

  5. Most self-proclaimed utilitarians on the issue of punishment are, in fact, closet retributivists. That is, most of them would say it is wrong to punish the innocent even when doing so has utilitarian benefit, such as reducing crime (e.g., by punishing family members of suicide bombers or deserters in war, or by dispensing with the requirement of fair trials in favor of trials that “seem” fair in the eyes of the public). Instead, most utilitarians think it is wrong to punish a person who does not “deserve” it—no matter how much “good” the punishment might do in the form of deterrence, etc. When one is a retributivist, however, it is incoherent to rule out a given form of punishment, e.g., death, for people who morally “deserve” it. The question is, then, is there ever a person whose deeds are so bad that the person “deserves” to be put to death?

    1. … is there ever a person whose deeds are so bad that the person “deserves” to be put to death?

      I wouldn’t say ‘deserves’, but I believe that certain crimes are so depraved, and the individuals who committed them so devoid of any of the redeeming qualities that make us human, that we are all better off with them gone for good.

      NB: I consider this sentiment of mine distinct from vengeance or retribution.

      1. Quite so. Plus there are a surprising number of people who have killed others and gone on to kill again (and sometimes again).

        From a BBC 2012 article:

        Over 30 killers killed again after being freed from prison between 2000/1 and 2010/11, statistics show.

        Figures released by the Home Office show 29 people with homicide convictions went on to commit murder and six went on to commit manslaughter.

        Of those 29 murderers, 13 previously committed murder and 16 manslaughter.

        Of course know which killers will kill again is quite difficult…

        1. That seems to be an argument for life sentences, not necessarily executions. The extra step of killing the offender is not necessary to protect people from recidivism.

        2. 30 over 10 years is 3 per year, which seems to me a remarkably low number. There must be several hundred murders per year in the UK. I would have expected bigger numbers.

          1. I note that the report is from 2012. The privitisation of probation service over the intervening years will probably be increasing the numbers. There’s no profit in preventing people from recidivism.

      2. Hmm. I don’t think I agree that it’s okay for the state to kill people who don’t “deserve” to be put to death, even if “we are better off with them gone for good.”

        1. Fair enough. I merely wished to distance myself from the connotation of retribution or vengeance that ‘deserves’ might convey.

    1. Is that how children behave? That’s one of the best adverts for remaining child-free that I’ve ever heard.

  6. Apart from satisfying the president’s psychopathic curiosity about what it feels like to have people killed, it also defines a particular relationship between the state and the citizenry.

    That particular relationship will no doubt be developed even further in the near future. It’s on a continuum, I think, with passively accepting the death & dismemberment of a journalist, and the return of citizen tortured to the brink of death, by a fascist state whose dictator was absolved of responsibility by the, again, fascinated president.

    I think the disarray among the would-be (or should-be) opposition is partly due to their initial refusal to admit the extent of their initial defeat in 2016, and never having previously encountered anything in politics quite of this nature before, or with as evil as what is beginning now.

    At least that’s my personal view from Germany. But maybe I’m wrong. I hope so, but I doubt it.

  7. I agree the death penalty should be ended for all the reasons laid out in the post. There is one point in favor, which is the catharsis provided, which is not quite the same as retribution. I can’t say I feel bad about Timothy McVeigh’s end. Another point in favor is the ultimate removal of the danger posed by the executed. Had El Chapo been executed prior to his first escape, lives would have been saved.

    Another point about the death penalty. Is it really less humane than life in an American prison? Myself, I would rather be dead. I think real reform of our barbaric prisons should be higher priority than outlawing the death penalty – certainly more people have been “executed” (not to mention beaten or raped) by fellow inmates than by the state.

    1. Continued prison reform is needed. But from the data I’ve seen prisons are slowly getting better.

      I agree that death is better than life in prison if conditions are terrible.

    2. There is one point in favor, which is the catharsis provided, which is not quite the same as retribution.

      A good phrasing of my personal opinion and that of others I know.

    3. “I can’t say I feel bad about Timothy McVeigh’s end.”

      Yes, I find I feel the same way (while being basically completely opposed to the death penalty).

    4. Opposition to the death penalty isn’t about sympathy for the people being put to death; it’s about preserving our own humanity by not succumbing to such barbarism.

      There are any number of punishments that might provide “catharsis” to victims or to the public — lopping off the hand of a thief, castration of a rapist, pillorying a fraudster on the village green. Should we indulge those as well?

      1. Catharsis is a benefit to some that weighs against the barbarism of executing someone. I don’t find it compelling, but easily see why others do.

        Belief in free will is a big factor in peoples death penalty positions – good luck in getting past that.

    5. I wouldn’t say I feel bad about McVeigh’s end either, but there was an opportunity missed. You can’t study and understand the psychology of a mass killer if you’ve executed them.

    6. Another point about the death penalty. Is it really less humane than life in an American prison?

      I refer the honourable gentleperson to the previous comments concerning the absence of “cruel and unusual punishment” in America.
      1 + 1 =/= 2 ?

  8. DPIC wrote:

    “The federal death penalty was held unconstitutional following the Supreme Court’s opinion of Furman v. Georgia in 1972.”

    An egregious misrepresentation. The (highly fractured) opinions merely found the several laws on the books at the time “cruel and unusual” by dint of their capricious application. The constitutionality of capital punishment in general was never challenged.

  9. Given the lack of evidence that capital punishment is a deterrent, the fact that it’s more expensive—given the appeals system—than life without parole, the ineluctable fact that innocent people have been executed and, if the death penalty were abolished, they could have been freed, and the fact that capital punishment is barbaric and often painful, it’s a no-brainer that it should be abolished in favor of other punishments.

    Not a deterrent: Strawman; deterrence is not a leading argument for capital punishment;

    Appeals are expensive: The appeals system is byzantine and could easily be streamlined to focus on legitimate cases;

    Innocent people have been executed: Again, the system can be reformed to reduce the risk of that as much as possible. Indeed, advances in DNA technology make it far easier to both convict and exonerate suspects;

    Barbaric’: An expression of a sentiment is not itself an argument. I, for one, consider kosher & halal butchery ‘barbaric’, but would need to elaborate as to why to be persuasive;

    Painful: stare decisis resoundingly affirms that avoidance of any pain is neither a requirement for a reasonable expectation. Further, our current methods inflict far less pain than long-standing legal ones such as hanging;

    No-brainer: Plenty of ‘brained’ people favor capital punishment, myself included. The general public, both brained & brainless, strongly support it. Only among the Left is abolishing the death penalty popular. Clearly the abolishment arguments to date have not been persuasive. Additionally, as with so many current issues, the Left risks appearing to be more concerned about the wellbeing of lawbreakers and miscreants, than on everyday law-abiding folks.

    1. I’m sure many others will take issue with some of these points, but two quick criticisms are:

      1) Not a deterrent is not a strawman. Sure, maybe deterrence is not an argument people who favor capital punishment choose, but deterrence and reform should be the goals of the criminal justice system. Just like PCCE, I am a determinist, so I see enacting retribution upon someone who “could have chosen differently” as lacking mercy.

      2) Maybe we could reduce the percentage of innocents executed through new technologies. However, I take a zero tolerance stance. If we cannot guarantee the government executes no innocent people, then we should cease executions. A government that kills any of its innocent citizens is not a good government.

      1. I’ld like to be convinced that deterrence is real, but if I really wanted to kill someone a death penalty is not a deterrence. Maybe for other people? My guess is most murderers are in no way deterred from murder whether it be life in prison or death.

        1. This is just an assumption, without data to back it. We simply cannot know how many more murders there would be if there were no laws outlawing it.

          Also, if your argument that neither is deterrent is true, we should refrain from doing the more extreme option due to the other points against death penalty: execution of innocents, the fact the murderer could not have chosen otherwise, the possibility of rehabilitation. The criminal justice system used for revenge does not make society any better off.

          1. In Texas you can assess the likelihood of deterrence to be near zero. Any murder committed might or very likely will end as a death sentence. I would content every person in Texas knew that death by state was a possibility and they took that chance. If the death sentence were a deterrent, it did not work for them.

            1. You have thus proven the complete irrelevance of all deterrents in all cases. And of all safety regulations, as people still die in accidents.

        2. There’s a problem here. Murderers by definition have not been deterred by whatever punishment they are likely to face. Suggesting that this is evidence that punishment x is ineffective is an example of survivorship bias. You really have to count the number of people who haven’t murdered anybody but would have if punishment x didn’t exist.

          The only way you can answer the question is by analysing homicide rates against capital punishment. Even then, there may be other factors involved. e.g. the UK’s homicide rate as about one quarter of the US homicide rate. I don’t think any of us believe that banning capital punishment in the US would slash its homicide rate by 3/4.

        3. Perhaps the relative deterrent effects of imprisonment and execution can’t be accurately determined without taking into account the perceived likelihood of conviction.

      2. Hi Ryan,

        I, for one, disagree that “deterrence and reform should be the goals of the criminal justice system.” For many crimes, especially the most serious, no sentence, however harsh, is a deterrent. For a few criminals, reform may be possible, but not for most. I see the primary purpose of incarceration as the removal of criminals from our society.

        I would support limiting the possibility of capital punishment to cases where the guilt of the accused is beyond doubt (e.g., caught red-handed), and the crime is exceedingly depraved (e.g., Charles Manson).

        1. I did not clarify, but I concur that the primary purpose of the detainment of criminals is to protect society. However, this does not preclude us from making the other two secondary or co-primary goals. I would not say that most criminals cannot be reformed, countries with better criminal justice systems (and, maybe not coincidentally, no use of capital punishment) have much lower rates of recidivism compared to the United States. Maybe you were specifically saying that most murderers cannot be reformed, but I would need to see data to believe that point.

          1. I would like to see more robust reform programs, but targeted at those actually capable of reform. Our penal system was grounded on the concept of tabula rasa, with rehabilitation through reflection and penance (thus, “penitentiaries”.) We now know that psychopathy is incurable, and it’s a long, uncertain, and rarely-traveled road back from sociopathy. Yes, please, we need more hard data to inform us! But my hunch is that most perpetrators of serious, violent crimes are beyond rehabilitation.

        2. For many crimes, especially the most serious, no sentence, however harsh, is a deterrent

          Do you have any evidence for this statement?

          For a few criminals, reform may be possible, but not for most.

          Do you have any evidence for this statement?

          1. The research on the failure of harsh sentencing as a deterrent for serious & violent crimes, especially ‘crimes of passion’, is readily available, as is that for both recidivism rates and the untreatable nature of psychopathy.

              1. 1) The assertion was made — and generally accepted — in the OP without supporting evidence. Why does merely concurring make me responsible for documenting it?

                2) Yes.

              2. The assertion was made by you several times and it wasn’t generally accepted. I don’t necessarily accept it.

                Also, you are the one who seems to know where the evidence is – you said it was readily available. I assumed it wouldn’t therefore be too much of a burden for you to reference it.

              3. It is my opinion that the death penalty is a deterrent. I do not believe it is more of a deterrent than time in prison but I can’t give you good evidence of either of those opinions.

              4. I was intrigued by Ryan’s observation that for our data set, we only know of those for whom it was not a deterrent, not those who were deterred so never committed murder. It certainty wasn’t a deterrent to John Gotti, who laughed in his mug shot because he was certain his slick attorneys would get him acquitted.

              5. And, by the way, in the context of capital punishment, I don’t think the deterrence value of punishments, even harsh ones, is the issue so much as “does the death sentence have any better deterrence value than, say, life in prison?’

              6. As I expressly stated, the overwhelming consensus is that the death sentence is neither a strong deterrence, nor significantly more of one than a life sentence.

                You’re arguing with the wrong guy.

          2. If you use Sweden as a template for the best case, you can see that reform is possible for the majority of prisoners. “As the Guardian notes, in the past decade, the number of Swedish prisoners has dropped from 5,722 to 4,500 out of a population of 9.5 million. The country has closed a number of prisons, and the recidivism rate is around 40%, which is far less than in the U.S. and most European countries.”

      3. jorgensen28ryan good points, thank you, and yes, lots more to take issue with Matt’s arguments. He seems to be working back from his conclusion i.e. motivated reasoning.

        Sarcasm follows:

        Appeals are expensive: — but we love capital punishment so much so we should really really try to fix this!

        Innocent people have been executed: Well, now that we’ve streamlined appeals, this one is going to be a lot harder to fix, luckily no racism, fraud or incompetence are ever committed by law enforcement surrounding DNA evidence — it is always 100% accurate.

        As with flat earth’s “200 proofs the earth is flat”, (where if you really had proof, one would do) I think the chance of killing an innocent is the one thing that should stop all capital punishment. There will never be a 100% chance that all capital punishment kills only guilty persons, therefore there should be none.

        1. One more factor to consider is that the death penalty will always be a potential subject for “mission creep”. Just as juveniles are now being sent to adult prison (in the US), there will always be the possibility the death penalty “window” will move to remedy less serious charges. Perhaps by public pressure on elected officials! IMO the DP remains an existential threat to fair justice for however long it’s allowed to exist.

        2. [Matt] … seems to be working back from his conclusion i.e. motivated reasoning.

          Considering that I’ve changed my opinion on capital punishment in the past, am still open to persuasion, am presenting my arguments with caveats, and am attempting to earnestly weigh the pros & cons being presented here, the charge of motivated reasoning is a bit unfair.

      4. All his points are highly contestable. Every step in “streamlining” our appellate system, for example, would increase the likelihood of executing the innocent, since every stage in our current, “byzantine” process — from initial appeal to a governor’s last-minute reprieve — can be shown to have spared an innocent condemned).

        But even if we concede all those points, a death-penalty proponent still has his most nettlesome argument in front of him: In this nation’s two-and-half century history, no jurisdiction — state or federal — has ever devised a system for reliably distinguishing offenders deserving of capital punishment from those who aren’t. That is to say. every capital-punishment system ever employed has proved in praxis to be arbitrary and capricious at best (and biased against the poor and minorities at worst). That’s why nearly half of the US states, and all the world’s other modern western democracies, have abandoned ship on such state-sanctioned killing.

        But, hey, if anyone here thinks they can cure this intractable problem, let them come forward to propose a set of jury instructions by which a dozen laymen can apply the death penalty in a reliable and consistent manner.

        1. I’m going to ask you one last to time to not reply to my comments, as I some time ago outlined my reasons for not desiring any further interaction with you.

          1. You can make this appeal, but you can’t prevent anyone from answering your comments, nor will I ban anyone who interacts with another commenter in a civil way, even if it’s against the commenter’s will. You do not have to interact with anybody on this site.

            1. I long ago suggested to Ken that we no longer interact, as he continually insulted my intelligence, doubted my education, and imputed to me nefarious motives for my positions. As there is no ‘ignore’ function here, and I value the prevailing level of decorum here, that was my proposed resolution to what was becoming a very unpleasant, unproductive exchange.

              If Ken now wishes to resume responding to my comments, I shall in any case ‘manually’ ignore his.

            2. i’m unaware of ever having launched a “personal attack” on anyone on this site.

              Sure, maybe I can get a bit de haut en bas sometimes (you know, by saying shit like de haut en bas 🙂 ), and I’ve had my disagreements with other commenters from time-to-time, but I always aim above the belt.

              1. Hell, Diana, what little Latin I know is — mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa — as likely to have come from my brief sojourn as an altar boy during the days of the Latin Mass, as from a law school education. 🙂

              2. Quite right; Tatars hate being used in sauce. I believe you meant sauce tartare.

          2. That’s pretty funny. You do know this is a public forum, I suppose. Why would you get to pick and choose who responds to your comments?

            1. Coulda sworn that my response was in the subthread for jorgensen28ryan.

              Guess I’m supposed to abjure not just from responding to him directly, but from responding to any argument he’s ever made to anyone anywhere.

              I seek no reciprocity. As a free-speech proponent, I welcome all comers to respond to anything I’ve had to say, whether critical or supportive.

              1. Ken, FWIW, when scrolling quickly through comments here, your name is one of the ones that makes me stop and read, particularly when the discussion centres on legal matters.

                You can be cheeky at times, but I don’t read your comments the way Matt does. Keep up the good work!

                I also strongly agree with jorgensen28ryan’s second point.

              1. If somebody makes a personal attack on you, wouldn’t the right thing to do be to draw Jerry’s attention to the offending post and ask him to arbitrate?

                H

              2. As a last resort, or if I’m accused of criminality. Otherwise, I’d prefer to appeal to people’s better nature.

                Also, a sneer now and again doesn’t really bother me. Persistent questioning of my intelligence, education, and motives, however, I’m not included to put up with.

              3. @jeremy pereira:

                I’ve never said a word about Matt’s “education” (for I haven’t the foggiest what his education is). I’m quite certain I’ve never disparaged any fellow commenter’s education, since I care more about people’s ideas than about their educational credentials. And I’ve never insulted his intelligence.

                I have found some of his attitudes on race and ethnicity to be a bit, shall we say, “problematic.” Seldom is heard an encouraging word from him about anyone who isn’t white — or who isn’t male, for that matter. I don’t recall his ever having acknowledged the legitimacy of a grievance voiced by a living African-American. (He also continued to make excuses for James Alex Fields, Jr,. the neo-Nazi who drove his car into a crowd of innocent people in Charlottesville and murdered Heather Heyer, after the narrative he was relying on had been debunked.)

                But I have never put a pejorative label on it, nor used any epithet as regards him (and, indeed, have cautioned other commenters who’ve noticed the same thing from so doing). And I’ve never impugned his motives, only taken issue with some of his assertions.

                If that hurts his feelings — well, tant pis. It seems overly sensitive for someone who regularly disparages social justice snowflakes.

                If he claims otherwise, let him provide citations to any comments of mine that support his assertion or that violate Da Roolz.

        2. There’s another point, which I think distorts your entire justice system – plea bargains. How many innocent people are in jail on horrendously lengthy sentences, when their guilt was by no means certain, because they were threatened with the death penalty so pled guilty to a ‘lesser’ charge?

          This is not a weapon available to prosecutors in non-death-penalty countries.

          This is particularly relevant in those cases where the authorities have been under pressure to ‘solve the case’ so they resort to targeting the ‘most likely suspect’. I could name several cases in New Zealand where ‘most likely suspects’ have been exonerated after many years in jail, but at least they were still alive to be freed.

          cr

      5. All his points are highly contestable. Every step in “streamlining” our appellate system, for example, would increase the likelihood of executing the innocent, since every stage in our current, “byzantine” process — from initial appeal to a governor’s last-minute reprieve — can be shown to have spared an innocent condemned.

        But even if we concede all those points, a death-penalty proponent still has his most nettlesome argument in front of him: In this nation’s two-and-half century history, no jurisdiction — state or federal — has ever devised a system for reliably distinguishing offenders deserving of capital punishment from those who aren’t. That is to say. every capital-punishment system ever employed has proved in praxis to be arbitrary and capricious at best (and biased against the poor and minorities at worst). That’s why nearly half of the US states, and all the world’s other modern western democracies, have abandoned ship on such state-sanctioned killing.

        But, hey, if anyone here thinks they can cure this intractable problem, let them come forward to propose a set of jury instructions by which a dozen laymen can apply the death penalty in a reliable and consistent manner.

    2. Of course the leading argument is deterrence. To imply otherwise is misdirection.

      The rest of your arguments ad populum could be made with just as little persuasiveness about religion: an even larger proportion of society believes in god: is belief in god thus worthy of respect…? Nope.

      And your cursory attempts to address the pain, cruelty and impossibility of excluding false-positives are just the usual hand-waving:

      You dismiss the false positive problem because maybe, in the future, someone might improve conviction accuracy so that fewer innocent people are killed. This is hand-waving.

      And you dismiss the expensiveness of appeals because it’s apparently incredibly easy to streamline the appeals system…although not so easy that anyone’s bothered to do so up until now funnily enough. This also is hand-waving.
      As for the pain that the executed are sometimes forced into experiencing? The mind-boggling combination of drooling, twitching, drawn-out agony and terminally degrading humiliation? Apparently this is not an issue.

      My opinion is that having to spend your last few minutes on earth with severe brain damage as you shit and piss yourself in a small boxy room and convulse in agony _is_ actually an issue. It’s not something that death penalty advocates can ignore simply by pointing out that _technically_ no-one promised the inmates anything different.

      1. Of course the leading argument is deterrence.

        Prove it.

        _

        The rest of your arguments ad populum

        I did not resort to argumentum ad populum. For starters, I outlined my own personal reasons. My actual point, succinctly: as capital punishment is both constitutional and popular, opponents’ claims to moral & intellectual superiority on the subject won’t cut it.

        _

        As for the pain that the executed are sometimes forced into experiencing? The mind-boggling combination of drooling, twitching, drawn-out agony and terminally degrading humiliation? Apparently this is not an issue.

        1) The prisoner is first rendered unconscious;
        2) I see no reason why execution cannot be performed any less humanely than euthanization of an animal;
        3) Your prioritization of concern for the comfort of criminals who are, in these cases, usually sadistic monsters devoid of empathy, over the anguish & suffering of their victims and their families, is troubling.

        1. I have a few issues with your third point. First, it seems that you are implying that just because these people may lack empathy justifies not considering their comfort. Just because they lack empathy doesn’t mean that their sentencing must also lack empathy. Also, I would contest that Saul is not prioritizing the anguish and suffering of the victims over the criminal. The feelings of the family should not take precedence over ethical concerns. If that were the case, some people arrested for assault could be executed because the victims feel the most peace of mind with that resolution.

          1. just because they lack empathy doesn’t mean that their sentencing must also….

            No, of course not. I consider execution while unconscious plenty empathetic.

            I’m not suggesting Saul has no concern for the victims. I do feel his comment lacked the proper perspective.

        2. ” capital punishment is both constitutional and popular, ”

          Yes, I can’t believe how vindictive and barbaric the American public is**. I think it stems from their Biblical background. The Hitch was right when he said ‘religion poisons everything’.

          **Or at least that segment that appears frequently on the dreadful ‘true crime’ ‘reality TV’ dreck that my wife regrettably insists on watching.

          cr

          1. I consider neither myself, nor my liberal, kind-hearted friends who also support the death penalty, to be either vindictive or barbaric.

            1. Probably illustrates the relative positions of the Overton window in USA vs the rest of the developed world. 🙂

              Of course, it could also be that the producers of these depressingly voyeuristic ‘reality TV’ programs seek out the most… deplorable people
              to opine prejudicially on the cases they feature.

              cr

        3. Deterrence is consistently used as the leading justification for the death penalty, over and over again on every media interaction. If you’re going to suggest otherwise the onus is on YOU to ‘prove it’.

          (I note that you still haven’t suggested an alternative ‘leading argument’ that the pro side use.)

          And since we’re on the subject I’d like you to ‘prove’ that:

          – the chances of false-positives will be eliminated in the future or at least dramatically decreased

          – the appeals system will be streamlined so that it’s no longer prohibitively expensive.

          Both of these were claims you made in the original post.

          Finally, you seem to believe that ensuring that prisoners don’t end up in unimaginable, excruciating pain is somehow incompatible with caring about the victims’ families. The idea that you can walk and chew gum at the same time doesn’t seem to have occurred to you.
          …Either that, or you believe that seeing prisoners in agony is part of the appeal of executions, and eliminating the agony they are sometimes forced to go through is in itself painful to the victims’ families. Which is just biblical vengeance. Needless to say I find this a little more than ‘troubling’.

          1. I note that you still haven’t suggested an alternative ‘leading argument’ that the pro side use.

            I and a few others here have done just that.

            _

            I’d like you to ‘prove’ that….

            1) those were espoused goals, not guaranteed predictions: 2) This is a conversation, not an interrogation.

            _

            … you seem to believe that ensuring that prisoners don’t end up in unimaginable, excruciating pain is somehow incompatible with caring about the victims’ families.

            1) I don’t believe the condemned regularly experience “unimaginable, excruciating pain”, and believe it’s perfectly feasible to ensure they never do; 2) Your utmost concern still seems to be the comfort of the criminal to be executed. I’d like to direct your attention to one of those, Alfred Bourgeois, who for six straight weeks beat, tortured, and raped his 2-year-old daughter, before finally bashing in her skull and dumping her body. You find it intolerable that he might suffer for a few minutes. Sorry, but my giveadamn is busted.

            https://ondeathrowusa.blogspot.com/2017/04/alfred-bourgeois-federal-death-row.html

            1. You still haven’t told me what motivates most advocates of the death penalty if it’s not deterrence. Third time now.

              Your anecdote is irrelevant unless your primary concern is vengeance. You don’t have to give a damn about the most horrible people on earth(an unavoidable percentage of whom will be entirely innocent of any crime) in order to make sure that they aren’t pointlessly tortured to death.

              And – stifling a sigh here – I didn’t suggest that every prisoner executed experiences that kind of agonising death. However, enough do that it’s a concern for me, as I’d expect it to be for most people who don’t enjoy seeing human beings die in unnecessary agony.

              Since you immediately abandoned all your other arguments at the first sign of a counter there’s not much else to say.

              1. You still haven’t told me what motivates most advocates of the death penalty if it’s not deterrence. Third time now.

                1) Stop interrogating me; 2) Scroll up.

                _

                Your anecdote is irrelevant unless your primary concern is vengeance…. most people who don’t enjoy seeing human beings die in unnecessary agony.

                Do not impute motives behind my reasoning.

                _

                Since you immediately abandoned all your other arguments at the first sign of a counter there’s not much else to say.

                Pure sophistry. I think we’re done here.

    3. I disagree about deterrence. I think logic and evidence show it is a deterrent. I generally oppose the death penalty anyway, at least as it is currently practiced in the USA. But I agree it is not the only argument for the thing.

    4. Not a deterrent: Strawman; deterrence is not a leading argument for capital punishment;

      Tosh.
      The only thing that deterrence does is to deter people from getting caught. So they’re more careful about their planning, and their clear-up. Most people who deliberately commit crimes do not expect to get caught, so the level of punishment is irrelevant.
      The non-trivial number of people who murder in “hot blood” also are not thinking of deterrence.

  10. Carl beat me to the point I was going to make: for those keen on punishment, life in an American prison is likely a fate worse than death.

    I am not keen on punishment however, and I don’t object to the death penalty on the grounds that life in prison is more cruel. The reasons Jerry laid out suffice, plus one more — the state saying “don’t kill, because it is wrong, and if you do it, we’ll kill you” just seems too hypocritical.

    1. Your last point has always struck me forcefully. I think it’s an excellent reason to do away with the death penalty.

      I edge towards Matt’s position some of the time (July 25, 2019 at 12:49 pm):

      I would support limiting the possibility of capital punishment to cases where the guilt of the accused is beyond doubt (e.g., caught red-handed), and the crime is exceedingly depraved (e.g., Charles Manson).

      But, then, I think of how many Illinois death row inmates were freed (2011) because they were exonerated (contra the GOP yesterday). And I then think further on the permanence of death and the horror of being led to the death chamber for something you didn’t do (and, of all people, you would be certain of this!).

      I think people are far too quick to dismiss the cruelty of capital punishment. It is truly a relic of our benighted pass.

      If someone is still alive, you can at least free them, clear their name, and perhaps compensate them in some way.

      1. Are the data on falsely-convicted death row inmates available – specifically, what pct? Is the rate of false convictions going down — AFAICT, a lot of these clearings are DNA-based & of old cases? Is my proposal of reserving the death penalty for ‘no-doubt’ feasible, or are there never any ‘no-doubt’ cases? (That’s an honest question.)

        1. The percentage is irrelevant. If one person is wrongly executed in a hundred years, that is one too many. How would you feel if it were you, innocent, and on death row?

          1. No, quantifying is essential to addressing any problem or issue; emotional reasoning is not sufficient.

            No justice system will be flawless. Granted, execution is irreversible, but wrongly incarcerating someone for years or for life is also quite bad. The only guaranteed way to avoid that is also what you propose: not convict or incarcerate anyone.

            1. There’s a fundamental difference. Convictions or incarceration can be reversed if the conviction was later found to be in error. But if the guy’s been executed, what ya gonna do? Dig them up?

              Okay – personally, I would have less objection to the death penalty if it were reserved solely for the worst cases where there was no possible doubt about premeditation, that the murder had been planned in advance, and the identity of the killer was established beyond all possible doubt. In other words, every possible doubt was interpreted with maximum favour to the defendant.

              But this would mean that very many convictions could not possibly carry the death penalty.

              cr

      2. The tu quoque argument is not as strong as it first looks. There have been cases of people keeping others prisoner,sometimes for years. Can we not imprison the imprisoners? And of course fines are common for theft. Or more abstractly, law is force. We have laws against the use of force don’t we?

    2. “the state saying “don’t kill, because it is wrong, and if you do it, we’ll kill you” just seems too hypocritical.”

      The problem with using the death penalty is that you can no longer say that killing some one is never a good way to solve a problem. You are using killing to solve a problem. You are claiming that is the right thing to do in certain circumstances.

      From that point on, it is just an argument about what those certain circumstances are. There is no way to objectively define the correct conditions for executing someone, and it becomes a matter of opinion. That opens the door to the possibility of abusing it – maybe not at first, but over time. The last lynching in the USA was just 38 years ago, in Alabama.

      The best choice is to slam the door shut, lock it, and throw away the key.

      1. The general understanding in most democracies is that justice and punishment is deferred to the state. Allowing citizens to kill one another is certainly no way to go as it would end in anarchy and the victims would not have faced an ordered legal process. This is not hypocritical, it is a matter of practicality.

        1. Excellent point and more than a practicality. Individuals transferring their right (= power) to the state is the theoretical basis of the modern state and can be found in Hobbes, Locke, and Spinoza.

    1. If he were stupid enough to say it, that would pretty much disbar him from being extradited to the USA from Britain or Sweden, or anywhere in the EU.
      Whether Trump is that stupid … sorry, the real question is if his minders are quick enough with the gag. Or the remote-controlled cattle-prod up the jacksie. My comments above about the irrelevance of deterrence also apply to the Tangerine Shitgibbon.
      The speelung-choker suggests that “Shitgibbon” should be “Shibboleth” – that spell checker has some really Zen moments.

      1. There is so much heavy pounding on Trump. I love seeing someone wield the stiletto:

        …the real question is if his minders are quick enough with the gag…

  11. It’s not true that the US government hasn’t executed anyone since 2003. Obama ordered the execution of Anwar al-Alawki and his 16 year old son, both US citizens, in 2011. This was done without any due process. (There have been others as well.)

    1. Yes, but that’s not exactly the same situation. That was a targeted drone strike. Granted, he was ordered to be killed by the President, and I don’t think that was a good thing to do, but we’re talking about capital punishment here after a trial.

      1. Surely that the executions of al-Alawki and his (minor!) son were performed without due process or a trial makes it even more immoral. I don’t see how the method of execution makes a difference.

        1. That is is worse makes it more easily distinguishable from the judicial case. Jerry’s point is that it is distinguishable. You are now arguing against your own conflation of the two.

          I agree with you on the morality here though.

        2. Well, I think the cases are not especially comparable since, in effect, the United States is at war with certain non-state groups. The rules of war apply more accurately than the rules of the US justice system. The concern in the case of drone strikes should be, just how good the intelligence is when choosing targets and weapons. Collateral damage in war is certainly not desirable, but it is expected.

            1. Is the World Trade Center a war zone? How about various apartments in Europe where terrorist acts have been planned? Was bin Laden’s capture and killing murder? Terrorism is a diffuse enemy requiring amended strategies. Murder means unlawful premeditated killing. In this case, if the intelligence is good, murder is the wrong term to use. It would fall under a nations right to self defense.

    2. … the execution of Anwar al-Alawki [sic] …

      Had al-Awlaki come to the US and submitted himself to the jurisdiction of the US justice system, I’m sure he would have received all the process due any US citizen (or anyone else within our borders).

      Assuming for the sake of argument that al-Awlaki was the terrorist the United States government claimed him to be, how do you think the matter should have been handled?

        1. In a perfect world maybe, but this isn’t that. The fact he was an American is beside the point – an enemy in the field is fair game. And yes, mistakes are often made, that’s the nature of war. There is a difference between war (declared or not) and criminal justice. I’m not a big fan of much Obama foreign policy, but I salute him on this one.

        2. Sure, capture and rendition would be the optimal solution, but how many US GIs’ lives are you willing to risk to accomplish that mission. And wouldn’t such a mission likely put at risk even more civilian lives than a drone strike? Also, how many innocent civilian lives are you willing to put at risk from a terrorist attack the target might facilitate while awaiting the opportunity to conduct a capture-and-rendition mission?

          All the US government can do is act on the best available information. That such information may be imperfect doesn’t make it “hupothetical.”

          I find there are no facile answers to such questions.

          1. but how many US GIs’ lives are you willing to risk to accomplish that mission.

            Have you never heard of mercenaries? Or, for that matter, plausible deniability?

    3. This is a false equivalence.

      The debate is about the judicial death penalty, applied through the court system. Not about military actions (which is what the proponents of drone strikes would claim them to be). Most non-death-penalty countries have killed people via their soldiers, too.

      As a parallel, the ongoing existence of Guantanamo can’t be used to invalidate the right to no imprisonment without trial. Breaches of the law don’t invalidate the law.

      (For the record, I think both drone strikes and Guantanamo are abhorrent and probably counter-productive, but that’s a different argument).

      cr

  12. It doesn’t look like chance that countries in the developed world generally have abolished the death penalty. I wonder if there is some connection to religion, where the US is in a similar place compared to the developed world.

    I see several reasons against death penalty. It demands some members of society to become “murderers”. We don’t call it that, but they are tasked to kill someone in a methodical and planned way. This also reflects badly on such a society, and make it seem brutalised.

    It’s not a deterrent, and appears to not work to discourage crime. Another problem is that it creates a grimly ironic situation that a quick, painless death also makes the punishment swift. The sentenced person is done with it much quicker than spending life in a prison. But a painful death would be inhumane. That makes it incompatible with a modern, humanistic society. And finally, it’s final, and mistakes can never be corrected — and mistakes were made, and will be made.

  13. “I see no reason save vindictiveness to kill someone rather than letting them stay in prison for either life or for a very long time.”

    For the loved ones of murder victims, vindictiveness may well be enough, and who’s to say their opinion might not merit special consideration? As with the abortion issue, I’m inclined to defer to those most directly affected.

    In my lifetime, I’ve gone back and forth on this issue, from being strenuously opposed to capital punishment to being in favor of it, and back again. The only conclusion I can come to is this: again as with the abortion issue, anyone who thinks this is a cut-and-dried question with an easy answer isn’t paying attention.

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