Tennessee electrocutes convicted killer

August 19, 2019 • 9:00 am

From the Nashville Scene we learn that there’s just been an execution in Tennessee (why is it always the Red States that execute people?). The details are given in this article in The Nashville Scene (click on screenshot):

The details are horrific, and nobody claims that Stephen West is completely innocent. He did have an accomplice, however, and claims that he was incited by the accomplice. But the crime, in which both killers were found complicit, was horrifying:

Stephen West has been executed in the electric chair 33 years after he was sentenced to death for the 1986 murders of Wanda Romines, 51, and her 15-year-old daughter, Sheila, near Knoxville. West, who suffered from severe mental illness, was also convicted of raping the teen, and while he confessed to that crime he maintained that his accomplice stabbed the mother and daughter to death.

The curtains opened at 7:15 on Thursday night, revealing West, who appeared to be crying, sitting in the electric chair. Warden Tony Mays asked West if he had any last words. He responded by referencing scripture.

“In the beginning, God created man,” said West, pausing as he continued to weep. “And Jesus wept. That’s all.”

After West’s final statement, members of the execution team fastened a helmet to his head and placed a shroud over his face. At 7:19, West’s body jolted upward from the chair as the first current of electricity was administered. His body returned to the chair for a matter of seconds, before rising once again with a second jolt of electricity.

West was pronounced dead at 7:27 p.m.

Give the nature of the stab wounds, it’s likely that the killing was prolonged, with some of the wounds meant to torture rather than kill. The lawyers asked for clemency, and two jurors recommended it since West appears to have been mentally ill, but that didn’t stop the electrocution.

In West’s petition for clemency, his attorneys write that then-17-year-old Ronnie Martin had tried to date Sheila Romines and was humiliated when she rejected him. They say Martin coerced West, who was 23 years old at the time, to rape Sheila before Martin stabbed the women to death. The attorneys also note that West was tried first, and that his jury never heard a tape recording of Martin admitting that he was the one who had killed the two victims. They also write that Martin threatened to have West and his then-pregnant wife killed if West didn’t keep quiet about the crimes. Martin ultimately pleaded guilty to two counts of first-degree murder and is currently serving a life sentence.

Two of the surviving jurors from West’s trial, both of whom had originally voted for the death sentence, told his attorneys they supported clemency in his case. Gov. Bill Lee announced Wednesday afternoon that he would not stop the execution.

There’s a forceful plea to end state-mandated executions in today’s New York Times written by Margaret Renkel:

Her Biblical “Thou shalt not kill” argument, which is simply a diktat without supporting arguments, doesn’t move me as much as other arguments, some of which she makes as well:

There is nothing about Mr. West’s case that would move staunch supporters of the death penalty to rethink their position, but the reasons for ending state-sanctioned murder are manifold: It fails to deter crime; it is far more expensive than life in prison without parole; it is racially biased. Perhaps most tellingly, death sentences are too often dealt to innocent people. Any one of those reasons, by itself, makes a compelling argument for ending executions altogether.

The death sentences given to innocent people is perhaps the most powerful of these arguments. You might say, “Well, we’ll give the death penalty only to people who confess, or whose guilt is absolutely certain,” but confessions can be false, and too often convictions and sentences are based on fallacious eyewitness evidence. But even beyond that, Renkl is right. The death penalty is not a deterrent, it costs more (given the lengthy appeal process) than life without parole, and (Renkl doesn’t mention this), life without parole effectively sequesters the criminal from society forever, so he poses no more danger.

Further, some cases killers can actually be rehabilitated and reformed, and in such cases, however rare, why should they be killed, or even stay in prison forever? There’s some suggestion that West might have been at least partly rehabilitated:

People who knew Mr. West said he had become a different man, and isn’t true rehabilitation justification enough for commuting his sentence to life without parole? As Tennesseans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty tweeted a few days before the execution, “When an inmate’s severe mental illness is undisputed by the state’s own doctors, what does it take to show that life without parole is the appropriate sentence?”

Remember that even convicted killers like Anders Breivik in Norway, who killed 77 people, get a maximum sentence of only 21 years, and then are reviewed to see if they’ve changed enough to mandate parole.

Further, West appears to have been mentally ill, perhaps severely. That may have contributed to his crime. If he couldn’t help himself (and, in fact, no criminals can), what is achieved by punishment that is certainly retributive? Retributive punishment for crimes that were inevitable—for which the criminal had no choice—makes little sense to me. Yes, it may satisfy the blood lust of the victims’ friends and family, but that caters to our lowest and most primitive emotions.

From the Nashville Scene:

Prison officials have been treating West for severe mental illness for years, giving him powerful antipsychotic drugs that one psychiatrist described in a court filing as “chemical straitjackets.” In an extensive 2002 psychiatric evaluation, Dr. Richard Dudley writes that, in his opinion, West “was suffering from a mental disorder” at the time of the killings that sent him to death row. Dudley also says West’s “mental disorder was of the type that would have been relevant to his defense during the guilt phase of his trial and also relevant as mitigation during the penalty phase of his trial.” West’s mental health was not discussed during his trial.

I should add that electrocution is a particularly barbaric way to kill someone. Yes, if West did torture, rape, and stab the women, his own killings were far more barbaric. But do we have to be as inhumane as those we execute?

Here are some data that Renkl links to in her piece:

Public opinion in the U.S. appears to be against the death penalty:

Finally, out of all the First World countries on the planet, only the U.S. and Japan have the death penalty and use it (figure from Wikipedia):

Is it possible that all of Europe, Canada, Australia, Argentina, Colombia, and many other countries don’t see something that America does? Possibly, but I highly doubt it. We won’t regulate guns, and we execute people. Both bespeak a primitive mentality that needs to be changed.

90 thoughts on “Tennessee electrocutes convicted killer

  1. “why is it always the Red States that execute people?)”

    One reason besides the obvious laws is the jury – they live in that state.

    I think this question is coupled to other questions:

    Do red states have a preponderance of mental illness? Violent crime? Do victims of such crimes in red states have families whose legal team pursued the death penalty instead of alternatives?

    1. My impression, and I stress impression, is that the Red Tribe loves “tough love” and sternness. They seem to believe in a patriarchal and authoritarian rule. Coming across as weak or soft is a tough sell and that’s why the decision makers don’t want to die on that hill. There’s nothing to gain politically. Nobody applauds them for being merciful on “evil people”.

  2. It is, of course, the religious-right, pro-Trump states that continue to execute prisoners, promoted by the same people who claim to be holier than everyone else and paragons of virtue. The same ones who claim that society has deteriorated because of a lack of prayer in schools and in public affairs, yet use the bible to justify barbaric practices such as this.

    On top of the dubious arguments in its favor and likelihood of executing innocent people, the method itself is cruel and ghastly: none of the available methods are pain-free, especially the ones done with drugs. There is no moral justification for state-sanctioned executions.

    1. I agree with your main point, however, I’ve never been able to figure out why there are not methods that are pain free. Whenever you have surgery, you are put under by an anesthesiologist while counting backwards. No pain involved with that. If the drip was continued and accelerated, I’m pretty sure breathing would stop without so much as a whimper. Also, our pets are put down peacefully by veterinarians. Not that I advocate for the death penalty, I just am baffled by the practical problem of finding humane methods.

    2. It is, of course, the religious-right, pro-Trump states that continue to execute prisoners, promoted by the same people who claim to be holier than everyone else and paragons of virtue.

      Thirty states have the death penalty. Included is my home state of California, which Hillary Clinton won in 2016 by four million votes. That same year, Prop 62, seeking to repeal the death penalty, failed by nearly a million votes.

      1. Predictably, relevant information is completely omitted from your post, for example the fact that the last execution in California took place thirteen years ago.

        Since 1972, 13 people in California have been executed. By comparison, 550 people in Texas have been executed in a similar timeframe.

          1. Chop chop, as the French revolutionaries used to say. You’ve got a long way to go before you catch up with those red states.

            1. And now we have a moratorium on executions imposed by our arrogant governor who, like all regressive leftists, believes he is morally and intellectually superior to hoi polloi, with a divine right to ignore their wishes.

    3. Firing squads are probably the least painful way to execute someone, since with accurate shooting death is nearly instantaneous. Probably firing squads are not used for several reasons: 1) Bloody and messy, so the reality of slaughtering someone is clear to the participants and public. 2) Participants who do the killing can suffer psychological problems.

      1. But with firing squads isn’t it standard practice that half of the squad is issued blanks, so know one really knows who fires the fatal shots.?

      2. The least painful way would be inhalation of a gas that’s inert in the body. I can testify from multiple personal experiences (as a kid!) that breathing helium has no noticeable effect besides a squeaky voice until you suddenly wake up on the floor. The transition from alertness to unconsciousness is instantaneous. If you kept breathing it, you just wouldn’t wake up.

        And to avoid the squeaky voice, they could use nitrogen. 😛

      3. Physically that may be true (but who knows?). Mentally, knowing that you’re going to die by bullet would be a torment in itself. Personally I would much rather die by going to sleep permanently.

        Related point: when they say people “died peacefully in their sleep” how do they know? Were they there? Maybe they sat upright in the most terrible paint hey ever felt and then collapsed dead in their beds.

        Inquiring minds want to know.

    1. Yes, I think that is a very important point.

      We should accept that judicial killing is motivated purely from a sense of outrage & a desire for societal revenge. But it is not applied with any subtlety whatsoever – there is no allowance for nuance of mitigating circumstances.

  3. On April 15, 1920, two men, Frederick Parmenter and Alessandro Berardelli, were robbed and murdered in Braintree, Massachusetts. The two men charged with the murder, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, were Italian immigrants and followers of Luigi Galleani, an Italian anarchist.

    Before Sacco and Vanzetti were tried for the murders, Vanzetti was tried and convicted of a separate robbery, despite the testimony of 16 witnesses who provided an alibi for him. Heavy security was put in place for the murder trial, due to fears that other anarchists might try to bomb the courthouse.

    The prosecution presented evidence that one of the four bullets retrieved from Berardelli’s body matched a gun owned by Sacco, though witnesses testified that they saw one man shoot Berardelli four times, suggesting that all four bullets should have come from the same gun. Defense witnesses testified that they were having lunch with Sacco at the time of the robbery and murder, and others said that Vanzetti had been selling fish at that time. When Sacco and Vanzetti were convicted of first-degree murder, a capital crime, demonstrations were held in cities throughout the United States, Europe and South America. Supporters believed that the men had been convicted because of their anarchist beliefs.

    In 1925, Celestino Madeiros, an ex-convict awaiting trial for a different murder, confessed to committing the Braintree murders. Lawyers for Sacco and Vanzetti presented an appeal to Massachusetts’ highest court, the Supreme Judicial Court, but it was denied. In denying the appeal, the court said, “It is not imperative that a new trial be granted even though the evidence is newly discovered and, if presented to a jury, would justify a different verdict.” In 1927, after the appeal had been denied, Judge Webster Thayer sentenced the two men to death.

    The governor denied clemency after a commission he had formed declared that the trial had been fair. Madeiros (who had been convicted of a separate murder), Sacco, and Vanzetti were executed on August 23, 1927. The following day, protesters demonstrated around the world. Over 10,000 people in Boston viewed Sacco and Vanzetti in open caskets over two days. Fifty years later, then-Governor Michael S. Dukakis declared August 23, 1977 Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti Memorial Day. His proclamation called upon all “to reflect upon these tragic events, and draw from their historic lessons the resolve to prevent the forces of intolerance, fear, and hatred from ever again uniting to overcome the rationality, wisdom, and fairness to which our legal system aspires.” Governor Dukakis issued this proclamation in English and Italian.

    The last executions to take place in Massachusetts were Phillip Bellino and Edward Gertson on May 9, 1947 for the murder of Robert William. Both defendants were electrocuted at Charlestown State Prison.

    In total, there have been 345 executions in Massachusetts, including 26 for witchcraft. Nineteen of those executed for witchcraft were hanged in Salem in 1692 as a result of the infamous Salem Witch Trials.

    John J. Fitzgerald

  4. Nobody caught on to the fact that the commandments can be weaseled out of yet? It’s only been like 3000 years or something.

    1. Even easier in the original, from what I have been told – I understand it actually says “Do not murder”, which is ethically vacuous, as murder is just a synonym for “unjustified killing”.

  5. …a primitive mentality that needs to be changed.

    There are a number of things that make the U.S. unique. One that I think could be a significant cause of retributive punishment is our worship of individualism which is reinforced by the love of our Horatio Alger concept of economics. A lot of people call themselves Ayn Randian libertarians. There is a tradition of viewing humans as morally responsible for their fate. As Trump says – give me your poor, your tired, but only if they can stand on their own two feet.

  6. Ours is a vindictive culture. We like to punish. We like violent solutions, and we don’t believe in redemption. Obviously I don’t mean everyone, just a sizable portion of the population. I wonder if it has to do, at least in part, with our Puritan ancestors.

  7. How is it that Ronnie Martin got life in prison, while Stephen West got the death penalty?

    Was West somehow worse than Martin? I have a feeling it was about who admitted to what, which is a terrible way to decide who dies and who doesn’t.

    The inconsistent application of the death penalty is right there in this case.

  8. “The death sentences given to innocent people is perhaps the most powerful of these arguments.”

    Interesting. Though I’m against the death penalty, I’ve always found that to be among the weakest, least compelling of the arguments.

    It seems to rest upon the idea that “if we can’t have perfect certainty that no innocent person will be killed, then we shouldn’t do X.”

    But we accept such casualties in many different areas. Why the exception for the death penalty?

    In deploying a police force we can’t be certain no innocent person will be killed – we know there will be such instances. Same goes for going to war. Or even just manufacturing and driving cars. We know that part of the cost will be the harm to or death of some innocent person (e.g even a pedestrian who has never driven a car can be killed by a driver).

    But as with everything in life, we weigh the balances and say “ok, the results aren’t doing to be perfect, and in fact some of the results will be inevitably tragic. But…we either can’t help that not being perfect, or we decide the benefits outweigh the costs.

    Now someone can certainly make the case that the numbers of innocent people executed are a large enough percentage that the method just can’t be seen as *reliable enough* to continue. But the mere premise that *some* innocent person or persons may end up executed doesn’t in of itself seem to be good enough, in light of the way we accept these compromises elsewhere.

    Lacking evidence (and perhaps it isn’t lacking) that we know a substantial percentage of the executed were innocent of the crime, it seems to me wiser to concentrate on the other, stronger arguments against the death penalty. For instance how it doesn’t seem to deter. And especially how it seems ethically untenable.

    If we say killing is wrong, and we want to reduce the prevalence of people killing other people, what makes more sense:

    1. Promote the desire to NOT KILL people. That is to say “We hate killing so much that we will not even kill a murderer once we have contained him.


    2. We should not want to kill people, and anyone who violates this, we should want to kill.

    Which seems prima facie more likely to actually reduce the prevalence of the desire to kill in a community, rather than maintain it as justified? The answer at least seems pretty obvious. And it seems studies indicate societies that execute are,at the very least, not less violent…and often more violent.

    There are of course other arguments against the death penalty too, as we know.

    1. I meant to add:

      I don’t see much difference between the worry that “some innocent person may be executed” vs “some innocent person may spend his life in prison.” Both seem awfully severe consequences of “getting it wrong.”

      One could make the case that at least if someone is sentenced to life in prison there remains the possibility of being vindicated and set free. Not an unreasonable argument. Though, how often does that actually happen and even so it still allows for plenty of people who will end up imprisoned for life who are not vindicated. So even imprisoning people doesn’t seem to get around avoiding instances of extreme injustice.

      1. Very thoughtful, Vaal. I need to chew on it a bit as my personal objection to the DP is that we kill people who are not guilty of the crime. While I mull it over (seriously, I hadn’t looked at it in the way you argue before), I’ve a question for you – I get your argument that we accept risk in other circumstances, but why wouldn’t it be ok to say in this special case we won’t accept the risk? That solves the problem of killing innocents and isn’t it encompassed by your example in #1 above?

          1. Oh sorry, I was unclear. I don’t mean this murderer, I meant the Death Penalty as a special case of “things which can have bad outcomes but we accept the risk anyway” – a paraphrase of what Vaal wrote above. I didn’t mean a specific legal case. My apologies.

            1. Right, but of all the things for which we accept the risk of innocents getting killed — indeed where the only ones killed are innocents — why proceed with unique caution wrt capital punishment?

        1. You can always make the argument for a special case. But we have to have an argument or reason why it’s a special case, otherwise we are being inconstant and just special pleading. We can’t just declare it. If we did, we open the floodgates to anyone who wants to promote some plan without having any particular argument for it, but wants to consider it a special case where they needn’t reason consistently.

          So if you think it’s a special case and you can argue why while avoiding the inconsistencies I’ve mentioned, I’m all ears.

          1. Got to run so I can’t give an answer you deserve. I’ll only say that we can make any special case we want – we don’t need to justify if at all. We have agency (if not free will ;-))

            It just occurred…in what way could you justify your own position in #1 above? Perhaps we could use THAT justification for this being a “special case”.

            Late already. thnx for the discussion

      2. Being executed for a crime one didn’t do is probably the most horrific injustice I can imagine – and one that can never, ever be remedied. And we know it happens – as in this case.

        I think it’s the strongest argument against the death penalty.

        All other injustices are potentially capable of being remedied. This one is an injustice perpetrated by the ‘justice’ system itself, and it makes a mockery of ‘justice’.


      3. I oppose the use of mostly-lethal weapons by police forces for much the same reasons, myself. Tasers held so much promise, but their development doesn’t seem to have gone very far – but I am by far not an expert here.

        1. UK Police operated Tasers are proving very effective, but it is in a UK context where guns are rare & police are forced to patrol solo due to cutbacks [effing politicians]. I read that in 83% of cases where a police Taser was displayed immediate submission ensued without the need to use the thing. It takes a lot of individual training – especially on when & how to deploy a Taser [including the legalities] rather than the UK cops main weapons of chat, listening & the highly effective baton.

          I can see how it might be less use in a US situation where it provides only one [or some models two shots] ‘shot’ out to 10 yards – possibly if you’re a cop with an array of weapons already it’s just a confusing extra option, but I’d be guessing about that. If a non-violent suspect bolts for a fence do you deploy a Taser or is that overstepping? I can imagine more useless court cases questioning police overreach. Haven’t researched Taser effectiveness pros/cons US-style.

          1. They are, reputedly, very effective for persuading captive suspects to stop struggling, and on occasion for eliciting information. Not that the police would ever use them for such purposes, of course. [/cynicism]


          2. You’re right to analyze the social context of the technology (narrowly construed). But I also wonder about the range you mentioned, for example – since they require a wire the range is limited. Research *here* might be interesting – and I wonder what is being done.

            (And how to make them less dangerous if used repeatedly, and how to avoid more dangers to hearts, etc.)

    2. The same holds for going to war. There will be civilian casualties as well as ‘friendly fire’ incidents.

      When extrapolated, the ‘risk to innocents’ argument leads to complete paralysis.

    3. I think you make a very forceful point. If we could, for the sake of argument, be 100% sure as to guilt I’d still be against the death penalty. I think the argument has nothing to do with certainty of guilt and everything to do with the certainty that by killing citizens–at least, by killing those that are not an immediate threat for who only lethal force will suffice–we are tacitly endorsing murder. Killing someone harms the victim (of course). It also harms the family, friends, and the wider society, by making that society a more brital place.
      I dont see how the state’s doing this avoids the same path. Unnecessary killing of people harms all of us. Those who pay the taxes of the hangman, those who cheer outside when it happens.
      Its not alone. When America sanctioned torture it harmed, not only its international reputation as the good guys (which it did) and not only because totrute is useless as an investigative tool (it is) and a recruiter of its enemies (also true).
      Torture made America a worse place. A place where humans are not some sort of special limit to the will and deserving of dignity, even though they are despicable.

    4. Quite so. It is true that the death penalty is a deterrent – for those executed who would otherwise go on to murder again.

      I’m against the death penalty, and even lengthy sentences, in general. I would prefer more effort to be put into rehabilitation. But I consider that the most egregious cases could merit the death penalty, but nothing like the numbers on death row or executed in the USA.

    5. I don’t think it’s the most forceful argument, but it has force nonetheless.

      Comparing it to the safety compromises we have to make in other areas, eg. in driving a car, or having a police force, doesn’t quite hold up.

      When we sentence someone to death we don’t just take them out of commission in the blink of an eye, as happens in a car accident or a police shooting.
      We sequester them in a prison for years beforehand, tell everyone involved – including their families and friends – that they are heinously guilty, make them languish in a cell even though they’ve done nothing wrong, push them through the legal wringer of appeals, etc…and then they are executed by the state. Their last thoughts will be ‘I am innocent, and I am dying while the whole world believes otherwise’. Nothing comparable happens in your examples.

      Furthermore, the compromises we make in the examples you give seem reasonable precisely because their alternatives are so unthinkable: eg. living without automobiles, living without a police force, etc.
      However, the alternative to executing innocent people is simply not to execute people. That’s not unreasonable. There is no convincing evidence that we would be giving up anything major in embracing such an alternative, certainly not to the extent that we would if we disbanded the police force or banned cars from the roads…
      There are plenty of countries that don’t execute people – there are rather fewer countries that don’t have police forces or automobiles.

      Finally, there is an implicit acceptance that car accidents are dangerous, random events. So are police calls, where anything can happen. Ditto, battlefields.
      We don’t accept that the same is true of court cases.
      We don’t accept, and I’d argue we shouldn’t accept, that a court case imposing the death penalty can be approached with the same ‘fuck it, shit happens’ attitude we have when we think about a car dinging a lorry at a crossroads.
      Court cases are meant to be the apotheosis of human rigour and scrupulousness, and an implicit rejection of the caprice which we face when we get in a car or get into a fight and the cops turn up. Courts of law are meant to be(‘meant to be’ being the operative words) places where we escape that kind of random chaos.

      1. Good points. I was considering an answer to try and lay out these same points, but you’ve saved me the time and you write better than me too.

      2. “Their last thoughts will be ‘I am innocent, and I am dying while the whole world believes otherwise’. Nothing comparable happens in your examples.”

        I don’t see that this makes a distinction of difference.

        Sure such thoughts would be terrible to have. But isn’t being an innocent person shot to death, or paralyzed for life from a police gunshot (or the same from a car) a horrible thing too? Aren’t they all tragic things to happen to innocent people? So I don’t really see how the specific detail you draw out actually undermines the main point I made, which is that we accept in other areas that a “solution” to meet one need – e.g. transportation, policing, going to war etc – will be done under the knowledge mistakes will happen and innocent people will inevitably be caught up by mistake.

        Why then should an exception be made for the death penalty. “because innocent people may also be killed, and it will be really bad psychologically for all involved” doesn’t really seem to distinguish it from the tragedies that arise from our other compromises.

        “Furthermore, the compromises we make in the examples you give seem reasonable precisely because their alternatives are so unthinkable: eg. living without automobiles, living without a police force, etc.
        However, the alternative to executing innocent people is simply not to execute people. That’s not unreasonable.”

        Exactly. I agree. But that of course therefore isn’t addressing the *specific* argument in question against the death penalty. We are zeroing in on whether the principle “innocent people may be executed along with the guilty” is ITSELF a strong argument. It does not seem to be. The rest of what you wrote also went off in to a direction I agree with, and unfortunately became missing the point of the argument under question.


  9. Is there a link to that Lake Research poll?

    Lake Research Partners is in any case a terribly biased operation that describes itself as “a firm of true believers – each one of us feels privileged to work with our clients to advance progressive ideals….”

    All reputable polling houses find that a majority of Americans support the death penalty. For example:


  10. If the state only executed those for whom guilt was 100% certain then the punishment would be partly determined by the evidence. But isn’t guilt or innocence determined by the evidence while the punishment is based on the nature of the crime?

    1. Let me ask you then – would you be in favour of executing someone for a horrific mass murder when the evidence was purely circumstantial and there is some doubt that they were the perpetrator?


  11. I’m not 100% against the death penalty, but I tend to be against the way it’s applied in most cases. If someone is a violent criminal, their guilt is as close to undeniable as is humnanly possible and their likelyhood of rehabilitation is minimal (i.e. if they were ever released they would remain a danger to the public) then I think there is an argument for the death penalty. But 33 years on death row before being executed is utter BS – no wonder it’s more expensive than life without parole if the sentence is only carried out after they’ve spent decades behind bars and exhaused multiple appeals before it is carried out. Living 33 years with a death sentence over you is, in my mind, the definition of cruel and unusual punishment.

    I support the death penalty for people like Anders Breivik, Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy and the like – undeniable guilt, incapable of release and the sort of character that would revel in their notoriety in prison. In those sort of cases it’s justifiable, but it should be carried out quickly and humanely. I realize there’s a slight fly in the ointment, in that it’s impossible to find a dividing line between those who should be executed and those who perhaps shouldn’t. If most people could agree on a Ted Bundy or Charles Manson, then what about someone slightly less eggregious? Some people might think that someone who never kills but is a compulsive thief or sex offender is unable to be fully rehabilitated should be executed. I wouldn’t go so far, but it does give me pause regarding the death penalty.

    1. Have you read up on Breivik’s personal history? The way his mother mentally abused him was horrific and I’d have been surprised if he hadn’t grown up twisted.

      I can’t say I have a firm opinion either way on the death penalty despite feeling very uneasy about anyone being killed in such a planned and deliberate fashion.

    2. I think if you really accept what science and philosophy say about the world then you accept that determinism constrained the actions of everyone on death row, including people like Brevik.

      You can’t be a little bit lacking in free-will. You either have it or you don’t, and since free-will makes so little sense either scientifically or conceptually I think we don’t have it.

      Right now we dole out portions of determinism in a ridiculous, piecemeal, arbitrary way; eg. the behaviour of a criminal with a brain tumour was a bit determined, but the behaviour of a criminal without a brain tumour was hardly determined at all. The criminal with the tumour has, say, only 34% free-will. The person without, has, say, 98% free-will. This sounds ridiculous, but it’s essentially how the justice system operates.

      This isn’t logically or morally sustainable; eventually we’re going to have to accept that behaviour is constrained by the nature of physics; whether someone has a brain tumour or not is irrelevant, as is their upbringing. Something much deeper and more fundamental has its hand on the tiller.

      1. This is related to my proposal to my ethics colleagues from years ago in our FW course – perhaps an idea of *partial* or *degrees* of responsibility, based on *how* “reasons responsiveness” was created and what exists now, etc.

        The answer was: “that requires more philosophy of mind!” My rejoinder was: yes, and?

  12. I’m sceptical about that public approval table. I believe a slight majority is in favour of capital punishment, although that majority is shrinking pretty rapidly.

    1. That public approval table is built on a telephone poll crafted by DPIC & their pollsters Lake Research Partners. LRP will not work with clients who [for example] are ‘pro-life.’

      HERE’S A PDF detailing the questions asked in 2010 & giving a thorough breakdown of the results. As you can see these questions are designed by Joe College who seems to have no understanding that questions need to be ultra simple, especially on the ‘phone. One needs to aim for a literacy, logic & complexity level of question that can be understood by a typical 10 year old [IMO]. And there’s a fair few questions! Very bad design – perhaps intentional.

      In the 2010 poll the public are not asked straight off the bat if they are pro or con on the execution of some murderers. Instead the pollsters lead the pollees[??] by the nose through a string of questions designed to lay out all the alternatives & also to point out the drawbacks of execution. As Matt says at #12 this is an obviously biased methodology.

      BUT it is interesting that in principle it’s possible to educate/brainwash so many pollees on the phone. By asking the ‘right’ questions a pollee can be drawn away from a knee jerk view that they’ve cherished for years [though I expect it’s a short term effect].

      1. The damage, of course, is the effect on the larger population when they hear the results of the poll and take them seriously.

      2. When I worked in market research, we’d tell the client, ‘we can get you the answer — or the answer you want.’ 😉 The first thing I notice in that LGR poll is they didn’t star-rotate the death penalty questions — a deliberate attempt to lead the respondent to the desired response.

  13. Tablet magazine has an interesting discussion of Simone de Beauvoir’s views on precisely this subject, stimulated by the execution of pro-Nazi collaborateurs after the end of WWII. It is at:

    An excerpt: “It is perhaps necessary, Beauvoir accepted, that criminals be punished through a process guided by abstract norms and technical expertise, given that the alternative is mob violence. But in our hearts, we know that what we want from the judicial process is not the affirmation of abstract principles but revenge. We want the perpetrator to suffer as much as the victim; we want, as Moses knew, an eye for an eye. Revenge is therefore the psychological foundation of justice, the hidden ressentiment behind our principles.”

    1. Nietzsche (who she read, I’d guess) makes the same point. But is it *true*? And how true? For all punishments? And how does one tell if it is? And so what?

      (I have answers to all of these – I actually think that punishment is in the limit removable.)

  14. I don’t think that any sane person is beyond rehabilitation. Capital punishment seems to me to be retribution and nothing more. I don’t believe retribution should be an acceptable motive for a civilised society.

    Inflicting capital punishment on people who are not sane is unconscionable.

    The fifth commandment tells the Israelites not to kill any other members of their tribe. The rest of humanity is fair game, as is shown by the many succeeding verses where the Lord instructs his people to commit genocide. I would like to think that we’ve moved on a bit in the subsequent three millennia or so.

      1. Are you suggesting they are sane? And are you sure they can never be rehabilitated? Even if you are right that they are ‘sane’ and incapable of rehabilitation, why do those considerations justify their judicial murder?

        1. Criminal psychopaths are legally sane: they possess mens rea; that is, they know their acts are criminal, they just don’t care.

          The clinical evidence overwhelmingly indicates that psychopathy is a permanent condition for which there is no remedy.

          Psychopaths (who, with sociopaths, comprise a large portion, perhaps even nearly all, of the criminals subject to capital punishment) thus do not fit into your bifurcation of all criminals as either insane or rehabilitatable.


          …why do those considerations justify their judicial murder?

          I believe that we as a society are healthier when certain individuals are no longer around. They lack all redeeming human qualities, and are but monsters in human form.

          NB: lawful execution is not ‘murder’, which, by definition, is extrajudicial.

          1. *Some* psychopaths may not be rehabilititable – there are, AIUI, at least two major subgroups identifiable in neuroimaging type studies. And why stop at criminals, surely “removal” of pre-criminals is even more improving of social health?

            I was reminded of the Joyce Carol Oates novel about a fictional competitor of Edison – his electric bed sounded too comfortable when compared to the electric chair.

            1. … surely “removal” of pre-criminals is even more improving of social health?

              We already have a protocol known by the police code, “5150”, whereby someone who expresses an intent to harm others or themselves may be detained indefinitely.

              Connor Betts, the Dayton, OH mass shooter, was clearly psychopathic and a threat. As a teenager, he’d strangled his sister’s friend, and posted a list of all the boys he planned on killing and all the girls he planned on raping. After a year of therapy, Betts was released back into society.

              Advances in brain- and behavioral science resoundingly disprove the concept of tabula rasa. Yet that is the guiding principle behind our public mental health system, the hopes for wide scale rehabilitation of criminals, and the pipe dream of ‘restorative justice.’

              1. It is precisely because the brain has structure that rehabilitation, education, early screening is possible – metaphorically, there is something to work with. Unlike, say, someone (so to speak -there is no “one” there, really) who is anencephalic.

              2. Psychopathic traits are observable in children as young as two years old. Sociopathy, understood to be more caused by environment, a little later but not much.

                No means exist to make an adult psychopath feel remorse or empathize with others.

  15. Let me see, if I read this aright, the guy who probably DIDN’T do it got executed, while the guy who did (and confessed) got life.

    About par for the course I guess [/cynicism]


    1. He claims he only raped the fifteen-year-old before standing by idly while his accomplice murdered her and her mom.

      Instead of executing him, they could’ve sent in Loretta Ross to ‘splain how raping and murdering is not nice, then set him free.

      1. Yet the guy who actually *did* do it only got life imprisonment. Explain that.

        Oh yeah, plea deal. Just another way plea deals make a mockery of justice, whichever side of the line you’re on.


  16. Shouldn’t the headline to this page read “Tennessee executes convicted man who probably didn’t do it”?


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