Thursday, September 1, 2011

Weak Argument Against the Death Penalty

One of the weaker arguments against the death penalty is that it is applied unfairly, therefore it should be abolished. This is the line taken in a New York Times editorial on the military version of the death penalty. Here's the crux of the argument.
Minority service members are more than twice as likely as whites — after accounting for the crimes’ circumstances and the victims’ race — to be sentenced to death, according to a forthcoming study co-written by David Baldus, an eminent death-penalty scholar, who died in June.

The analysis is so disturbing because the military has made sustained, often successful efforts to rid its ranks of discrimination. But even with this record, its failure to apply the death penalty fairly is more proof that capital punishment cannot be free of racism’s taint. It is capricious, barbaric and discriminatory, and should be abolished.

First of all, this type of study proves nothing. It is impossible to say with certainty that a white service member would not have gotten the death penalty in the cases where a minority received it, because a white person was not on trial. We are dealing with hypotheticals. Second, it is quite possible that there are factors more important than supposed racial bias that influenced the death sentences, and that they involve the individual circumstances of each case. And most importantly, even if minorities are more likely to get the death penalty because of racism, that doesn't mean we have to throw out the death penalty. Why not take measures to ensure that sentences are fair and not based on a defendant's race? In other words, why not fix the military death penalty rather than eliminate it?

If we have something that works or is beneficial but is tainted in its operation by racism, we don't just scrap it. We fix it. For example, if a corporation discriminates against minority workers we don't close it down. We bring lawsuits and legal judgments which force it to alter its practices. Now you can certainly argue that the death penalty doesn't work and isn't beneficial, but that's a different argument. Saying we should simply do away with the military death penalty because some statistics correlate with apparent racial bias is a weak argument, the kind made by those already biased against the penalty and looking for any plausible excuse to do away with it.


  1. To be fair, there are some truths in the editorial, for example, "The last military execution was in 1961," and "Published: August 31, 2011."

    I will not rest until the death penalty is carried out on recidivist drunk drivers and attempted murderers.

  2. LOL. That article was an epic fail of reasoning. I highly doubt that they succeeded in "accounting for the crimes’ circumstances." That sounds really hard to do objectively.

    Re: Capital

    He also wrote "The number of capital cases in the military system is small: of 105 cases in which the death penalty might have been applied between 1984 — when the military revamped its death penalty process — and 2005, 15 defendants were sentenced to death."

    The distinction is between being sentenced to death, and actually being executed. While they haven't actually executed anyone since 1961, the study is based on semi-recent convictions.

  3. I think the best argument in opposition to the death penalty is the risk/possibility of executing innocent people. I am not convinced by the argument, but I also don't have a good rebuttal.

  4. As a deterrent to murder, the death penalty saves some innocent people from being murdered. This is an advantage that can be weighed against the disadvantage of executing an innocent person.

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