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I suppose it is kind of preposterous that one imagines himself important enough to write down his opinions for others to read. Chattering superciliousness is one of the most infuriating things about academics and so-called intellectuals, generally, who feel compelled to share their thoughts. But here it goes, anyway.

The Death Penalty

The article below is taken from Berumen's monthly opinion column for the Valley Business News.

The Armchair Philosopher
by Michael Berumen

I have not followed the Scott Peterson trial very carefully. With war, famine, and people dying of genocide in Sudan, tragic as the murder of his wife and child were, the attention given to it was quite overwrought and out of proportion to its importance. Let’s face it, the media made Peterson’s trial, along with the sordid details of his life, into an entertainment spectacle, and much of the viewing public had a morbid curiosity and interest other than jurisprudence. In effect, it was one of several reality shows on television, not unlike the Apprentice or Survivor, only with the potential of an even more devastating outcome. Judging by the cheers and ebullience of those surrounding the courthouse, I gather many were gratified by the result.

Juries are not infallible, they make mistakes; even so, there is not a better system than the one we have. So I shall assume the jury’s assessment of Peterson’s guilt is correct and not second-guess them. Nevertheless, I do not think he should be put to death by the state. It’s not that I think that all human life is equally sacred, as some people do, or that I have some special capacity for forgiveness and compassion. Indeed, I would not find it especially troubling to learn that some bruiser in prison took out the likes of Charles Manson or Sirhan Sirhan. However, I remain bothered by capital punishment.

For one thing, capital punishment is not administered fairly, which is to say, impartially and equally, using the same rules when the relevant facts pertaining to a criminal act share the same, universal properties. The evidence is overwhelming that an African American accused of murder is far more likely to be sent to death row than someone of European ancestry. Moreover, someone who is affluent and able to afford a good lawyer is far less likely to be executed than someone who is poor.

Then there’s the matter of deciding guilt or innocence beyond a reasonable doubt. I think the collective wisdom of a jury is sufficient to send someone to prison, to restrict his liberty for some period of time, even for the rest of his life. However, to my mind, human judgment is insufficient to take a life, that is, other than in self defense, when we have no other rational choice. We make mistakes, and as has now been shown many times by DNA evidence or the confessions of guilt-ridden people who come forward later, the person who is consigned to death row is not always the right one. Scores of innocent people have undoubtedly been executed over the years.

Perhaps most importantly, capital punishment is an awesome, final power to give over to the state, even though it might be sanctified by the consensus of one’s peers. Power over a person’s life is the ultimate power. I am myself generally suspicious of governments, of state power, a suspicion girded by an understanding of history and of the propensity of governments to abuse their power and justify untoward means to obtain desired ends. I trust the government with certain things simply because, from a practical perspective, there is no alternative. But I do not see the benefit to society in the case of capital punishment.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, many studies have shown that capital punishment is not a deterrent to crime. The people who think it has a deterring effect are the people who probably would not contemplate murder in the first place. Statistics tell the tale. For one thing, studies have shown that states with the death penalty have a higher homicide rate than states without one. Texas, for example, executes the most people, and it still has one of the highest murder rates in the nation. Indeed, this is true in the South as a whole, where one might expect there would be greater reverence for life, given its greater predilection for moralizing and religiosity.

Then there is the economic argument. Studies have shown that the combined cost of appeals, death row confinement, and the private costs associated with death penalty cases are more costly than life imprisonment. A 1991 study indicated that the cost of appealing capital murder in Texas at $2,316,655, in contrast to $750,000 for keeping a prisoner in a maximum security cell for 40 years, a significant difference. Once again, the conventional wisdom of cocktail chatter goes down the drain.

Then there is the matter of the coarsening of society with the “eye for an eye” mentality. Steal a pizza, cut off his hand; kill someone, cut off his head. This is the ethos of a medieval culture, one similar to some cultures that we presently are attempting to enlighten with our values. Notwithstanding the fact that some who are sent to their death are contemptible monsters, and that Peterson might well be an example, there is something very brutish about the death penalty, something that seems to me to be unworthy of a civilized people. In the final analysis, I fail to see how society’s ultimate retribution brings the scales of justice into balance or how it benefits the citizenry.

I have heard it said that denouement of a murderer's execution brings a sense of peace, resolution, and justice to the survivors of the victim. It is a sad state of affairs to imagine that our contentment can only be brought about through more violence.

Some will simply say the convicted person deserves it, and that’s the end of it. Maybe so; but to paraphrase someone else, who among us is in a position to make such a final judgment and cast the first stone? If punishment is what we are after, life in a small cell strikes me as quite sufficient.