The Death Penalty
Transcripts of three lectures concerned with capital punishment.
The Violin and the Death
Penalty - about the Suarez case wherein a police officer was shot
Death Penalty For Cop Killers -
about the notion that those who kill police officers (and members of
certain other privileged
groups) deserve the death penalty.
3. The Death Penalty - transcript below.
The Death Penalty
The comments that follow have been inspired by a piece written by Dennis
Prager. His arguments are the ones that are commonly put forward in support of
But if you look at these arguments closely, they all fail.
1. One Dead Innocent is the Same as any Other
According to Dennis, "One of the most common, and surely the most
persuasive, arguments against capital punishment is that the state may execute
an innocent person."
But, Dennis continues, if those who are against capital punishment are so
concerned about innocent individuals, then why are they not making a fuss about
social policy which brings about the death of innocent individuals - such as car
accidents. Here are his words.
"First of all, there is almost no major social good that does not lead to
the death of innocent individuals. Over a million innocent people have been
killed and maimed in car accidents. Would this argue for the banning of
In other words, why make such a fuss about the death penalty when so few
innocents are killed, compared to the number of innocents in car accidents?
Cameron Todd Willingham
Well, there are many reasons why the state execution of
innocent others is very different from the accidental deaths of
a. For all intents and purposes, the state is all-powerful. Not only has it
the wherewithal to ensure that innocent individuals are put to death for
political reasons, it actually does put innocents to death for political
For example, the recent exoneration of over 100 allegedly very
dangerous criminals in the USA through DNA testing demonstrates quite
clearly that people are convicted on the basis of false evidence.
Science and nature did not convict these innocents - legal policies and
procedures based on political considerations did.
And it is far too dangerous to allow an all-powerful state to execute
innocent people without some form of public outrage being generated every time
that this happens.
And so, for example, just imagine if absolutely everyone in the USA was in
favour of the death penalty.
What reaction would there be to the discovery that the state was executing
Well, presumably, none! - since those in favour of the death penalty do not
seem to be outraged when innocent people are executed.
Dennis certainly isn't outraged.
But is this the kind of society that we would want to live in?
Do we really want to live in a society where the state
employs procedures that kill innocents, but no-one makes a fuss about it?
Do we really want to live in a society where the state employs procedures
that kill innocents, but no-one makes a fuss about it?
What kind of people are we supposed to be?
b. There is something decidedly different about coldly and calculatedly
putting an innocent person to death when compared to an innocent
dying by accident. Indeed, the former is so utterly unacceptable and abhorrent
to the vast majority of people that only the most cruel of psychopaths would
ever do such a thing.
And if we claim that it is morally acceptable for the all-powerful state to
put to death innocent others, then we are claiming that it is
morally acceptable for the
all-powerful state to do what only the most cruel of psychopaths would
nothing could be more stupid than to allow an
all-powerful state to act like a cruel psychopath!
And, surely, nothing could be more stupid than to allow an all-powerful state
to act like a cruel psychopath.
And how Dennis can possibly equate morally such a horror to those deaths that
occur by accident is astonishing.
Now Dennis would presumably respond by saying, Aha! When the American state
puts an innocent person to death, it does not believe the person to be innocent.
It believes the person to be guilty. And so it is not true to say that the state
is "coldly and calculatedly" putting innocent people to death. It believes them
to be guilty. It is just that, on occasion, mistakes are made.
But this is no let-out clause.
Even though the state does not intend to execute innocents,
this does not alter the fact that innocents are sometimes "coldly and
calculatedly" put to death.
This is how they die!
And this is not the case when it comes to most everyday
Accidents are different from executions.
c. Thousands of people die in accidents of one form or another every day. And
Dennis' arguments here concerning the death penalty really boil down to this.
What does it matter that a very small number of innocents are killed by the
state given that so many thousands already die in accidents?
In other words, Dennis' arguments are to do with a consideration of numbers
rather to do with a consideration of moral processes. Why do these relatively
few innocents who suffer the death penalty actually matter? - is, effectively,
what he is saying.
Well, I have some news for Dennis. They matter very much!
It is NOT merely the number of innocents (and please remember
that in this part of the discussion we are talking only about
innocents) that concerns those who oppose the death penalty, it is the
sheer immorality of killing innocents that concerns them.
And Dennis must be able to recognise this.
Look. There were some 30,000 road fatalities in the USA last year, and only a
very tiny number of innocents have probably been executed during the past few
But, just for the sake of argument, just imagine that the number of road
fatalities dropped dramatically to only 10,000 a year, while the numbers of
innocents executed jumped up to 1000 a year.
Would Dennis say that this was, overall, a significant change for the better?
After all, with 20,000 fewer innocent deaths on the roads, and with, roughly,
only 1000 extra innocent deaths in the electric chair, then, on balance, there
is a saving of 19,000 lives.
On the basis of the numbers alone, that's a pretty good improvement!
But would Dennis, or anyone, really feel better about their
society knowing that 1000 innocent people were actually being executed every
No, of course not.
In fact, they would be horrified.
And the reason for this is that there is a huge difference between the state
execution of an innocent and the death of an innocent by a normal everyday type
They are just not the same.
Indeed, what if there were no road fatalities at all, but there were 20,000
innocents executed every year?
How would Dennis feel then?
Would he feel better because fewer innocents had died? - compared to the
original 30,000 road fatalities.
Would his society have improved?
Would he consider his society to be more 'moral'?
I don't think so.
20,000 innocents executed would make us far worse off by a long way compared
to 30,000 road fatalities.
In other words, the numbers
alone do not help us very much.
d. Dennis equates the deaths of innocents by accidents with the executions of
innocents by the state.
He is saying that given that death-penalty opponents do not seem to give a
hoot about the accidental deaths of innocents, why on earth are
they so concerned about the accidental execution of innocents by
If they do not care about the one, why do they care about the other? After
all, they are both 'accidents', and the outcomes are just the same.
The execution of innocent others is, after all, just another type of
'accident' - due to unfortunate errors that occurred somewhere in the legal
Well, let's follow that through.
If the state execution of an innocent can be deemed to be an 'accident',
then, presumably, the act of a murderer who kills an innocent can also be viewed
as an 'accident'.
What is the difference between the two?
After all, things happen.
Putting this another way: If Dennis is not worried about the execution of
others who are already living inside a prison cell - having been falsely
convicted of a crime - then why on earth is he so concerned about those
innocents who are killed by murderers who
are not living inside a prison cell?
After all, innocent is innocent - no matter where you might live.
Dennis' own argument flies right back in his face.
He cares for one type of innocent (the one who is murdered on the street) but
he cares not about the other one - the falsely-accused one sitting inside a
prison cell - and living on Death Row.
e. If Dennis is prepared to endorse policies that result in the execution of
innocent others - for various reasons - then, presumably, it will not be long
before he also proposes that, for example, anyone involved in the causing of
'accidental' deaths (e.g. a surgeon making a mistake on the operating table)
should also be executed.
No. No, Dennis, would say. There is a big difference between a murderer and a
doctor who makes a mistake.
Yes, indeed there is.
There is the question of intent.
But, at this juncture, we are not talking about murderers. We
are only talking about innocents!
And so the question of intent does not arise.
if it is all right to execute innocents,
then it is certainly all right to execute doctors who make fatal mistakes
In other words, if it is all right to execute innocents, then
it is certainly all right to execute doctors who make fatal mistakes (and who
are, in fact, somewhat less than innocent).
2. Executions Save Lives
Dennis says that, "Far more innocent people have already died because we
did not execute their murderers."
a. Aha! Dennis is definitely concerned about the deaths of a few innocents.
How strange! A few moments ago, he did not seem very concerned about them.
He is prepared to accept fatal car accidents and death by roller coasters and
the zillions of fatal accidents that take place in normal life, but he is
suddenly worried about a few murders.
And it really is only a few murders that he is
talking about at this juncture - though even this few is doubtful.
After all, he is not talking about all
homicides. He is only
talking about the extra homicides that he alleges
take place when the death penalty is not imposed.
So, why is Dennis worried about the few extra murders of
innocents (if there is no death penalty) when he is not worried about roller
Do you see? His whole criticism about people not
being concerned about roller-coaster and road accidents etc, and yet being
concerned about a few innocents being executed - which he implied was
hypocritical - has completely backfired on himself.
He is now worrying about the few
extra deaths that might arise if convicted murderers are not executed.
b. Dennis was castigating death-penalty opponents for not being concerned
about everyday accidents ...
... "Anyone whose criterion for abolishing capital punishment is saving
innocent lives, should be for a 40-mile-per-hour speed limit and for abolishing
You see. He is trying to say that if you care about the executions of a
innocent people, then you should be far more concerned about the accidental
deaths of many people.
But he does not apply the same reasoning to himself.
If Dennis is so concerned about the few extra murders that he reckons takes
place when there is no death penalty, then why isn't he the one
wanting to ban roller coasters, and why isn't he the one
proposing a 40 mile-per-hour speed limit?
This man has a double standard, One for him, and another one for opponents of
the death penalty.
There is no strong evidence to suggest that capital
punishment reduces the number of homicides ...
c. As a point of fact: There is no strong evidence to suggest that capital
punishment reduces the number of homicides any more than do very long prison
sentences. If there is an extra deterrent effect of capital punishment, then it
is marginal at best. Indeed, there is a great deal of evidence to
suggest that capital punishment (and very long prison sentences) increases the
likelihood of violence throughout society (e.g. as in the drugs war, prohibition
etc) and, as a consequence, the homicide rate almost certainly increases as a
result of it.
3. Capital Punishment Achieves Social Good
Dennis says, "if abolitionists were intellectually honest, they would
have to argue that capital punishment achieves no social good or that it is
immoral to kill any murderers."
Well, as mentioned above, not only does the evidence suggest that capital
punishment achieves no social good, it actually suggests that it achieves a lot
of social bad.
And, furthermore, here are some more socially bad things that it does.
a. Criminals who commit particularly heinous forms of murder usually have had
an appalling history. And, very often, they also have clearly visible signs of
severe brain damage.
Just think what the world would gain by studying them rather than by killing
With the rapid developments taking place in the field of brain-scanning
technology and the growing understanding of brain chemistry, there is a
great deal to be gained from studying individuals who are very
Why should we destroy such a valuable resource?
Surely such a resource would contribute hugely to the very 'social good' that
Dennis is seeking.
State execution in the USA is, in reality, mostly about
hatred and vengeance.
b. State execution in the USA is, in reality, mostly about hatred and
vengeance. It does not bring about a better world and it does not bring back the
dead. It mostly satisfies people's thirst for revenge. And revenge is not a good
thing for people in a society to believe in and to act upon. Cool, calm,
reasoned justice, yes, but not revenge, because a belief in the virtues of
revenge tends to entitle all of us to take any action that we feel is
appropriate to the hurt that has befallen us.
And, unfortunately, feelings of revenge too often result in gross
over-reactions, with matters quickly getting out of hand, as one person responds
and then another person counter-responds.
One only needs to look at the decades of troubles and revenge
attacks in Northern Ireland, in the Middle East, and in many other parts of the
world to see that it is mostly feelings of revenge that tend to maintain and
escalate all the violence.
And public acceptance of the death penalty just greatly encourages people to
accept revenge as a legitimate tool of justice.
Conversely, abolishing the death penalty would achieve a 'social good'
because it would be abolished at least partially on the grounds that, firstly,
revenge is not the same as justice, and, secondly, revenge is not something
conducive to societal harmony.
4. It is not Immoral to Kill Murderers
Dennis' suggests that those who oppose the death penalty need to show that, "it
is immoral to kill any murderers".
Well. No, they do not!
Indeed, it might be perfectly moral to kill all murderers. It might be
perfectly moral to cut off the hands of people who steal. It might be perfectly
moral to kill women who abort babies.
But are these the roads down which we want our societies to travel?
And, anyway, what, exactly, is a murderer? On what basis does one murderer
morally deserve the death penalty whereas another one does not?
Would we all agree on the infinitely complicated dividing lines?
Would we also claim to know all the circumstances and the ins and outs of
Can the vote of 12 people in a jury determine what everybody
else's morality is supposed to be?
Can the vote of 12 people in a jury determine what everybody else's morality
is supposed to be?
You see. The moral question posed by Dennis does not really
even have an answer that is simple enough to solve 'in practice'.
5. Some Murderers might go on to Kill Others
Dennis says, "Murderers who are not executed have murdered innocent
people -- usually fellow prisoners. And the very real possibility of escape from
prison means that murderers threaten far more innocent lives than capital
a. Dennis is back to those numbers again.
Why is Dennis so concerned about these few extra murders when he is not
concerned about the execution of innocents nor about the death toll through
driving and roller coaster accidents etc.
b. Dennis says that opponents of the death penalty, "believe that only
advocates of capital punishment can have blood on their hands, when and if the
state executes an innocent person. But they, the abolitionists, somehow have no
blood on their hands when a convicted murderer murders an innocent."
Well, the reason for this difference in attitude is quite simple.
When the state executes innocents, its actions are taken in the name of -
and on behalf of - the people, and, further, it is acting in a manner which is
in accordance with the wishes of those who support capital punishment.
On the other hand, murderers who kill innocents are not acting
in the name of - and on behalf of - the people, and, further, they are not
acting in a manner which is in accordance with the wishes of those who
oppose capital punishment.
As such, those who do support capital punishment do
have 'blood on their hands' when the state executes innocents because the state
is acting in accordance with their wishes.
But those who oppose capital punishment do not
have 'blood on their hands' when non-executed murderers commit further offences
- because these murderers are not
acting in accordance with their wishes.
6. The Deaths of a Few Innocents Don't Matter
Dennis begins his last paragraph by saying, "I fully acknowledge my moral
responsibility for any innocent person executed by the state."
a. He seems to be suggesting that he is resigned to the fact that innocents
will be executed by the state if it maintains the death penalty. On balance, he
reckons, the death penalty is still worth the price.
But the truth of the matter is this.
Dennis would have a completely different attitude if it was he, or his wife,
or his children, or his brother, or his father, or his friend, or if any of
those who are close to him, were going to the electric chair for a crime that
they did not commit.
He would not simply shrug his shoulders and say, "Oh well, things happen."
He might say this if one of his loved ones was accidentally
killed in a car crash. But would he really have the very same attitude if one of
his loved ones was actually being incarcerated, and was later to be executed for
a crime that he or she did not commit?
Dennis would kick up a real stink about it. And he would
be well and truly outraged.
In other words, he has a double standard - one for people who are close to
him, and another for people who are not. (And, of course, the same is true for
most of us, including me.)
He is resigned to the fact that the state might execute innocent
people, but only if these people are not close to him.
Is this an acceptable and healthy moral attitude?
Furthermore, his attitude toward the state's purposeful execution of his
innocent loved one, would be very different indeed compared to what his attitude
would be if his loved one had simply been killed in an accident.
And so what Dennis is really saying is that, in practice, he is resigned to
the executions of innocent others - for various reasons - provided that he,
himself, remains personally unaffected by it all.
And this is not a satisfactory moral position to take.
And it also takes people along a very slippery slope.
If people are prepared to support the inflicting of
injustices upon innocent others ... then surely they can have no complaints
should others inflict serious injustices upon them!
If people are prepared to support the inflicting of serious
injustices upon innocent others in order to achieve a marginally improved
outcome for everyone else - and particularly for themselves - then surely they
can have no complaints should others inflict serious injustices
For example, would Dennis find it acceptable for 10 homeless winos to kill a
millionaire in order to take over his mansion on the grounds that their lives
would improve enormously compared to living on the streets, and given that they
would also be far better protected from any passing lunatics who might want to
Well. Probably not.
But why not? - given that he is prepared to accept the deaths of innocents in
order to make the world - particularly his world - a safer place.
Why shouldn't the winos have the same attitude?
"We shall kill the innocent millionaire in order to make our own lives
Indeed, just think about how many lives we could save by harvesting the
innards of this gorgeous thing, ...
Her liver, heart, pancreas, kidneys, lungs, bowels and even her lovely
tummy could be put to great use as transplanted organs and, hence, save
the lives of numerous people.
Well, why not?
After all, if it is only the numbers that count then, surely,
sacrificing the above specimen would be justifiable.
Is this where we really want to go?
About three months ago, one of my car windows was smashed, and a couple of
CDs were stolen. It was probably one of the many delinquent teenagers round here
who was responsible. For 48 hours I would have murdered the culprit if I could
have gotten my hands on him. It cost me time. It cost me money. And I felt
generally less secure.
A cricket bat to the skull. A good few punches in the face.
And when my father died on the operating table a few years ago, I pretty much
had only one thing in mind.
Kill that f^^k^^g surgeon.
Kill that f^^k^^g surgeon.
Believe me. I am no angel.
I would even like to see certain horrible people put to death with my
very own eyes.
Think of the satisfaction!
"Give them everything that they deserve," is how I often feel.
But, as I said above. Things happen.
And the almost inescapable truth is that the best way for society to deal
with such things - if possible - is non-violently.
Sometimes I wish that this wasn't so.
But it is.
And with their huge resources, their skills and their super powers, Americans
do not nowadays need to execute their home-grown murderers - particularly since
they have already got them stuck inside prison cells.
And it is very depressing for a lot of people to see that they still do
Of course, some murderers definitely deserve the death penalty. And some
deserve even worse! And none of my arguments above suggests
But the treatment that truly heinous criminals 'deserve' should not count for
anything. Why on earth should we even care what they 'deserve'? Surely, such
criminals have lost the right to have taken into consideration what they
It is what their treatment does to the rest of us that we need
to consider - and this, of course, includes those innocents who are caught up in
At the end of the day, we are surely aiming toward a world wherein there are no
murders, and where there are no purposeful killings. And the all-powerful state
just has to lead the way.
There was a time, perhaps not long gone, when the death penalty was an
extremely valuable and necessary tool for western countries. The people just had
to curb serious crimes and violence with very limited resources. There was no
other realistic way of doing this.
But the USA now has huge resources. It is simply a question of redirecting
some of them into more effective crime-preventative measures, as, perhaps,
advised by its very own police chiefs ...
A new national survey of police chiefs from around the country discredits the
repeated assertion that the death penalty is an important law enforcement tool.
"While politicians have extolled the importance of capital punishment in
fighting crime, they have failed to assess the actual priorities of those in law
enforcement and have saddled the taxpayers with an enormously costly death
penalty at the expense of more effective crime fighting strategies. Police
chiefs rank the death penalty last as a way of reducing violent crime, placing
it behind curbing drug abuse, more police officers on the streets, lowering the
technical barriers to prosecution, longer sentences, and a better economy with
more jobs. The death penalty was rated as the least cost-effective method for
controlling crime. Insufficient use of the death penalty is not considered a
major problem by the majority of police chiefs."