A short argument in favour of the death penalty, sort of

This is the tweet that inspired this post.

It inspired the post, but not the ideas behind it, which I have been thinking over for some time.

I’m familiar with the arguments about the possibility of killing an innocent person, but here’s the thing; it’s not the death penalty that kills them, but the bad system which sentences them to death in the first place.

I am in favour of having the death penalty on the books, although I do think it should be a) the measure of absolute last resort and b) reserved for very specific crimes.

Consider: there are a rash of deaths related to shoddy seat belts in cars. Do we:

  • a) Ban cars?
  • b) Fix seat belts?

The answer is obviously b). If you fix seat belts, everyone benefits, not just the people in car crashes.

For me, the issue of innocent people being executed is not to remove the sentence of death, but to fix the system that saw an innocent person being on trial for the crime in the first place. Because isn’t that where the failure has taken place? We can’t claim that a system that allows innocent people to be tried is any better than a system that allows innocent people to be killed. We must address the cause, not the symptom.

I can only speak of the UK and US justice systems with any confidence but here are some of the things we could fix for starters:

  • Weed out the corrupt, biased, racist, lazy and incompetent in the system – police and detectives, judges, lawyers
  • Actual penalties for those found in the system found guilty or perverting the course of an investigation (hiding/fabricating evidence, etc.) – don’t allow police to retire from the force to avoid criminal charges
  • Remove arbitrary performance targets based on the number of convictions without any thought to whether the convictions are safe
  • Proper funding throughout the justice system, including better pay and conditions for all ranks of police officer, so we hire better people in the first place
  • Vastly improved access to legal aid for those without the financial means to pay
  • Change the burden of proof, especially for the most serious sentences
  • Stop the policy of allowing any jailhouse snitch to make up a story about a jail cell confession in order to receive a reduction on their own sentence
  • A limit to the arbitrary number of appeals allowed without automatic hearings upon the production of exculpatory physical evidence
  • Allow the jury the ability to ask questions of witnesses and lawyers
  • Stop the practice of secret trials without juries behind closed doors
  • In the UK, adopting a similar system to the US in calling a set of prospective jurors; but selecting the final 12 based on an administered test to make sure they have a basic level of intelligence and comprehension sufficient to understand the case

If we fixed the justice system by addressing matters like these then, like fixing seat belts, everyone benefits. That said, I’d still make the conditions for imposing the death penalty much stricter; but I’d still fix the system.

The tweet above refers to the case of Marcellus Williams, who was scheduled to die at 6pm yesterday (Tuesday 22nd August 2017). He was convicted of the murder of Felicia Gayle during a robbery on her home in 1998. Williams is black while Gayle, who lived with her husband in a gated community, is white. Here are some of the key points from his case.

  • The prosecutor struck six of the seven prospective black jurors in order to get a whites-only jury.
  • The court refused a request to have the murder weapon, which was left in the victim, tested for DNA during the original trial.
  • When DNA was eventually tested for after a 2015 appeal, it was found to have male DNA on it that was not Williams’. Prosecutors said that it changed nothing and could easily belong to the husband, although they have his DNA on file.
  • On learning of the exculpatory DNA evidence, the Missouri Supreme Court denied Williams’ team the chance to present it in court, refused to give a written opinion on it, and instead set an execution date.
  • Hair samples found at the scene did not belong to Williams, according to the DNA testing,  and a footprint found at the scene was a different size from Williams’.
  • With no physical evidence, Williams was convicted on the strength of the testimony of two witnesses. One, apparently his girlfriend, only came forward after learning about the reward money, and later admitted to setting him up just for the reward. The other was a jailhouse snitch, who swore an affidavit that police had asked for volunteers in the prison to be the snitch, and was not even the first one approached.

These are just some of the issues that left Marcellus Williams hours away from execution before the governor of Missouri issued a stay, pending a further investigation. I’m in no way an expert but when I look at that short list, I don’t see how any of those issues would have been addressed by banning the death penalty.