Who Deserved To Die This Week?

August 9, 2012

witness viewing room death penalty
Execution viewing room for witnesses © Scott Langley

On Tuesday, Jared Loughner, who murdered 6 people and wounded a Member of Congress and a dozen others in an Arizona shooting spree, accepted a plea bargain that will result in multiple sentences of life without parole.

That same evening, Texas put to death Marvin Wilson, a man with a 61 IQ and the mind of a 7 year old.

On Wednesday, Arizona executed Daniel Cook, a man who endured horrific physical and sexual childhood abuse practically from the day he was born. The man who prosecuted Cook argued for clemency, but no one listened.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun observed, back in 1994, in a dissent that marked the end of his support for the death penalty:

The basic question–does the system accurately and consistently determine which defendants “deserve” to die?–cannot be answered in the affirmative.”

When the U.S. Supreme Court (including Blackmun) approved our “modern” death penalty in 1976 it was with the provision that capital punishment would be limited to the most culpable offenders who committed the worst crimes. Only those who truly “deserved” it would get death.

But it’s still a crap-shoot, a lottery.  As the two executions this week have reiterated, prisoners with mental disabilities or histories of childhood abuse (supposedly mitigating factors) routinely get sent to the death chamber.

But then sometimes they don’t.

Efforts by the Supreme Court to protect the less culpable by outright banning executions of the “insane”, the “mentally retarded” and child offenders have had little effect, as states have found ways to keep on killing prisoners, at least in the first two categories.

The moral argument used in support of capital punishment has always been that the offenders “deserve” to die for what they have done. Given the abject failure of our system to determine who “deserves” death, isn’t it immoral to continue using it to kill?