Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Common Sense And Capital Punishment

Following are some points made to a legislative committee considering the abolition of the death penalty in Connecticut and its replacement by life in prison without the possibility of parole, along with some common sense comments:

Capital punishment entails a grave and present danger that the innocent will be convicted and executed. There is no evidence of this in Connecticut in the modern period. Only two people have suffered capital punishment in the last half decade: Joseph “Mad Dog” Taborsky and Michael Ross. There is no question that both were guilty; which is to say, both committed the crimes of which they were accused. Mr. Taborsky, executed in 1960 for capital felonies committed in 1950, killed six people and shot, pistol whipped or injured others in a series of particularly henious crimes that became known at the time as “The Mad Dog Killings.” Mr. Ross was executed in 2005 after having been convicted of the rapes and strangulations of several young women. Mr. Ross’ last two victims were 14 years old; he raped and strangled one of the young girls while the other, incapacitated in the back seat of his car, was forced to watch. Then he killed her as well.

Capital punishment is cruel and unusual. That is a matter of public sentiment, which changes according to circumstances. As a general rule, a majority of Connecticut citizens would not agree that the form of capital punishment employed in Connecticut, death by injection, is cruel. It may be argued that capital punishment is “unusual,” if by the term one means rarely employed, or employed only when certain circumstances are met. In the case of the two criminals executed in Connecticut, both were multiple murderers; both were vicious criminals; and both certainly did commit the crimes of which they had been accused.

Capital punishment is not a deterrent. To misquote former President Bill Clinton, it all depends on what one means by “deterrent.” That argument may proceed until doomsday without effective resolution. In crimes of passion, there is some evidence to suggest that capital punishment would not deter people from committing murder. In deliberate crimes, murders are either accidental, in the precise sense of the term, or intentional. In both cases, it may be impossible to measure scientifically the deterrent value of capital punishment, since the person deterred would be a future capital felon. How is one to gather scientific information from people who may or may not in the future commit capitol felonies? The thing is not possible. It seems reasonable to assert that punishment deters, and those who insist it does not are really arguing in favor of the abolition of all forms of punishment, including slapping the hands of children who steal from cookie jars. The most one may reasonably say is that life in prison without parole AND capital punishment both may deter future crimes committed by the person punished, one more effectively than the other, since it is possible for prisoners to commit crimes while in prison, while it is not possible for an expired person to flout the law.

Capital Punishment is a form of vengeance, rather than a form of justice. Those who make this claim ought to be asked to distinguish between acts of vengeance and acts of justice. Some people believe they receive parking tickets because police officers are vengeful; others believe judges impose sentences because judges are vengeful. Generally speaking, most of us may feel a judicial process is not a form of vengeance if it includes: a) a police investigation, b) an arraignment before a judge, c) a trial before a jury, d) the rendering of a verdict after due deliberation, e) sentencing before a judge, f) yet another trial before a jury to determine the whether the capital punishment sentence is appropriate, g) an affirmation of the sentence, occasionally by a different jury, and… appeals as numerous as stars in the celestial vault. In fact, the time distance between original conviction and final disposition in Connecticut is so lengthy that former co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee and criminal justice professor Michael Lawlor advanced the thesis, before he was tapped by Governor Dannel Malloy to serve as undersecretary for criminal justice policy and planning at the Office of Policy and Management, that in the post-Ross period no one in Connecticut found guilty of capital punishment would be so punished unless they, like Mr. Ross, “want to die.” Vengeance, on the other hand, is what happens when a couple of modern day Huns descend on a family, incapacitate the father by tying him up in the basement and beating him with a baseball bat, take the mother to a bank and force her to withdraw money, rape one of the daughters of the family, rape the mother and kill all in the house but the father, who miraculously escapes, by setting fire to the victims in order to cover up the crime. Such deliberately cruel and unusual deeds smack of vengeance, whether directed at the victims or at society through the victims.

Capital punishment is prohibitively expensive. It isn’t.

The capital punishment process takes too severe an emotional toll on the family members of victims to justify its imposition. The emotional toll can be reduced by streamlining the process.

Life in prison without possibility of parole is sufficient punishment for the kinds of crime committed by Ross and the two worthies tried for the Cheshire murders. Assume a scenario more likely than the possibility that someone in Connecticut will be convicted of a capital crime he did not commit -- namely, that a person serving a life sentence without parole manages to commit another capital crime while incarcerated. Under such circumstances, would a life sentence with out parole attached to yet another life sentence without parole be a just punishment?

Capital punishment violates religious proscriptions. This, at least, is a reasonable and perhaps unanswerable argument for the abolition of the death penalty. But in Connecticut we are much in the habit of winking at religious proscriptions, while getting on as best we can with our sinful, imperfect lives.

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