This is the second part of my response to James Garry's article 'Supporting the Death Penalty' that appeared on the Anna Raccoon site last week - http://www.annaraccoon.com/politics/supporting-the-death-penalty/
Having dealt with the argument that 'capital punishment is a deterrent to kill and therefore saves lives', this ponders the question as to what extent the case for the death penalty actually centres around the notion of retribution and 'an eye for an eye'. While suggesting that "well no, actually it isn't about retribution", Mr Garry makes this point which this bunny thinks well worth re-reading in full:-
Maybe it is a failure of imagination on my opponents’ part, but do they really think that having a murderer executed brings any peace or any feeling of restoration to the families of murder victims? No, I don’t think it does. I don’t think the execution of the murderer comes anywhere close to soothing the unbearable grief, to quieting the anguish or to sating the howling emptiness caused by the loss of a loved one.
If you truly desire to avenge someone’s murder, you would keep their murderer in a state of perpetual, excruciating agony for the rest of their lives. That’s retribution.
The assumption in this line of argument is that when I talk about retribution, it is in the context of the victim's family, friends and loved ones coming to terms with their tragic loss. I'm fortunate in the sense that I can only imagine, but would agree with Mr Garry here that no punishment would come close to alleviating the constant grief and torment that must be a by-product of seeing a loved one snatched from you. It's often said that anyone who finds themselves in that position ends up serving the toughest life sentence of all, and that concepts such as 'moving on' are rendered wholly inappropriate by the gravity of what they've had to endure. Those sentiments are of course immensely difficult to argue with.
By retribution, I am referring to the instinctive reaction that many decent people have upon hearing of a particularly horrific murder. For instance, Harold Shipman was a man whose crimes against vulnerable patients in his care were met with many a call to 'hang the bastard' or issue some other form of ultimate penalty. This isn't necessarily the thinking of 'a rabble' or 'hotheads', but of individuals who would not normally be considered unreasonable by nature. Such emotive feelings from real people towards the taking of real lives are of course completely understandable, even if this bunny's principled objection to capital punishment leaves him muttering the relatively feeble "life to mean life" instead. Whether we want a judicial process that places such sentiments at its very heart is an entirely different matter.
I've stated previously that people who have an emotional stake in any situation are not usually the best placed to judge how it should ultimately be dealt with. What capital punishment does is it panders to that gut instinct evoked in someone watching the guilty verdict being announced on a news bulletin - where at that moment in time, they do want retribution, revenge, call it whatever you will. Some may have children of a similar age to the victim, with others simply repulsed by the scale of the evil that has been perpetrated. The retribution that they crave is not on behalf of the victim's family, but for themselves and/or society as a whole. I appreciate that some supporters of capital punishment do not think like this, but have come across many in everyday life who do and have no problem admitting as much. The desire for the state to 'equalise' on behalf of 'decent society' is much more common among the death penalty's advocates than Mr Garry appears prepared to acknowledge.
The most significant area of discussion regarded my reference to Stefan Kiszko and the awful miscarriage of justice that he endured, in my case against capital punishment. Mr Garry wholly appreciates the extent of the travesty (Kiszko spent sixteen years in prison that effectively killed him, for a murder he demonstrably had the square root of nothing to do with), but then questions its relevance to this discussion, describing my citing of it as "a very weak – and false – argument against the death penalty". Kiszko was of course not sentenced to death, so one cannot really hold him up as a tragic 'poster boy' of abolitionist sentiment - Derek Bentley, for instance, would be a far more appropriate individual to focus on were I attempting this. However, there are two major reasons why this bunny sees it as a very important case in shaping the parameters of the argument nonetheless.
First up, allowing the state to kill its own citizens in the name of justice is an investment of blind faith. Now, does nanny really warrant that degree of trust given her track record? I would suggest not, and that what the state did to Stefan Kiszko serves as perhaps the best instance of this point (it was after all dubbed 'the worst miscarriage of justice of all time'). Just about everything that could have gone wrong for Stefan did - an investigation that was ten parts ineptitude and ten parts rank dishonesty, bent cops and 'experts', a useless solicitor riding a 'two horses' defence that implied partial guilt, a phoney confession that he was bullied into signing on a promise that his mother would then be along to take him home - in short, they fit him up - it happens. Allowing the ultimate penalty is highly dependant upon the police and the courts having acting 1) diligently and 2) honestly at all times, even if we're allowing for the "unfortunate" fact that "no human system is perfect".
Hands up, who really believes in the police, solicitors and judges that much?
Of course the same could be said about any case regardless of the penalty that was eventually imposed at the end of it - however, this brings us neatly onto my next point. Kiszko's mother spent the best part of two decades working to have the original guilty verdict overturned, motivated at least in part by the prospect of seeing her son at home again with his name cleared. Someone in her position may still endeavour towards a posthumous pardon, or they might be prone to give up at an earlier point if there is not something tangible to keep them going through periods of stagnation. Anyone who spends time in prison for a crime that they did not commit has suffered enormously, but there remains the small relative comfort of being alive to see the wider world recognise their innocence, with a bag of money thrown in for undeserved troubles. Much of the tragedy of a posthumous pardon lies in how entirely useless it is, a signed confession to state murder, with zero relevance to its victim, nor any consequence to its perpetrator.
Like Mr Garry, I recognise the value of a justice system that inspires greater confidence from all of us. However, the re-introduction of capital punishment is an investment of blind faith that denies something most of us understand to be an unfortunate but inescapable truth - the state simply gets it wrong too often, usually through incompetence, but occasionally by selling a man they know to be innocent down the river to appease a public seeking closure. The best way in which we can clean up the judicial process is by exposing every last instance of ineptitude, corruption and other aspects of miscarriages such as prejudicial pre-trial media coverage. Only by bringing these cases into the public domain can we ask how and why they occurred, then do everything within reasonable limits to minimise the risk of it happening again.
The death penalty would surely make this less likely to take place, and that's why I believe that what happened to Stefan Kiszko must never be forgotten in the context of this argument. I look forward to Mr Garry's response on the subject, which will be the last word on it for the time being if he wishes - take care.