To this point in our series on capital punishment, we saw that retribution (rather than rehabilitation, incapacitation, deterrence, or symbolism) is both the only valid reason for executing murderers and also an adequate reason for doing so. But, of course, the other side hasn’t yet responded. Their objections fall roughly into three categories: practical, conceptual, or religious.
Practical Objection 1: It’s unacceptable to execute innocent people.
Although any legal system assumes some danger of wrongful convictions, the obvious differences between capital punishment and our other forms of punishment are irreversibility and completeness. Even though all penalties (other than fines) take away things that cannot be returned (time, reputation, relationships, freedom), at least the loss from other punishments is only partial. Execution is total and permanent.
As death-row acquittals have shown, even the plodding deliberation of our legal process with all of its safeguards and evidentiary standards is not enough to guarantee that no innocent people get executed. This is troubling, indeed, and it’s useful to see why the two most common responses fail.
One attempt begins by noting that we bias our system overwhelmingly in favor of the accused. He need not incriminate himself. He is entitled to representation. If convicted, he may avail himself of a ludicrously thorough system of appeals. And the main bias in favor of the accused is his presumption of innocence. Though such safeguards are set even higher for execution, the chance of error is nonetheless real. Merely reducing the chance of injustice on this issue is not enough.
The other attempt describes us as being in a “war against crime,” and asserts that all wars entail “collateral damage” to undeserving victims. The problem with this analogy is that the differences between the pressures of fluid battlefield situations and the capital process are so vast that the analogy becomes useless.