Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Why I'm Voting Against the Death Penalty

I wouldn’t presume to tell anyone how to vote on anything, and I would hope nobody would listen to me if I did. What I can do, however, is tell you how I’m voting and what my reasons are, and if my arguments are persuasive, so be it.

Everyone knows that this November, voters will be asked to vote on an advisory referendum on whether to institute the death penalty in Wisconsin. I will be voting no, and here’s why:

Nobody has had reason to complain about the court system over the past few decades than conservatives. Almost monthly, some court kicks out an opinion that leaves the public completely perplexed. One needs to look no further than last week, when Judge Anna Diggs Taylor ruled against the NSA's wiretapping program, forgoing the pesky "legal" grounds and instead launching a partisan attack against the Bush administration. In recent years, courts have inexplicably held the Pledge of Allegiance to be unconstitutional and held the appalling McCain-Feingold law to be constitutional. Andrea Yates confessed to drowning her five children in a bathtub, yet her conviction was overturned. Does Roe v. Wade ring a bell?

Yet somehow, when it comes time to kill someone, many conservatives are willing to close their eyes, plug their ears, and invest all their faith in the apparent evenhandedness of the court system. This is just foolish. I recognize that there are different courts and varying situations, but the bottom line is, real people run the courts, and real people are not infallible. People have grudges, biases, and aspirations, and judges can make determinations on admissability of evidence, witness selection, and other motions that can determine the outcomes of cases.

George Will once said that some people believe government acts as a scalpel and some believe government acts as a sledgehammer. There is no power a government holds that should be taken more seriously than the ability to kill its own citizens. Government can do many of the big things - protect our country, build highways, and provide a basic safety net for its people. But anyone skeptical of government should question the competence with which it wields the power of putting its own citizens to death.

I also don’t believe the death penalty serves as a deterrent for violent crime. In order to determine whether it does, one would have to round up all the people who are thinking about committing violent crimes and ask them if they’re being deterred by the threat of the death penalty in their states. Those that believe the death penalty deters crime believe that 1) The prospective perpetrator thinks they’re going to be caught, and 2) Base their choice of state residence on the assumption that they will be apprehended and prosecuted.

Does anyone actually believe that a child molester/killer would say to himself, “boy, I’d really like to molest and kill little kids in Wisconsin, but they just instituted the death penalty, so I could be in some trouble when they inevitably catch me?” I’d like to see a poll of people on death row and whether they even knew their state had the death penalty. Does your typical murderer even know the difference between state and federal governments? If they know anything, they probably remember the feds putting people like Timothy McVeigh to death, and assume that could happen to them. If you took a poll of the educated general public, I bet you’d get about a 50/50 response on whether Wisconsin currently utilizes the death penalty. I'm just guessing the Child Molester's Manual doesn't have a chapter on civics.

Death penalty supporters claim that the number of innocent people put to death is overstated. I have no doubt that the overwhelming number of people that receive the death penalty are guilty - of this, I don't think there's any reasonable debate. The disagreement comes in the value placed on the few innocent individuals that are put to death.

Death penalty supporters argue, amazingly in my opinion, that there may have been some innocent people put to death, but that the net deterrent effect of capital punishment makes society safer in general. In other words, the ends justify the means. Seeing as how I don't believe society actually is safer, I steadfastly disagree with this line of thinking.

I don't believe that there can ever be such a thing as "collateral damage" in the application of the death penalty. If one out of 100 people put to death is innocent, that is too many to justify giving the government that kind of power. I sincerely doubt that the families of the wrongfully convicted take solace in the theory that their loved one's unjust death will somehow make society safer down the road.

Of course, being against the death penalty means having to take some pretty tough positions. Every time I hear about someone raping and murdering a little girl, my first gut instinct is to want the bastard dead, without a trial and painfully, if possible. And while it may be satisfying to the victim's family to have the perpetrator killed, in the end, it really doesn't change anything.

In the midst of the debate on the death penalty, we here in Wisconsin have the "fortune" of dealing with the Steven Avery murder case. What people have forgotten is that Steven Avery himself actually serves as both a case for and against the death penalty.

As you may recall, Avery was found guilty of a rape for which he famously served 18 years in prison. When DNA evidence determined he was not guilty, he was released. Soon thereafter, he was charged with raping and murdering a young female photographer.

As abhorrent an individual as Avery is, think back to his original charge. What if that had been a murder charge? He may have been dead for a decade before he was exonerated. That, to me, seems like a good reason why we may not want to put people to death. And what is the argument for the death penalty that Avery represents? Well, he's a bastard that deserves to rot in hell. While there's merit to both positions, on balance, I think the former is more compelling.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn't mention that my Catholic faith also plays a part in my opinion. Without a doubt, many Catholics believe that favoring the death penalty is compatible with their faith, and I'm certainly not in a position to be handing out Catholic gold stars. But I do believe that adherance to Catholicism means adhering to a devotion to life, from conception to death, as difficult as that sometimes may be.

Many times, you'll hear people discount one's views if they're based in religion, as if organized religion is one of Kevin Barrett's conspiratorial hallucinations. It's always entertaining to see that the same people who ridicule religous beliefs with regard to abortion and gay marriage are the first ones to trot out religious opposition to the death penalty to support their positions. I, however, will never apologize for my faith and whether that faith influences my opinions.

There are people who I admire greatly that I disagree with on this issue. Of course, they're not bloodthirsty or overly vengeful, nor are they lacking true religious conviction. What they are, however, is wrong about the true effects of capital punishment. Rectifying killing by killing doesn't make anyone safer, it only further erodes the respect for all types of life that our society is severely lacking these days.

For more information on the death penalty referendum in November, go to the No Death Penalty Wisconsin page. While I can't vouch for everything they will post, it's a good start.