Over the past few days I've been working on a new database--the Memorial Annex
, which as you might guess is an annex to the autism memorial. Rather that proper memorials, it's a simple list of identifying information for disabled homicide victims, to help other people doing research on other disabilities (or all disabilities), and to get a more comprehensive list for next year's Day of Mourning.
During my research for this site, I've come across a lot of killers who were given the death penalty for their crimes, and I've been doing some thinking. Growing up, and until quite recently, I supported the death penalty for premeditated murder--for killers who wanted to kill someone and deliberately did so. My reasoning was pretty simple: If you take someone else's life, you forfeit your own. And I still believe that.
But I've changed my mind about the death penalty. I no longer support it.
I haven't changed my mind about the morality of the death penalty, not quite. I would still disagree with the statement that "Even a premeditated murderer should not be deliberately killed," because I still think that paying with your own life for taking someone else's is just. However, I've come to realize it's not as simple as that.
The world isn't an abstract philosophy textbook. Those premeditated murderers are full-fledged people, in a messy culture full of racial prejudice, fallible legal systems, and human error. And the death penalty is just too permanent. What if we made a mistake?
And we have. Some innocent people have been executed. Some people who are guilty are executed, while others who are guilty of very similar crimes receive life sentences or even less than that. Race plays into it, and culture, and even what state they committed their crime in. Sometimes the ability to convince the jury that they're sorry makes the difference between life and death.
I still don't think the death penalty is unjust. I simply don't trust fallible human beings to carry it out fairly. We can't trust ourselves to take each others' lives into our hands that way. I wouldn't trust myself to impose a death sentence, nor do I trust anyone else.
For premeditated murder, when we know (or think we know) someone has killed before and is perfectly capable of killing again, I think we should put them in prison for life. It's still a harsh sentence, but it's not permanent, like the death penalty is. If we made a mistake, at least we wouldn't have killed someone over it. And the effect on society is the same: The killer is out of circulation, whether they're dead or permanently imprisoned. The death sentence doesn't seem to have too much of a deterrent effect because most premeditated murderers willingly risk their own lives simply committing the murder (they risk that the victim will fight back and kill them, or that they will be shot by police trying to arrest them), and so the extra risk of a death sentence afterward isn't really adding anything.
So whatever my philosophical thoughts on the death penalty, I think that in a practical sense, it doesn't make sense to keep it on the books. Theory collides with practice, with human fallibility, and with the real world, and we have to take into account how things actually play out rather than focusing just on how we wish they would.