Volume 1, Number 3 -- October, 1996

Capital Punishment - A Rebuttal

by Dean Shutt
Editor's Note:
The recent events of the Richard Allen Davis sentencing have sparked a bit of a debate here at the 'times. Here is Dean's rebuttal of Dave's original opinion. Check them both out.

When I decided I was going to start editing an on-line magazine I thought it would be a cakewalk. I just assumed that I would read some submissions, pick out the good ones, fix a few spelling errors and that would be that. I never imagined that I would find myself in the position I now do. I certainly never thought I would find myself in it so quickly. It's only our third issue after all.

Dave Lind, a name that our regular readers no doubt recognize (and a very good friend of mine) has written an article for this issue involving the Polly Klaas case. His article is articulate, passionate and without question comes from the heart. Unfortunately I disagree with it, hence my problem. You see I don't just disagree with parts of it, or it's tone, I disagree with the whole article. From its premise to its conclusions, I believe Dave has the missed the mark on this one. It is the sort of article that if I were reading it in a magazine I would simply skip. When you are the one putting out the magazine you are not afforded that luxury. The reason I decided to run his article is because I feel that that is what SCROOMtimes is supposed to be about, writing that makes people think and in some cases uncomfortable (even if one of those people is the editor). Being the editor also has its rewards. One of those rewards is the space to rebut articles you don't agree with. That is what I intend to do here.

Dave states in his story that Davis has rendered the capital punishment debate moot. This is a generalization that is incompatible with the facts. The truth is that Davis probably has convinced more than a few fence sitters that the death penalty is a good idea. However, the vast majority of those opposed to capital punishment base their opposition on the belief that killing is wrong no matter who does it. It does not matter to these people if Davis killed a hundred innocent victims, no one but God has the right to take his life. Still others feel that the state should not be involved in the taking of life, again their opinions will not be swayed by the Klaas case.

The most disturbing thing to me about this article is the demonization of Richard Allen Davis and the idea that we should base our public policy on this single case. Davis is a thug, but to say that he is evil personified is to give him to much credit. Killing Davis will not remove evil from our lives, there are far too many worse examples of evil in the world today. When we whip ourselves into a frenzy over this one instance, we are lowering ourselves to his level, we are saying that the only way we as a society are able to react to violence is with violence and that is far more frightening than a loser like Davis. We could just as easily base our public policy on the unfortunate learning disabled man in Virginia who confessed to the murder and rape of a woman and was sentenced to die. It was only later, during the "overly long" appeals process, that evidence came out that showed he could not have committed this crime. He had only confessed to please his interrogators. That is the problem about getting too excited about a single case, there are always examples to prove your point on both sides of the argument.

There is one thing we must bear in mind when discussing this issue. Capital punishment is at odds with the basic tenets of the American justice system, that is why it has traditionally not been effective in this country. Simply put, we as a nation believe the rights of the individual are supreme. Capital punishment by its very nature states that the rights of the individual are at times subservient to the good of the state. In this country, the Government has no rights save those given to it by the people. Under this form of government, the death penalty will always take a long time to be enforced. In our nation's eyes, the worst thing that could happen would be an innocent man put to death by the state. That is why the appeals process is so convoluted and time-consuming, we must be absolutely sure that we are executing the right man. Short of rethinking everything that our country has stood for in the past couple of centuries, I see no way around these basic problems.

Why do we bother then? Why not just lock them up and throw away the key? The answer is vengeance plain and simple. We know that the death penalty is not a deterrent to crime, we know that it costs more to execute a man than to put him away for life. But when someone takes a life, the immediate reaction is that this person ought to give his life as well. If I have any one problem with the death penalty it is that it's proponents will not come out and say what it is they actually want. They talk about deterrence and justice, but what they really want is vengeance. When the motivating factor in any trial is vengeance, facts can become malleable. Another nasty thing about vengeance is that it can tend to cloud the thinking of the people that are after it. It is perfectly understandable for the victim's family to want vengeance on the criminal. It is not however, acceptable for the state to pursue it as a matter of public policy.

Another difficulty with capital punishment is the way that it is applied. Too many capital cases in this country are being defended by inexperienced public defenders simply because the accused cannot afford better. Statistics show a possible racial bias and a definite class bias when it comes to who receives the death penalty. If we as a nation are going to have the death penalty as one of our options, then we must at the very least ensure that it is applied equally.

The one thing about Dave's article I did agree with is that Davis does not deserve to live. I would just caution everyone to remember that just because this one case is a clear cut argument for the death penalty, we shouldn't allow it to influence our public policy in this matter. If we can insure that the capital punishment is applied fairly, with justification and for the right reasons, then I see no problem. Until we as a nation are able to do that however, we may want to consider the alternatives.

So - you got an opinion? Think Dean ought to be hung out to dry? Do you want to elect him president? Check out the Rant Page and let us know what you think!

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