Lester Leroy Bower was executed in Texas a few weeks ago after sitting on death row for more than thirty years. Think about that for a second…the state decided he ought to die, and then waited thirty years to do it. If people have concluded that someone’s actions merit a punishment of death, why the hell do they wait thirty years to carry out the sentence? Why not just take him outside the courthouse and put a bullet in his head and be done with it?
Well, there’s a very good reason for that absurd waiting period, and it tells you precisely why capital punishment should be outlawed, but first I want to touch on some of the arguments about the death penalty, and why I think all of them, save for one, are irrelevant.
First, let me say that I had never heard of Lester Leroy Bower before a few weeks ago, and I had never heard of Bob Tate, Ronald Mayes, Philip Good and Jerry Mac Brown, the men he was convicted of shooting in an airplane hangar near Dallas, Texas. Bower claimed he didn’t do it, but a jury concluded otherwise. Even after reading, I only know surface details, so let me be clear that this argument should not be construed as a conclusion about that matter specifically. But his story got me thinking about the sheer absurdity of the death penalty as a punishment.
Secondly, let me say I am not opposed to the concept of killing someone who killed someone. (I am also not opposed to imprisoning them for some time.) In the abstract, the logic behind capital punishment can make sense. The problem is that when abstract concepts get translated into real life, they don’t always hold up the same way they do in your head.
People who argue in favor of the death penalty cite reasons like its power as a crime deterrent, its cost relative to imprisoning someone for life, that murderers deserve to die, that the Bible says “an eye for an eye”, and the fact that victims’ families “deserve closure”. Let’s look at these one by one.
Crime deterrent. Does the death penalty deter crime? Maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t. Take the example of Hong Kong vs. Singapore. These two city-states have a similar economic profile. One of them (Singapore) has the death penalty and the other (Hong Kong) doesn’t. Yet, crime rates are similar. Studies in the United States comparing states with and without the death penalty have been similarly inconclusive, or when they have skewed to one side or the other, one could argue confirmation bias from those running the studies. The deterrent argument is therefore pretty weak; it seems to me that if you’re going to do something as extreme as kill someone, your reasons for doing so should be overwhelmingly supported by data. The fact is, when it comes to deterrence, it isn’t.
Cost. Prosecuting death penalty cases costs more than prosecuting cases where the maximum punishment is prison time, and the appeals process adds even more cost on top of that. Of course, the death penalty would certainly cost less if we took the convict out behind the courthouse and put a bullet in his/her head, but it just doesn’t work that way. More to the point: it can’t work that way, for the same reason I will elaborate on below.
Murderers deserve to die, and the Bible says “an eye for an eye”. These arguments are subjective. Do murderers deserve to die? Maybe, maybe not…one could make an argument either way. I’d say it’s more likely that no one deserves anything, and that you just get what you get, and maybe that’s more of a philosophical discussion. As for the Bible, most people in the world are not Christians, so what the Bible says or doesn’t say is irrelevant to them. And even if the Bible were some sort of factual encyclopedia, rather than a collection of religious parables, it’s worth pointing out that “an eye for an eye” is not the same thing as “a life for a life”, and furthermore the Bible also says “thou shalt not kill”, and it says “love thy enemy”, so citing the Bible, even if you believe in it, is as slippery a debate technique as citing the deterrence studies above.
Victims’ families deserve closure. Murder victims’ families have been through hell, and I understand the sentiment that they ought to get something to offset that suffering. But let’s not mince words: “closure” here means “revenge”. You can kill the killer, or kill 100 killers, and nothing is going to bring back the person that was murdered. So what they really want is their pound of flesh, and it’s totally understandable. I might even want the same thing. But, I’d argue that capital punishment doesn’t really give them closure in the first place. They may convince themselves that it does, but it doesn’t, and it’s for the same reason that the whole thing rests on shaky ground.
What about arguments against the death penalty? People argue racial and socioeconomic bias in convictions, that its finality prevents redemption, that the death penalty is “inhumane”, and that some people convicted are innocent, among other less compelling pronouncements.
Racial and socioeconomic bias. This argument is strong, but it only supports the one reason I’m getting to. In the United States, for example, access to money vastly improves your access to defense attorneys, so poorer people are more likely to have a weaker defense, and are therefore more likely to be convicted of a crime. Often criminal cases are swayed by technicalities, or by the charisma of the lawyer, things that have no bearing on the truth of what happened. Racial bias is well documented: blacks in America, for example, are far more likely to be convicted of the same crimes as white people, owing to systemic bias, and so-called soft racism. But I argue that as important as these points are, they are actually only a part of the real reason to be opposed to the death penalty.
Finality prevents redemption. This is a compelling argument also, but only for a certain audience. Certainly, if the state kills someone, they give them no chance to atone for their (admittedly huge) mistakes, and live a good or productive life again. What I meant about the audience is that it seems to me there is a large proportion of the populace that isn’t terribly concerned with convicted criminals having a shot at redemption. I’m not saying I agree with that, I’m just saying public sentiment seems to reflect a lack of concern for the rights of criminals, and so though there may be some merit here, it isn’t really a compelling reason for or against.
The death penalty is inhumane. This argument actually makes me laugh out loud. Human beings are predators; it’s how we rose to the top of the food chain in the first place. To kill is certainly human, if not humane. To think otherwise is, in my opinion, to live in a fantasy world of your own creation. Anyone who studies history or current events will find a world littered with people killing other people: war, crime and neglect have run rampant throughout human civilization, and will certainly continue to do so. So the argument that people are somehow above killing other people is patently ridiculous.
Now we get back to Lester Leroy Brown, and why his execution took 30 years to fulfill. As I said, the reason is obvious, and it relates to the only argument about the death penalty that you need in order to know the practice should be abolished, and that is this: we never really know we have convicted the right person. That’s why this execution took so long, because Mr. Brown must be given an opportunity to appeal the verdict. Why is he given that opportunity?
He’s given that opportunity because we all know that the justice system (any justice system, in any country) is inherently flawed. It’s flawed, because in most cases, we simply don’t know what happened. This is why there are about a million TV shows about piecing together and prosecuting crimes: CSI, NCIS, Law & Order, Motive, The Fall, etc. and so on. The fact that these situations have to be pieced together is what means we can never be sure of anything. Of course, on a show like CSI, they always use “science” to find the smoking gun that “proves” they found the right person, but then the writers of the show include a scene where the killer confesses, so that they can sidestep the obvious issues with the fact that most of their conclusions are based on circumstantial evidence.
If you’re not opposed to the concept of killing killers, you’d have no problem pulling the trigger to kill Lester Leroy Brown if you knew that he killed four people over a stolen ultralight aircraft. What a trivial thing (a $4,000 aircraft) to murder people over. Think about all the anguish and hurt and pain it caused for the families of those four other men, one of whom was apparently killed just because of the unfortunate timing of entering the hangar at the wrong moment. So yeah, fuck Lester Leroy Brown. He got what was coming to him. Right?
But how do you feel about killing him when you know that another woman came forward in 1989 claiming that her then-boyfriend admitted to killing four men over a drug deal gone sour, and also that one of his friends described to her the sound of the shots reverberating inside a big tin building? How do you feel about pulling the trigger when you know that this new information was never really examined in a trial, and that the information used to convict Brown was largely circumstantial, that it boiled down to his lying about being at the hangar, and having pieces of an ultralight aircraft at his home, for which he could not produce a receipt, which led police to declare theft as his motive? Can you produce a receipt for everything in your home?
Again, I’m only using this case to illustrate. I am not arguing that Brown was innocent. What I am arguing is that it’s murky: we simply don’t know what happened. We’ll never know. The district attorney doesn’t know. The defense lawyer doesn’t know. The jury doesn’t know. Assuming there wasn’t some witness we don’t know about, no one, save for Brown himself, or the actual killer(s), if it was someone else, and the four men killed, really knew his relation (if any) to that crime.
People might have gotten annoyed that I sort of brushed off socioeconomic and racial bias in the justice system above, but in fact here’s where that argument comes back around as part of a larger whole. That bias results in more innocent people getting convicted…and that is what the real problem is. If we were certain that our justice system convicted guilty people 100% of the time, then there wouldn’t be this bias in the first place, and we could be sure to execute people, no matter their race or social status. But the justice system doesn’t tell us who’s guilty; it only tells us that 12 people were able to be convinced about who’s guilty, and that is a very different thing.
2014’s popular podcast Serial makes this whole argument clear. Here is a long, convoluted story about a guy who was convicted of murdering a young woman essentially because of of the testimony of one person, even though there was no forensic evidence linking him to the crime. Listen to the podcast all the way through, and ask yourself: did he do it? If you ask that as a binary question, you can probably lean one way or the other: “he did it”, or “he didn’t do it”. But then go further and ask yourself a follow-up question: “How sure am I of that conclusion?” Express that certainty as a percentage from 0% to 100%. It so happens the subject of that story is sitting in prison, but what if the penalty in that case was death…could you hold a gun to his head and pull the trigger?
In the end, there is only one reason the death penalty should be abolished. Even though many of us might agree in the abstract that we should be able to kill a killer, the problem is, we almost never really know for sure that we have the actual killer.