Bad Arguments Against The Death Penalty: Update


Big news is that both lefty and righty Catholic news sources banded together last week to issue an editorial “Capital Punishment Must End“.

The subject is enormous; there is no hope of covering every facet in this article. All I want to do here is dismantle a couple of bad arguments used by death penalty opponents. Because the following arguments are shown to be poor is not, of course, proof or justification for the death penalty. One must never embrace bad arguments simply because their conclusions are comforting. For additional details, see Ed Feser’s “Capital punishment should not end” (Feser also has a book on this subject in the works).

Update Via emails I have received, and from some of the comments below, it appears people did not read the paragraph above this one. And they probably haven’t read Feser either.

Update 2 If you haven’t already, go to Feser’s place and see the more compete set of links to articles critical of the joint editorial.

Deterrence & Prevention

Leave aside the question whether deterrence is the or a purpose of punishment (there are good arguments it is not). Opponents claim capital punishment does not deter. “‘Society can protect itself in ways other than the use of the death penalty,’ Cardinal O’Malley said.”

Threats of punishment deter. If they did not, then why don’t you rob your local bank? To argue the death penalty does not deter is to claim to have evidence which asserts authoritatively that deterrence peaks at some level of punishment shy of death. No such evidence exists.

Instead, complicated statistical surveys are conducted, with most usually forgetting that models can’t ascribe causes—or lack of causes. Raw numbers sometimes can.

The National Institute of Justice maintains statistics on recidivism rates. Assume the death penalty for murder convictions is meted out. Convicted murderers would then not be able to kill again; nor could they commit other crimes. This is one form of deterrence; rather, of prevention.

As it is now, most murders are not executed; most are released after serving prison terms. Some murders commit other crimes, including murder, in prison and in society upon release. Death penalty opponents are often deaf to the harm criminals can inflect while incarcerated.

According to the NIJ (Table 8), about half of murderers (obviously not executed!) released from prison are arrested again after 5 years (for any crime). The numbers are slightly higher for those convicted of manslaughter, another crime sometimes thought eligible for capital punishment. About 1% (Table 9) of released prisoners are arrested within 5 years for homicide. About (Table 10) one-third of those arrested for any violent crime are re-arrested within 5 years for another violent crime. It’s not clear from their tables exactly how many released murders commit new murders, but it’s surely greater than 0.

Thus we can say that some murderers will kill again, crimes which could have been deterred (prevented!) were the death penalty for murder in place. Of course, this argument also applies to non-criminals! Execute all and there is no crime. Which only proves we must look outside the numbers for assessing the morality of capital punishment. But we can not claim the death penalty does not deter or prevent crime. We can only argue about the level of deterrence and prevention.


Opponents say capital punishment costs money. “It is also insanely expensive, as court battles soak up resources better deployed in preventing crime in the first place and working toward restorative justice for those who commit less heinous crimes.”

This is a shockingly poor argument. Would opponents switch sides were capital punishment free? Obviously not. Indeed, this argument works against opponents because at least one purpose of punishment, if not the purpose, is retribution. That capital trials take inordinate time and money is because we as a society can’t make up our mind about it. It’s tough to claim retribution as trials drag out over years, even decades.

The term “restorative justice” has the stink of political correctness about it. According to an eponymous website it “is a theory of justice that emphasizes repairing the harm caused or revealed by criminal behaviour. It is best accomplished through cooperative processes that include all stakeholders.” Use of word “theory” sends further shivers down my spine.

Anyway, a murdered person cannot be repaired and can’t cooperate in “processes.”

Pop Psychology

“Advocates of the death penalty often claim that it brings closure to a victim’s family. But advocates who walk with the families of victims, like Mercy Sister Camille D’Arienzo, tell a different story.”

Any argument that includes the word “closure” fails automatically. A family member can feel that retribution has taken place while still taking pity on the murderer and while still feeling sadness at their loss.

Advocates who walk with the families of victims? Spare me.

Non Sequitur

“Archbishop Chaput reminds us that when considering the death penalty we cannot forget that it is we, acting through our government, who are the moral agents in an execution. The prisoner has committed his crime and has answered for it in this life, just as he shall answer for it before God. But it is the government, acting in our name, that orders and perpetrates lethal injection. It is we who add to, instead of heal, the violence.”

Shorter version: Under capital punishment, the State executes the criminal.

Archbishop Chaput’s argument is not one. The question before us is whether capital punishment is justified given capital punishment is, well, capital.

Faulty Methods Of Execution

“Last April, the drug protocol failed in the execution of Clayton Lockett. Lockett moaned in pain before authorities suspended the execution; he would die of a heart attack later that night.”

This anecdote could equally well be used to argue for surer methods of execution. Did we hear firing squads were making a comeback? Pondering the question of a quick execution is what, incidentally, led Dr Guillotine to his solution.

Update: Inability to choose new restaurants

Via Feser via Ed Peters comes The Anchoress’s “We are Catholic” arguments. The “soaring rhetoric” argument particularly struck me.

To those who suggest that capital punishment is a proper justice, and that one who has taken the life of another has no right to his own, or her own, let us consider a life lived in captivity, where, — because of one’s actions — one’s choices are forever limited; where simple human freedoms no longer exist for you. You cannot decide to take a walk at midnight, or plan a menu and entertain guests, or try a new restaurant, or rustle up some scrambled eggs, or go fishing, or sleep in, or lay on the grass with a good book, or dandle a baby, or watch a parade, or travel to Rome, or rearrange furniture, or retire to someplace quiet. The loss of simple human options like these is the loss of much of the richness of life; to most of us, it would feel like deserved but heavy justice, indeed.

I suppose travel to China for the incarcerated is out, too. Anyway, Scalia has forgotten that those executed will also not be trying new restaurants nor rustling up scrambled eggs nor dandling (I hope this is a good thing) babies nor doing much of anything else involving their corporeal selves. Is Scalia taking delight in musing on the suffering of prisoners for life? Is she imagining needling lifers by sending them travel brochures?

See this essay by Fr Rutler based on Dr Johnson’s well known and most apt quip, “The prospect of being hanged focuses the mind wonderfully.”


  1. Yawrate

    So what about the fact that some on death row are there and are not actually guilty of the crime? The reports that another person (a man, invariably) has been exonerated by new evidence (lately, DNA) has always disturbed me.

  2. Nate

    What about the “irrevocable” argument? Is the state taking the life of one innocent person wrongfully convicted acceptable?

    Here in NC, there is a new creation – a neutral state commission which has powers to review new evidence of actual innocence.There have been 8 exonerations thus far. After all, the justice system is adversarial – facts often don’t seem to enter into a case on technicalities, or evidence found later never gets deemed worthy of testing.

    Two mentally ill men were sentenced (one to life in prison, the other to death ) here and recently freed.

    Death is so… final.

  3. Violence is not a well-defined term and generally means anything the speaker wants it to. Driving a child to suicide over the internet is violent, but it’s not seen as such. Punching out the evil kid tormenting someone over the internet is violence. Vioence is the term used to take away the power of your opponent. It’s rarely properly defined and that is on purpose.

    Wyoming was considering a firing squad. I don’t think it passed. Of course, in 30 years there has been only one execution, so I don’t see it as a big deal. Methods, again, are impossible in a sissy society ran by panty-waisted little girls. It is insane to think that you can “humanely” kill something. Killing is killing. Whether they moan or not. Since society is told to be sheep and quietly be devoured alive by the wolf (which is somehow not violent…), I don’t see us finding an answer soon. Lambs will continue to be slaughtered right and left because to do anything but stand there and watch or run away is somehow interpreted as “violent” or “bad”. We are a bunch of stupid sheep, sadly.

    As for the death penalty, I consider it prevention–preventing further crime on the part of the perpetrator. I don’t think it should be used often, but it is appropriate in some cases. Perhaps this whole discussion is why police shoot people so often–the courts won’t protect people, so the police keep it out of the courts. Maybe that’s even the point of the whole opposition to the death penalty movement—forcing police to do the job of the courts and then attacking the police for doing just that, creating more and more chaos. I do truly believe that those who oppose the death penalty want a violent society (maybe not the Quakers, but even then psychologically, this means they are either very naive or very suicidal). But opponents certainly cannot say that, of course.

  4. I usually love Chaput, but that bit from him is just execrable. He’s drunk too much enlightenment kool-aid and he should know better piling abstractions upon abstractions to come up with the rhetorical equivalent of a Jackson Pollack painting.

  5. Gary

    Then there’s the “unequally applied” argument that the different states have differing laws, not to mention the federal courts. A current case in point is the Boston Marathon bomber is being tried federally with the death penalty in play in contrast to being tried by the State of Massachusetts which has no such penalty. However, some might question if this really is a bad argument, since jurisdictional rules vary on everything considered illegal.

  6. Daniel D

    I agree that these arguments against capital punishments are bad. I agree there are many good arguments for capital punishment. The only issue is that I cannot trust the State as the agent dispensing the punishment and I cannot trust the justice process (or two issues).I’m ready to allow a criminal walk free rather than executing an innocent. If you agree with this principle, what to do with alleged criminals being caught again? How could we compensate the harm of the second victim? I don’t know.

  7. The “closure” argument is awful. Even if the execution of criminal DID provide “closure” to the family, so what? Closure for victims is not the purpose of law and criminal justice.

    A formal court and jail system exists in part to prevent “closure.” After all, when law is far less formal, as in societies where it is largely in the hands of families, local custom and the wishes of the victims or their families are what dictate punishment. Custom helps strengthen family resolve to punish the perpetrator, and also helps keep family desires from being “too lax” or “too harsh” (by local standards) — if what each victim or victim’s family wanted were the sole arbiter of punishment for wrongdoing, you would get all sorts of things demanded for “closure.” When we formalize law and take punishments out of the hands of families, the purpose is to have more uniform, and more uniformly imposed, penalties set up and to have them apply equally to all. The offense becomes against the state as well as against the family, making it more abstract and less personal.

    If my neighbor’s child is tortured and murdered, I would not at all blame my neighbor for walking up to the murderer and shooting him in the head. That is the ancient “rock bottom” kind of justice. But we do not allow that, in part because it is disruptive to a large and organized society — after all, my neighbor might also consider that appropriate justice for someone who steals his car, or who calls him a nasty name. Instead, we have an elaborate criminal justice system. If that same murderer is apprehended and put in jail, we do not allow my neighbor to go kill him. We say, in effect, “the state will take over from here and will punish him in a way that ensures the safety and common good of all citizens.”

    Now, the state may legitimately say that punishment should be death. But if so, “closure” for the victim’s family is not the reason. Once a state codifies a penalty, whether or not the victim or victim’s family feels “closure” does not matter. We have as a group decided that punishment is just for any person who commits the same crime, whatever the motives of the actual criminal or whatever restitution the actual victim wants.

    The point here is (or should be!) to determine whether or not citizens continue to consider the death penalty to be one of those set punishments, and if so, under what circumstances. I think there is a good argument to be made that, according to Catholic Social Teaching, changing circumstances in the West mean that it should no longer be used. But the Catholic publications missed the boat on that argument.

  8. Daniel D: You cannot compensate a family whose mother is raped and killed by someone turned loose “in case he is innocent”. You cannot erase the harm irregardless. Yes, innocent people can be executed, though with DNA, that has decreased. But turning violent felons loose because “you could be wrong” is going to cause far more damage. Percentage wise, I’m betting released felons who then commit murder FAR outnumber innocent people executed. (This can be reduced by not giving the death penalty to a person with no other offenses in the past.)

    Gail: I’m not sure I agree the state is any more effective or fair in pronouncing justice. Many times, vigilante law was far more effective. Now, you can walk on a murder due to a “technicality”. How insane is it to release someone because the court made a mistake? Yet it happens all the time–and that’s where vigilante justice returns out of necessity. I do agree that the death penalty cannot provide “closure” to the victim’s family. That’s an internal process that only the victim and/or their family can do.

    Nate: Death is very final. However, we have also incarcerated people for 3/4 of their lives and found out they were innocent. You can’t give back 40 years of freedom either. If you are willing to let 100s die to prevent the death of one innocent, I’d need to see how one justifies it (Other than it’s God’s problem and he’ll take care of it, which was one argument I was given.) Standing by and doing nothing is, to me, morally wrong. How can anyone let a terrorist loose in an elementary school because “we just weren’t sure he was absolutely guilty so he’s out of jail now? How is it not the fault of those who released him? Do we not have a duty to protect ourselves? Or are “good” people just food for the wolves? As noted in my comment to Gail, I don’t think the state is very good at providing justice, due to technicalities and other aspects of “justice”. However, our choices are vigilantes or some kind of justice system that is imperfect. That’s it.

  9. michael hart

    As earlier posters comment, it is irreversible. Every person and every system will make mistakes. Making the consequences completely irreversible makes the mistakes worse.

  10. Sander van der Wal

    We had a famous murder case in The Netherlands a few years ago: Very appropriate, because the guilt of the supposed murderess was proven using Bayesian statistics.

    Only thing, she did not do it. Nobody did anything, apart from terminally ill patients dying of natural causes. Lots of them died during her shifts, and that was used as proof that she murdered those people somehow.

    Fortunately The Netherlands doesn’t do capital punishment. Not even when statistics professors tell the court they have ironclad evidence.

  11. Those of you saying “it’s too permanent”. You are then okay with inmates killing other inmates, being released into society and allowing more crime, etc, because we might make a mistake. How many innocent people are you in favor of killing by proxy (ie released killer ) so “WE” don’t make a mistake. This seems pretty uncaring and unkind just to protect one possibly innocent person. You are allowing perhaps hundreds of innocents to die by your inaction. Or is you doing nothing the morally correct answer? If so, why have jails at all?

  12. Katie

    I suggest a similar column on the arguments that are made in favor of the death penalty.

  13. Sander van der Wal


    No, we do not. You can still argue for life sentencing without parole.

    And secondly, you need a proper argument for the case that the State is either wrong, or being manipulated. Saying that the State cannot do wrong when doling out Capital Punishment is a situation a lot worse than all the things the State is being accused of on these pages. If one argues that the State is wrong regarding the rights of same sex marriages, why should that very same State run by the very same stupid people be right regarding Capital Punishment? That case needs a very convincing argument.

  14. Nate


    You’re attacking a straw man and excluding the middle. Being against the state killing prisoners is not the same as wanting these prisoners to be set free and to kill innocents. Or allowing them to kill other prisoners, for that matter.

    If you acknowledge that innocent people might be executed, would you be willing to have one of your family members executed whom you were convinced was innocent in order to protect the system and the hundreds of people who might die if the murderer in the cell next to your family member is given a life sentence?

  15. Sander: Read my comment carefully. I did address “life without parole” which still allows inmates to kill other inmates and prison guards with impunity. There’s no punishment after you’re in with “life without parole”. You can do whatever you want.
    I never said the state was never wrong–read again. I asked how many innocent people (you can argue one drug dealer killing another one in jail is okay because there’e no innocence involved, but the guards are mostly innocent) you are going to allow to die to avoid making a mistake? I did not address the application, appropriateness, etc any where in my comments. I said if you oppose the death penalty in all cases, you are adding to the number of homicides, if not outside the prison then inside.
    Repeating my question, if you (generic usage, not you personally) are not willing to stop a killer permanently, are you not allowing innocents to die because of your inaction? Let me try something simpler–you see a drowning man, you could save him, but you don’t want to take a chance, so you just walk away. You bear no guilt in his death, right? Then we get more complicated–“you” see someone about to kill a bystander. You’re armed. Do you defend them?
    There are a ton of questions on behaviours and whether or not standing by and doing nothing or taking a life to save others are morally justified. Katie’s suggestion is good–when can you kill in defense of others would be a good topic?
    (Remember, I consider the death penalty to be killing in self-defense, to prevent the individual from killing innocents again.)

    Nate: If a member of my family was convicted and sentenced to death but I thought him innocent, I would do whatever I could within the system to save him. Would I demand the system change because it’s my sibling—no. That’s insane. My rules apply to everyone the same, be it a relative or a stranger. When your DNA connections start determining law…..well, we see that already with “family first”, “loyalty to family” even when that family member is a terrorist. People think you can’t “rat out” family—thank goodness the Unibomber’s brother did not have that crazy morality. DNA does not determine the rules.
    How would I feel if my family member was guilty as sin and was sentenced to life without parole, later released due to prison crowding, and killed again. I’d likely hunt him/her down and turn them over to the courts for one more try. And testify against them.
    How can you prevent “life without parole” from allowing the killing of other cellmates? Put them in solitary for the rest of their lives? I don’t see how you can avoid that. Even “life without parole” can be overturned on a technicality. These are not straw men arguments.

  16. There’s only one argument that seals the deal against the death penalty for me – I don’t want the government to have the power to take lives. You can not undo an execution, but you can set a newly found innocent man free. Given the state of our police state, the ridiculous number of arrests and the ridiculous incarceration rate, I most certainly do not trust them with the power to make the final and irreversible decision to kill people. Why many conservatives, of all people, fail to acknowledge this argument is beyond me. It’s blatantly hypocritical. They don’t trust the government to do anything – except kill people. It goes to show the dire need for a little higher thinking on the Right.


  17. Nate

    Perhaps we should revive transportation as a punishment. to the moon, perhaps?

  18. Nate


    Actually, the power over life and death is the power from which all the rest of government is derived. Don’t pay your taxes? Jail time eventually. If you fight back, the state then forces you to comply, and if you still fail, you eventually will be shot by a cop or prison guard.

    Governments have a granted monopoly on “legal” force. This is why I think we should make sure they are as small as humanly possible.

  19. Paul W

    The government drops a bomb via the military on innocents all the time and deems that acceptable. Those people don’t get due process. What we do is try as hard as we can to limit civilian casualties but we know we’ll never be 100%. We seem to be okay with those sacrifices because the overall goal is worthwhile. Executing a person that had due process(a process in place to limit casualties) to achieve a greater good for society somehow isn’t? I think it’s a bad argument to say we will get it wrong and kill innocents on occasion so we shouldn’t do it. We certainly aren’t consistent with that thought.

    While you’re asking if it’s okay to sacrifice a family member to death from a false conviction, ask yourself if you’re then willing to sacrifice a family member to violence from a released murderer. And then, ask yourself what is most likely to happen? How many wrong convictions vs. how much recidivism? Could it be the reason you hear about overturned convictions from years ago is because it’s so rare?

  20. Nate, anyone can kill anyone who is a dangerous threat to them, it doesn’t matter who they represent. The government does not derive it’s power from the power to kill, but from the consent of the people.


  21. JMJ: The government finds a guy guilty, incarcerates him for 40 years and then finds out he’s innocent. They stole most of his life. He has nothing now. Sure, he’s alive with a record, no income, no family left…..
    You don’t have to trust the government to be in favor of the death penalty.

    Paul W: You make a good point. We are not consistent with who dies and who lives and if we have anything to do with it. Unless one is a true pacifist who will not defend themselves nor allow others to defend them. These individuals seem pretty rare.

  22. Doug M

    re, closure…. the closure argument is the worst argument for the death penalty out there. The psychological state of the families of the victims should have no bearing on what is justice.

    Cost… I accept this one. I used to be pro-death, but now I say, it just costs too damn much, lock people away, instead. So, yes, if it was cheaper, I may change my mind.

  23. “You don’t have to trust the government to be in favor of the death penalty. ”



  24. Gary

    Classical conservatives accept one legitimate function of the government/state — safeguarding the rights of citizens to be secure in their persons and property. So that includes policing and punishment for violation of those rights. Like you, I’m suspicious of its ability to do so fairly, so there must be robust checks on that power. You’re hasty in accusing all “conservatives” of being bloodthirsty hypocrites.

  25. La Logue Carabine

    Scanning earlier comments about executing the innocent, I didn’t see “acceptable risk” mentioned.

    People are unintentionally killed by kitcken knives, baseball bats, cars, etc. The rate is low enough and the utility high enough that we just shrug those terribly unfortunate events away.

    How can we settle values on the rate and utulity?

  26. DAV


    The “closure” argument is awful. Even if the execution of criminal DID provide “closure” to the family, so what? Closure for victims is not the purpose of law and criminal justice.

    Two pertinent definitions:
    punishment: The infliction or imposition of a penalty as retribution for an offense.
    retribution: punishment inflicted on someone as vengeance for a wrong or criminal act.

    Vengeance is a time-honored form of closure.

    Punishment is certainly seen as a deterrent to those inflicting it. One doesn’t inflict punishment on roaches although the end result is the death penalty.

    The threat of punishment doesn’t work as a deterrent for enraged murder. but certainly should for planned murder. Now whether it is better to execute a murderer or let the murderer stew through many years of suffering with a life sentence (and at a higher cost) is problematic. I do note people like Jodi Arias seek the latter more often than not. One gets the impression that prison sentences are even less a deterrent than the death penalty when it comes to murder.

  27. DAV

    VVV Just playing. Please delete.
    p style=”color:blue”.
    font color=”red”

  28. DAV

    Regular HTML color specs don’t work it seems, Colors would be nice.

  29. Dear Dr Briggs:

    I’m in favor of capital punishment when the criminal is clearly guilty and, equally clearly, the crime itself is part of a pattern of criminal life choices.

    The problem, as many here have pointed out, is that neither can usually be clearly established after the fact – in other words, if the murderer dies during or immediately after the crime and there’s no doubt whatsoever that he, or she, is guilty, I say Yea!, but if the state has to go through some complex process of proof then I say Nay! because all such processes are subject to error and corruption.

  30. I agree with Paul to a degree. I do not think the death penalty is appropriate in many cases. The penalty should not be applied unless the crime was especially heinous, as in bombing buildings, etc. It should not be applied on a first offense unless it was again, heinous. It does need to be part of a pattern of crime.

    You can release a person wrongly convicted, but you cannot give them back the years of life spent in prison, during which time relatives may have died, children grown up and wives/husbands left them. To me, if you are going to argue that the “seriousness of the penalty” is what counts, jailing someone is NOT reversible any more than death. You can never give back the years. Yet many people seem to have no problem with the idea that the state could take 40 or 50 years of your life on wrongful convictions, yet if the wrong person is killed, that’s tragic.

  31. Ken

    In dismantling some bad arguments for the death penalty, has Briggs demonstrated compliance with official Church doctrine?

    That doctrine might be summed up as ‘that which does not comport with the Church’s official doctrine is bad justification?’ For a R. Catholic that ought to suffice.

    The official position on capital punishment, while theoretically accommodating, is almost a prohibition — in Evangelium Vitae and the Catechism the Pope states:

    “2267 Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.
    “If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.

    . That position cites: 67 C^. Lk 23:40-43.

    The laity who are responsible for passing capital punishment judgments in political society have a grave obligation to apply ALL the principles taught by the Church to the cases before them. The real question isn’t if an argument for/against capital punishment is valid, or good, or not…it’s if the people doing the judging/implementing of a state-authorized policy can actually do so in compliance with the Church criteria. That is, insofar as one is a Roman Catholic.


  32. Ken

    Consider this from the essay: “As it is now, most murders are not executed; most are released after serving prison terms. … Thus we can say that some murderers will kill again, crimes which could have been deterred (prevented!) were the death penalty for murder in place.”

    NOTE THE LOGIC: Since some significant proportion of murders will kill again — if released from prison — so the obvious solution is to kill them first.

    What happened to longer, or life, prison sentences? That’s effectively foolproof.

    Somehow, in assessing this topic, the options considered [by many] slip into the simplest either/or mindset — kill, or don’t kill, the killer — when in reality the solutions are much more varied.

    Nice illustration of a common human frailty to unwittingly over-simplify a concept, even one recognized to be somewhat complex in nuanced ways, into the simplest possible option set.

    I’m surprised, coming right on the heels of an essay involving race in college admissions, that the well-documented inconsistencies between offense & race & punishment didn’t come up — the record is clear (more in some regions than others) that for essentially the identical crime those of some races have been executed at a rate very different from the rate of others of a different race.

    Which goes to the Pope’s observation that human systems may be ill-equipped to effectively/properly administer the State’s right to take life in such circumstances (at least relative to the official Catholic doctrine, which ought matter to those claiming to be a R. Catholic).

  33. Sylvain

    The best argument against the deaths penalty is the killing of someone later found to be innocent.

    This occurred when Todd Willingham was executed in Texas based on faulty arson fire science and undoubtedly happen to other.

    Since the 1980s at least 143 persons convicted to death row have been exonerated of any wrong doing.

    There are huge problem related to juror decision. Some crime are so horrific that jurors will send anyone to jail only to satisfy that the crime sees justice, even if it create more injustice.

  34. Paul W

    “Since the 1980s at least 143 persons convicted to death row have been exonerated of any wrong doing.”

    Now we need the number of people killed by crimes subject to the death penalty who were set free during that same time and we can start to make an informed decision. Do we want repeat offenders killing people or are we willing to make a few mistakes because we know the courts won’t get it right 100% of the time. It’s that simple. Either way someone innocent is going to pay the price.

  35. Nate

    So basically we are utilitarians?

  36. Ken: “Life without parole” is very appropriately referred to as “death by prison”. Yes, we can use LWP instead of the death penalty. However, LWP can be released by clemency. It’s most often done for drug offenses. Also, LWP is so much more palatable than the death penalty, it gets prescribed quite often. Three strikes you’re out–mandatory even for drug possession, etc. Consider the impact the LWP has on the justice system.

    Paul W: Agreed. We need to know how many murders are released and kill again in crimes that could have given the death penalty.
    Nate: Usually.

  37. Sylvain

    Paul, Sheri,

    I don’t believe that there are a lot of inmate that are in prison for having killed someone that are set free again. I have actually never heard that a convicted murderer was released and had killed again. Their might be some but I can imagine that the example are numerous.

    I’m talking about convicted murderers, not inmate that are there for drug possession and theft.

  38. Bill S

    Paul W
    Best not to take anything Sylvain says as accurate. Ask for case studies and his beliefs tend to fall apart.

  39. Sylvain

    Bill S,

    When did you ever ask me for a case study?

  40. @Sylvain

    “I have actually never heard that a convicted murderer was released and had killed again.”

    Well, if you’ve never heard of something it can’t have happened… Solid logical statement there. 😉

    Or you could have read the topic or even followed the link to the US Department of Justice’s Special Report, that has the Recidivism stats in it…

    (I am a little surprised to see that 77% of released prisoners will be arrested again within 5 years.)

  41. Sylvain

    Will Nitshke,

    1) you forgot a line in my comment where I said there might be some.
    2) We are talking about murderer that are released and then kill again. In the US there are very few murderer that get release to begin with, unlike commonwealth country where life sentence are 25 years, with possibility of release after 15 years.
    3) We are not talking of non murderer convict which have lighter sentences. In the US people are often jailed for petty crime like possessing small amount of marijuana (strangely even though more white smoke it they are less subject to random verification).
    4) the USA jail more people by 100000 people than any other tyrannical country on the planet.

  42. If you’d read the post you would have observed that the murder rate for people who have murdered already is approx. 1% after 5 years. Presumably the US department of justice doesn’t have data over longer periods than that.

    That would not include murderers who get a lesser man slaughter charge, for example. The data doesn’t discuss murderers who then go on to commit ‘less serious’ violent crimes such as rape, assault, crippling people, etc. All that the data tells us that more than 50% of people convicted of violent crimes will re offend violently within 5 years.

  43. OzWizard

    The only coherent definition of “Justice” I know is: “The absence of injustice”. Think about it!

    I can only comprehend this discussion if I translate it into a balance between “rights” and “duties” (i.e. privileges).

    Think of every so-called ‘right’ as a privilege instead, and the complexion of the argument shifts. You soon realise that every privilege implies a corresponding duty.

    What is called the “right of way” at an intersection is actually not a right but a duty. You must GIVE the right of way to someone else in specific copnditions; and others must reciprocate. Otherwise the right will not accrue.

  44. RobR

    At our Catholic Mass we always here …..and for an end of Capital Punishment. Lord hear our Prayer. I often wonder to myself, if there had never been Capital Punishment would the Catholic Church exist.

  45. As for executing the innocent, um, they were gonna die anyway–just a little later.

    Personally, if they were going to execute my child (or me), I’d much rather he (or I) were innocent of any crime. Think for a minute about in Whose company it places us.

  46. Nate

    So other people that might not share your view that being a martyr is a blessing? Hurry along now there are 72 virgins waiting for you…

  47. Just saying it’s better to die than be guilty of a death.
    I have no argument for capital punishment against atheists–we have no common ground.
    Don’t know what you’re talking about the virgins. I’m talking about what eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither hath it entered into the heart of man.

  48. I should say rather my only argument in favour of capital punishment is to say “so what?” to the atheist’s argument against.

  49. Paul W

    In my last statement it should have been people killed by released prisoners as well as people killed in prison by convicted murderers while serving time. Those folks would count too.

    Sylvain – Murderers do indeed get paroled as do those who commit manslaughter or there would be no recidivism to track. Refer to the NIJ link in the body of the post.

  50. Sander van der Wal


    There’s always solitary confinement.

    And regarding people being executed while innocent, somebody is found guilty while innocent because people lied, did not do their work properly, were plain stupid, did not understand stuff, etc etc etc.

    From my example, the statistics professor made a couple of incredibly stupid mistakes you would not expect from a statistics professor. If the women was put to death, what kind of punishment would he deserve? What would be the punishment for a lab assistant mixing up the DNA samples? What kind of punishment for the interrogator “making” a suspect confess something he did not do?

    The whole Capital Punishment debate assumes that nobody makes mistakes. But people make mistakes all the time. You have to take that into account when you want Capital Punishment, what punishments for people causing innocents to die.

    And then there are the people trying to game the system.

  51. There are mistakes made in every worthwhile endeavour; some are fatal. Support for capital punishment needn’t assume there must be no such mistakes any more than support for skyscrapper building and automotive transport.

  52. Sylvain

    Will and Paul

    “According to the NIJ (Table 8), about half of murderers (obviously not executed!) released from prison are arrested again after 5 years (for any crime). The numbers are slightly higher for those convicted of manslaughter, another crime sometimes thought eligible for capital punishment. About 1% (Table 9) of released prisoners are arrested within 5 years for homicide. About (Table 10) one-third of those arrested for any violent crime are re-arrested within 5 years for another violent crime. It’s not clear from their tables exactly how many released murders commit new murders, but it’s surely greater than 0.”

    The 1% is for all prisoner, not people who killed then were released to kill again. The number is not 0, but the number is not that large either. 143 people on death row have been released after being found innocent. The number of people falsely convicted is surely greater. On the other hand, a handful of people were release to kill again as you can see from the link I presented earlier.
    Death penalty is not a necessity and cannot be undone.

  53. Sander: I have a hard time calling life in solitary confinement “life”.
    I have not covered what the death penalty should apply to. In fact, I haven’t actually said I’m for it, just that there are arguments that support it. I do not consider it “punishment” but rather self-defense on the part of society. So the danger to society would be what determined whether it applied, not a specific crime. Kind of like we do with tattooing (electronically of course) HORRIBLE PEDOPHILE on the foreheads of those both convicted and accused of sex with children. It’s not death, but it might as well be in many cases.

    NO, the capital punishment debate does not assume no one makes mistakes. acricketchirps covered that answer.

    Life in prison cannot be reversed either but no one seems bothered by that one. Wyoming released a guy about 65 years old who was cleared by DNA. He has no place to live, no income, nothing. Wyoming has no compensation for wrongful imprisonment. Even if they did, they took the majority of this man’s life and made him spend it in prison. They took his life, they just left him breathing long enough to eventually free him. I see this as just as bad or worse than a wrongful execution. Why does everyone seem just fine with it?

  54. Paul W

    Sylvain – You aren’t answering the right question. It’s not about whether it’s necessary. It’s about whether it’s prudent given the circumstances because mistakes will be made in all options. The people that are the victims after release from prison are just as dead as the wrongly accused. To use your own rationality – Is it necessary they have to die because you can’t stomach the death penalty? You’re picking in favor of one. Ok, mistakes can be made. What about the mistake of letting someone walk that will kill an innocent? One victim had due process, the other didn’t. In one case there was an attempt to get it right. In the other case no such attempt was made. Why should I choose in favor of the convicted in this case?

  55. Sylvain

    Paul W,

    There is a huge gap between no death penalty and liberating on parole. Instead of death penalty there is such a thing of life in prison.

  56. Hugh

    The presented arguments are faultless, but the death penalty, imo, is bad when you cant trust the justice system. And you never can. Life is enough.

  57. Sander van der Wal


    acricketchirps has a personal solution.

    So Wyoming has both the death penalty and not the guts to acknowledge they make Capital Mistakes. Right. I can watch Yellowstone on TV, thank you very much.

    Professionals who make mistakes are generally punished. For instance, a doctor is not allowed to practice any more if he mistreats his patients. But why is it OK if a policeman’s or a DNA lab assistant’s actions result in the death of an innocent? Double standards.

    It is not about not making mistakes, it is about making as much amends as possible after making the mistakes. And that is without the argument that people will scheme the system, trying to get the state to kill their enemies.

  58. Sander: WYOMING DOES NOT CLAIM TO NOT MAKE MISTAKES. There, maybe capital letters will help clarify the situation. Plus, in 30 years only one person was executed. So it’s pretty much a non-issue here. The one remaining convict on death row is trying to claim he’s mentally not smart enough to be held accountable. He buried the victims car in his back yard–you can’t be stupid and do that. He just wants off death row in spite of raping and murdering a college coed, dumping her body in the river and then burying the car. I’m sure he’s sorry—maybe we should overlook this…….Yes, he can get live without parole.

    A doctor has to mistreat his patients, NOT make a legitimate mistake. GROSS NEGLIGENCE—really, the doctor that over medicated Michael Jackson is out of jail and wants his medical license back. Shall we bet on whether he gets it? Even serious errors go unpunished or under punished. Medical mistakes happen daily. We’d be out of doctors if we threw everyone out that erred. No double standard there–not that I can see. Juries make mistakes, doctors make mistakes, policemen make mistakes and all can result in death. Personally, the one place I’d love to see the death penalty is the sleazy, greedy evil personal injury lawyers who make their living off lies and other people’s money. Those are the threat to society (I’m stuck watching daytime TV and one more such sleaze ad, I may throw a brick through the TV. Deplorable semi-human beings.)

    People don’t need the state to kill their enemies. Really, that’s the hard way. Direct action is simpler and more efficient.

  59. Paul W

    Sylvain – I think we’ve established that incarcerated individuals can still murder other incarcerated individuals. Don’t forget about them. Life imprisonment to one person might be a death sentence to someone else in the same prison and that fellow prisoner might actually be innocent too. Maybe we want to isolate murderers for life but I believe that is considered cruel and unusual punishment. So, which is it? Murderers able to kill again at their own discretion or citizens killing after due process? My point is this – being against the death penalty is just one of a few terrible options and shouldn’t clear anyone’s conscience. You’re choosing one set of people to live and one to die even with life terms.

  60. My solution to “what about the children!?” is personal–or at least limited to Christians. My solution to “everyone makes makes mistakes” is more general.

  61. Sylvain


    143 persons convicted to death row were later proven innocent and released. Some innocent were executed.

    127 person were freed last year alone. The number of innocent in jail is estimated to be between 10,000 to 20,000.

    Sadly by the way prisons are built it causes a lot of friction, violence and killing. More murder in jail are done by people who are convicted by other crime than murder, than by those who did commit murder.

    “the homicide rate in local jails nationwide hovered around 3 inmates per 100,000 between 2000 and 2010, according to data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. (There are too few jail inmates in the district to generate a useful Washington-specific figure.” The rate nation wide is 4.7/100k. The murder rate is lower in jail than in society.

  62. Paul W

    “143 persons convicted to death row were later proven innocent and released. Some innocent were executed.”

    Keep in mind at least a part of the 143 convictions were overturned due to improvements in forensic science. The improved science and procedures presumably keeps some people from being wrongly convicted in the first place and therefore I would expect that already low number to go down over time. But again, that part of the investigation and due process the victims do not get. We can be more sure now that we’re executing the right person for the same reasons these convictions are getting overturned.

  63. Paul W: Good point. That’s why the death penalty takes 15 years or more to be implimented.

    Again, it’s not like we shoot the guy in court the day the sentence is pronounced. Death penalty inmates get far more appeals and so forth than life sentencing ones do.

  64. Sylvain

    ” I would expect that already low number to go down over time.”

    Low number you realize that the 143 is compared to 1389 prisoner executed which include at least one innocent Todd Winningham. A margin of error greater than 10%. This is not a small number.

    The murder rate in prison is 3%.

    To kill people like McVeigh, Tsarnaev, or other that are caught in action and where the doubt that you get the correct perp isn’t even a shadow is not a big problem.

  65. What Yawrate has said about punishing the innocent matters. When you execute a wrongly convicted man, you are entirely unable to restore him to justice. And this is also the problem with vigilante justice; it rarely concerns itself with the presumption of innocence. I would give the benefit of due process to the devil himself.

    Further, when you punish the innocent, you help convince people that there’s no point in obeying the law. See Blackstone’s Formulation, that it’s better that ten guilty go free (or a hundred, per Ben Franklin, or a thousand, per Maimonedes) than one innocent suffer at the hands of the courts. The idea that it’s better to ensure that the innocent go free than that all the guilty are punished is very old in common law. If innocence is seen as no defense, then why bother obey the law?

    I’d favor execution as an option for those convicted at least twice (or perhaps thrice), by juries, of raping or murdering their fellow prisoners. Serving a prison sentence ought not to excuse the state from protecting me from threats to life and limb. Jail is the ordinary way to protect people from rapists and murderers; when it does not suffice, then execution is admissible. At that point, I think we can regard an execution as justifiable homicide. I’d shoot somebody to stop them in the act of murder or rape. If the state has demonstrated it can’t protect prisoners from a prison rapist or murderer except by killing the perp, I’m okay with that.

    I’d prefer we executed people in the same manner that my vet used to put down our very elderly dogs. They were first injected with a sedative, and then a dose of anesthetic sufficient to cause respiratory and/or cardiac arrest.

    @Sheri: “The government finds a guy guilty, incarcerates him for 40 years and then finds out he’s innocent. They stole most of his life. He has nothing now. Sure, he’s alive with a record, no income, no family left…..
    You don’t have to trust the government to be in favor of the death penalty.”
    I have yet to see anyone — ANYONE — whom I would regard as “better off dead.” And I work in elder care, caring for people some of whom are immobile, incontinent, and non-communicative.

    @Sander: Solitary confinement is torture. I’m not going to countenance torture. It’s better to kill a person to stop them from killing, than to torture them.

  66. Briggs

    Arkanabar T’verrick Ilarsadin,

    For the life of me I cannot understand why your comments keep going into moderation. I will try and figure it out. Apologies.

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