Reading about California’s execution of Tookie Williams Monday night, it occurs to me that there are two categories of death penalty supporters:
- People who don’t understand the legal system. If you’ve never sat through a criminal trial (or several), you can’t possibly understand the uncertainties in every case, including those cases that the press paints as “open and shut” (e.g, the O.J. Simpson Trial). Human fallibility permeates the process: the prosecutor, the defense attorney, the witnesses, the jury, and the judge. Sometimes it reduces to a question of whom to believe, and the legal process is not necessarily the most effective way to answer that question if your goal is to get to the truth.
Sometimes “what happened” is actually pretty clear, but it still seems like fitting square pegs in round holes to match the facts of the particular case to the abstract categories set up by the law.
The other thing that should be abundantly clear to anyone who has participated in or witnessed a criminal trial is that degrees of potential punishment have only a minimal impact on an individual considering a crime. For the most part, those individuals just don’t expect to get caught (or they aren’t thinking about it at all). I would be shocked if anyone could prove a crime was deterred because the death penalty was a potential punishment for the act in question, rather than, e.g., life in prison. It should be obvious that people who commit murder are generally not rational beings, weighing their options and the potential consequences. Certainly, there is no statistical correlation between increased application (or availability) of the death penalty and decreased violent crime.
- People who use the death penalty for political advantage. These people, mostly politicians, may or may not appreciate the fundamental problems of the death penalty, but realize that most people do not understand the criminal justice system, and that taking a pro-death penalty position will communicate a message that they are doing their utmost to reduce crime and make people safer (regardless of whether or not that is actually true).
Are there any death penalty supporters who don’t fit into those two categories? Perhaps certain victims and their families, who view the death penalty as necessary to reestablish some sort of karmic balance in the world and “put the whole thing behind them”?