Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Capital Punishment

As many of my friends know, I have long been opposed to capital punishment. It does nothing to prevent future crime. It does nothing to bring back lost loved ones. It simply adds to the bloodshed and culture of violence.

I get especially saddened when I see news items like the one today on CNN about a man repeatedly proclaiming his innocence while being executed in Oklahoma. The man, Jimmy Ray Slaughter, is quoted as saying, "I've been accused of murder and it's not true. It was a lie from the beginning[.] You people will know it's true some day. May god have mercy on your souls." What makes this case especially interesting is the appeals testimony of Larry Farwell, a Seattle-based neuroscientist. Farwell tested Slaughter using a technique known as "brain fingerprinting," that is based on the idea that recognizing images will cause an involuntary response in the brain. Farwell testified that his tests indicated Slaughter did not commit the crime. The article points out that brain fingerprinting "has yet to gain much legal acceptance."

I am not a neuroscientist, so I cannot evaluate the validity of brain fingerprinting. I also cannot proclaim any knowledge of the facts presented in the case. However, if this technique is later validated as scientifically (and legally) sound, what do we, as a society, say to Slaughter's 3 daughters who witnessed the execution? Do we sort of mutter, "Sorry we killed your father even though he was innocent?" Or do we rationalize it, saying that the evidence at the time indicated he was guilty? No such rationalization is sound if an innocent man dies. If society can use this excuse, why can't defendents? "I'm sorry, your Honor. The evidence at the time indicated that person was planning to break into my house and kill me. Little did I know he was actually just going to knock on my door to let me know I left my car's headlights on." A life sentence at least offers the possibility of reversal. Once you kill the inmate, his guilt or innocence is irrelevant. He is dead. You can no longer set him free if new evidence comes to light.

Again, I do not know if Slaughter was innocent or guilty. However, as long as a human is the one judging such innocence or guilt, there is the possibility of error. Any rational society must acknowledge this fact and ban the practice of capital punishment.


At 7:54 PM, Anonymous JJ said...

Makes you want to go live in Europe...

At 7:02 PM, Anonymous Greg said...

What about all the people who are unquestionably guilty? Those where DNA evidence, eyewitmess testimony, being caught in the act etc., eliminates all possibility of innocence. Still wrong to execute them?

If executing one of these criminals prevents them from taking the life of another person, has justice been served?

Of course, once we've executed them, we will never know. The only ones we know about are those who have been paroled or escaped or even been acquitted, and then victimized another innocent person. What do we tell that victim or their family? "Gee, we're sorry, we just couldn't bring ourselves to eliminate him from society. After all, he MIGHT have been innocent".

Bah! We've become a nation of hand wringers without any courage of conviction.


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