Friday, September 24, 2010

More Thoughts About Execution Renewal

Albert Greenwood Brown's impending execution has made me think again about the rationales against the death penalty. As I said earlier this summer, there is an inherent problem in framing arguments for public debate. Western democracies have abolished the death penalty based on humanitarian and human rights considerations. A variety of historical and political developments has propelled the U.S. anti-death-penalty advocacy to rely on utilitarian arguments instead, such as deterrence (see this piece by Cass Sunstein and Justin Wolfers), wrongful convictions, and, most recently, costs. Granted, this genre of arguments has the advantage of appealing to a broad scope of commentators, including the Fox News target audience. However, no choice in framing arguments is without its costs, and my concern is that we're throwing the baby out with the bath water.

Brown's prospects on Wednesday are a case in point. Brown is not mentally impaired and clearly cannot be analogized to a juvenile or make any sort of diminished capacity argument. There is also no doubt as to his guilt. So, is he more "worthy" of dying by the hand of the states than other death row inmates? Once we start making such distinctions we are risking a very problematic quantification of human life. It is precisely because this quantification diminishes us as human beings and as a civil society that we must abolish the death penalty for the young and old, for the impaired and the apt, for the arguably innocent and the undeniably guilty.

For those of you who are artistically inclined, the YouTube video includes selections from an opera based on Sister Helen Prejean's Dead Man Walking.

Stay tuned for breaking news from Judge Fogel.

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