Monday, January 6, 2014

Release the hounds

Too often objections to the death penalty are based on the method by which the state murders the inmate. That is the primary argument against the death penalty under our Eighth Amendment jurisprudence. It was because of these challenges that most states have now adopted lethal injection as their means of killing inmates.

As the method has become more "humane," the room to argue that the death penalty should be considered cruel narrows

But that argument misses the point entirely. The death penalty should be abolished, not because of the way in which it is carried out, but because the power to determine who dies is not a power that any government should wield. The death penalty is capricious in the manner in which it is carried out. When the driver of the car gets the needle while the man who pulled the trigger sits in prison for life, something is wrong.

With the number of exonerations over the past decade we should all be wary of the risk of murdering an innocent man. We know it's happened. And that is at least one time too many.

And so we come to the execution of Jang Song Thaek in North Korea. Who is Jang Song Thaek, you might ask. He was the uncle of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. If one is to believe press accounts, he groomed Kim Jong Un to take over the leadership of the country. But, somewhere along the line, he and his nephew got crosswise.

The end result was a show trial in which Jang was convicted of attempting to overthrow the state. The sentence was death - and the manner of death is almost unfathomable.

Jang and his associates were stripped naked and thrown into a cage with 120 hunting dogs that hadn't been fed for five days. The dogs ripped the men apart and ate them.

All the while Kim Jong Un sat and watched with party observers as the men were devoured.

But, as brutal and sadistic as the method of death may have been, the death sentence was worse. There was no adversarial proceeding. There were no rules of evidence. The verdict and sentence were determined before the trial ever began. The lives of six men were taken due to the whims of one man's mind.

At least in the United States we have (in theory) due process rights which allow a convicted man to challenge his conviction or sentence. We have a process in place by which an innocent man can bring forward evidence to challenge the basis of the conviction. But those rights are just reminders that our criminal (in)justice system doesn't get it right all the time.

We've built in safeguards because we know we'll get the wrong result from time to time. That is why the death penalty is wrong. We have no way to insure that we get the right result from every trial. Whether it be manufactured evidence, prosecutorial misconduct, bias from a judge, incompetence from the defense attorney or just bad luck, innocent men and women are convicted in this country.

And for that reason alone, the death penalty has no place in our jurisprudence.

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