Human Error

A recent story on YahooNews raises once again the question of the supposed justification for capital punishment. The story begins as follows;

He was the spitting image of the killer, had the same first name and was near the scene of the crime at the fateful hour: Carlos DeLuna paid the ultimate price and was executed in place of someone else in Texas in 1989, a report out Tuesday found.

We are one of the few so-called civilized nations that still executes people for major crimes. In fact, we are one of only five “developed” countries that still retains the death penalty. To join the European Union, countries are required to prohibit the practice of state executions.  So the question remains, how can we continue to execute people when other civilized nations refuse to do so? How can we continue to do so, especially, when the decision rests on undeniable human fallibility? I have a good friend who was an eye-witness to a bank robbery and who positively identified a “plant” in a lineup — a man who was hired by the police to fill in the lineup. She was positive she would recognize the man, but apparently the trauma of facing a loaded gun made her testimony worthless. Yet she was a key witness to the crime. And many a guilty verdict rests on “eye witnesses.”

There’s no certainly in the affairs of human beings. Surely, we have learned that by this time. We simply cannot know much of anything for sure, and even under the best of circumstances our eyes and ears can fail us. And so can our judgment, where prejudice and perspective enter invariably in to color the images and sounds we are sure we have a firm hold on. Human beings are fallible: that’s the only certainty. And after a trial in which 12 good men and women listen to witnesses and hear endless reams of testimony and are under pressure to render a unanimous verdict, there’s every reason to believe that a mistake may have been made — as it was in the above case. But once the defendant has been found guilty and executed it’s a bit late to discover a crucial blunder. How on earth does one compensate the survivors for such a mistake? It cannot be done. And how does one live with that fact if he or she happened to sit on the jury?

One argument in favor of capital punishment rests on the spurious grounds that it costs more to keep the prisoner alive at the State’s expense. So do we really value money more than human life — even the “pro-lifers” among us? But there’s also the argument that the survivors need “closure,” they need to know that the man who committed a terrible crime has been punished with finality. In fact, many psychologists have argued that it is harder on the criminal to endure a life in prison than to be executed. So those who want vengeance should settle for life in prison if that’s what they are after. But, there are those who insist that “life” in prison is a misnomer, since parole is always a possibility and the alleged murderer will be once again out on the streets. True, but on balance not decisive when one considers the possibility that he may not have been guilty in the first place. Finally, of course, there’s always Orin Hatch’s wonderful double-talk: Capital punishment is our society’s recognition of the sanctity of human life. That is, the sanctity of the victim’s life, not that of the supposed criminal whose life apparently doesn’t count. But none of these arguments holds water, because they all skirt the fundamental issue of human error. This is at the center of the controversy, and the possibility of error results in cases like the one quoted at the outset of this discussion. And it is decisive.

Those who cry out for retribution fail to consider the key fact that it is precisely because the accused man presumably snuffed out another life, which we find deplorable, that we now want to end his, which we find perfectly acceptable. Orin Hatch has no problem with this. But no matter how respectable we try to make it appear, it is the law of the jungle; not the law of civilized society.


2 thoughts on “Human Error

  1. Hugh, this gives me chills. I haave put quite a bitt of thought into this, especially after living in Texas for four years. First of all, I am pretty sure that when you factor in all of the legal costs for all the appeals before a person gets executed, life in prison is actually cheaper.

    We just had a person released from prison in Grand Junction after 18 years of imprisonment after being wrongfully accused. DNA evidence finally proved his innocence. It was astounding to hear an interview with him and how much life has changed since he went to prison. How is that person going to be able to get a job and support himself?

    Our criminal justice system is terribly broken. Denver just passed a law to criminalize camping/homelessness. What good does this do? We need to invest in services, including rehabilitation and addiction. I just don’t see tthe risk of prison or execution as reallly being a deterrant to crime. But I know othersn including my husband, would disagree.

    Thanks for another thought-provoking post!

    • “Criminalizing homelessness”? Shades of debtors prison! But thanks for straightening me out about the relative costs of prison vs. execution. But the cost in dollars should never be an issue in the first place!! And the data strongly suggest that execution does not work as a deterrant. Those who kill tend to think they will not be caught (if they think at all). Much like those who don’t wear seat belts because they will “never” need them!

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