Friday, January 13, 2006
From the Washington Post today (click on headline above to go there):
"Modern DNA tests have confirmed the guilt of a Virginia man who had proclaimed he was innocent of murder and rape even as he was strapped into the electric chair and executed more than a decade ago, the governor announced yesterday."
This is an interesting story, on several levels.
First, it does bring a bit of factuality into a subject where the obscurantists had seized the high ground.
Many opponents of the death penalty have placed heavy stress on the "you don't know" argument, which is true to a point; but as this case makes clear, they have overplayed that hand. That argument fits the contemporary mood well, but for that reason is harmful. We do not live in a world of murk, however much we want to believe that, because it exculpates us from committing ourselves, for or against matters of great moral weight. On question after question, contemporary man shrugs his shoulders and says, "who can know?": on life in the womb, life near its end, on morality, God, Christ; even Christians take this pose on many matters.
It seems such a compelling argument against the death penalty: "who wants to execute an innocent person?" Well, virtually no one does. And virtually no one can credibly assert it never happens, even if the posers of this argument can't point to any actual case of an innocent man being executed.
But there's a larger fairness question here: fairness to the larger legal system we have painstakingly erected in this country, building on traditions of justice and due process that extend back into the distant (ahem, Christian) past; a system that has imbedded in it an amazing array of protections, checks and balances, and ongoing review, both from "inside" and "outside." No system on earth can be perfect, but give ourselves our due: we go to great lengths, in dollar cost, in patience, and in forebearance of the guilty being given an easier time than they surely deserve, all with a view to avoiding that terrible fate: an innocent man being punished, let alone, executed.
Second, this story is useful for exposing the credulity of many opponents of the death penalty; sometimes, culpable credulity. "But, but, he said he was innocent all those years!" spluttered some disillusioned champions of the late, executed rapist-murderer. Gee, how surprising!
Third, this is a political story in two ways. Outgoing Virginia Governor Mark Warner has just burnished his credentials as a potential Democratic nominee for the Presidency. He's pro-death penalty, but as a Democrat, he is vulnerable to those on the left-left (there is no right-wing of the Democratic Party!) who viscerally oppose the death penalty. Warner's path to the White House lies along the trail blazed by Bill Clinton: a Southern (liberal) Democrat who seems "reasonable," which is achieved, in part, by being presented as having "conservative" positions on several issues.
The other way this is political is the longterm question: should this even have been done? Will this become routine? Is this a good idea?