Death Penalty In Focus: A Tale of Two Cases

The first is from the Atlantic:

“At the center of the week’s storm is a convicted murderer named Warren Lee Hill. Despite a 2002 ruling by the United States Supreme Court that prohibits the execution of mentally retarded* prisoners, Georgia officials plan to execute Hill next Monday even though all of the government doctors who have examined him now agree that he is mentally retarded beyond a reasonable doubt. Georgia seeks to accomplish the execution by arguing that Hill has not met his burden of proving retardation under an onerous state standard; that the doctors’ new diagnoses are flawed; and that, as a matter of law, they come too late anyway to spare Hill.”

And another via the AP:

“If the Obama administration tries for the death penalty against Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, it could face a long, difficult legal battle in a state that hasn’t seen an execution in nearly 70 years.

Attorney General Eric Holder will have to decide several months before the start of a trial — if there is one — whether to seek death for Tsarnaev. It is the highest-profile such decision yet to come before Holder, who personally opposes the death penalty.”

For the past few decades, the death penalty has polled pretty well among the American public and the latest Gallup poll shows that 63% of Americans approve of it.

Currently 38 states and the federal government permit the execution of prisoners convicted of capital murder, treason, and espionage. Maryland made news earlier this year by becoming the 18th state to repeal the death penalty and as a whole the United Sates is one of the only four industrialized democracies that still has it.

In the first case, the law seems pretty simple: you cannot execute mentally handicapped individuals. Despite this fact, Georgia seems pretty intent on killing this guy. But rather than being a fight over the death penalty itself, the impeding execution is merely setting the stage for a state versus federal government dispute. When the Supreme Court ruled to protect the mentally handicapped from the death penalty, it left it up to the states to determine who qualifies as handicapped. The result is that someone who may be protected in one state may be killed in another, which is not a workable system for a bastion of human rights. When it comes to absolutes such as life and death, it is imperative for the Court to set clear definitions on who is mentally handicapped, so that whether you live or die is determined by your mental capacity and not by chance of geography.

The Boston Bombing case is a different (but not entirely different) animal. Here you have a 19 year-old kid who helped his brother plant explosives at the Boston Marathon, the result of which was that three people died and hundreds were injured. Given the nature of the crime and the fact that we pretty much know for sure that he did it, the death penalty could be considered in this situation.

However, you would have to look at the role he played in the planning and execution of the attack. From what we know, it was his brother who took the lead and organized the plot from its inception. The defense could argue that given his role and his age, the younger Tsarnaev is far less culpable than his brother and thus he should be spared the death penalty.

I’m personally against the death penalty because it is a black and white solution to a grey problem. It is not cost effective, there’s no evidence that it acts as a deterrent, and the margin for error is too large. Over the past twenty years nearly 100 condemned men and women have been exonerated, some of them mere days away from death. This prompts the question: How many were not so lucky? A lot of death row inmates are poor, many suffer from mental illness, and as a result they often don’t have the best legal representation. How many wrongful executions should we as a society tolerate? I don’t want to answer that question.


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