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Boaz Munro '09: Death: the ultimate injustice

Wrongful convictions outweigh any potential benefits of the death penalty

In his column on Monday ("Let the death penalty live," Oct. 30), Michael Ramos-Lynch '09 argued that while the implementation of the death penalty is far from perfect, the benefits of retaining it as a policy outweigh the costs.

Even without exploring the fundamental question of whether people who have committed murder or other crimes "simply deserve to die," as Ramos-Lynch argues, it should be obvious that retaining the death penalty is costing far too many innocent lives, and that this cost alone outweighs any possible benefits the death penalty may bring.

The first argument Ramos-Lynch uses in his column is that "a democratic government should always have the right to put to death those guilty of committing the most atrocious crimes." A look at a map of the distribution of the death penalty across the world shows that in terms of the death penalty, we keep less-than-democratic company. While most democratic countries in the world have abolished or severely restricted the death penalty, it is still alive and well in the Middle East, China and Southeast Asia. Thus, there is no clear correlation between democracy and the death penalty.

But why should we care what other countries think? That's a fair question, and the death penalty should be judged on its own merits. Ramos-Lynch's second point is that some people commit crimes that warrant death by execution, and that life without parole simply "isn't enough" for such criminals. Whether or not you agree with this perspective, the problem is setting up a system capable of meting out such an ultimate punishment fairly. How can humans, with a justice system whose imperfections we freely recognize, presume to erect such an absolute and irrevocable mechanism? How much error are we willing to tolerate? Through the death penalty, we, as a nation, are knowingly sacrificing the lives of some of our most underprivileged members.

Ramos-Lynch's goes on to claim that considering the risk of wrongful conviction would preclude any legal penalties at all, since all penalties deal some kind of irreparable damage to those convicted. Here, the presumption seems to be that since all legal penalties hurt innocent people, we might as well go all out and kill a few of them too. Knowledge of the imperfections of our justice system is precisely the reason the death penalty should be abolished, at least until it can be reformed to the point of being infallible. With other wrongly-administered punishments, some degree of reparation can be achieved. Prisoners can be released and compensated when they are found innocent, but victims of the death penalty can never be resuscitated.

Ramos-Lynch follows by arguing that keeping criminals alive perpetuates guilt by withholding closure from families of victims and possibly spreads grief further by keeping dangerous criminals alive. Death row inmates also have families, however, who suffer the same grief when their loved one is put to death. Beyond that, the entire notion of killing someone to give another family "closure" seems rather twisted.

Ramos-Lynch finishes by arguing that the death penalty can be effective when administered responsibly, as it is in California, where only 13 people have been executed since 1976, as opposed to 376 people in Texas. Texas is portrayed as the anomaly in an otherwise scrupulous criminal justice system. The reality, though, is that 15 states - much smaller states than California - have executed many more than 376 people. The problem of careless and unjust implementation extends far beyond Texas' borders.

Ramos-Lynch admits that there is a need for reform, and that innocent people are dying under the current system. As long as he and I agree that reform is needed, we should also agree to suspend the death penalty until we learn to apply it with discernment and justice.

Boaz Munro '09 has been convicted of the death penalty in 13 states.




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