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The Corner on the Death Penalty

I hadn't mentioned the Ryan pardon fiasco much on here for a simple reason ... its a little perplexing. Even though I'm against the death penalty, I hardly see the need to have those sentences commuted. Hell, I dunno, maybe Ryan had no choice, unlike California in the 70s when they converted the sentences to life imprisonment (most notably that of Charles Manson). *see comments for clarification and correction on this point*
Rod Dreher of the National Review actually hits the nail on the head for me ... irony of ironies, me agreeing with a conservative about a liberal issue on the side of the more liberal argument.
The Ryan situation errs a little too highly on the side of forgiveness and that's, unfortunately, a problem. When we're talking about maybe 10% ... 5% ... 1% of death row inmates being there in error, I'm not sure it warrants having the 90+% who are guilty turned free. Convert those sentences to life instead, and those who are legitimately fighting the system to prove their innocence will continue doing so. Those who are merely looking for any outlet to spare their life will likely come to terms a little faster to being behind bars for their entire life. They'll obviously have a lot longer to look in the mirror and live with their decision to kill another life, too.
Ironically, every early account of Ryan's decision I read referred to the commuting of the sentences, but not that they were commuted to a life sentence. Even more ironically, had I referred to the paper of record, I would have noticed that this was in fact, the case. So, the fact that they are indeed life sentences now, in my mind, makes Ryan a little bit better person. I hereby retract my otherwise harsh criticisms of Ryan on this. My point of agreement with Dreher stands as-is, though.

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  1. Errrrm, perhaps I’ve misunderstood. I was under the assumption that the original four (the most questionable ones) or so were released and the rest of them were commuted to life sentences (as you suggest they should be).

  2. I stand corrected on that point.

  3. I’ve gone back and forth on this one like nobody’s business. It’s the one major political issue that I just have not settled with myself once and for all. That said, this also from The Corner regarding IL:
    “In 1995, Fedell Caffey shot Debra Evans in her home and stabbed her 10 year old daughter. He then cut the full term baby from her womb and, along with her 7 year old son, kidnapped them. The 7-year-old?s body was later found. The child had been tortured. Departing Illinois Governor George Ryan let Caffey off Death Row, because he believes to do otherwise would be, “playing God.”
    Lenard Johnson, raped two girls, aged 11 and 13 and sexually assaulted a third, aged 7 while he was baby-sitting them. And, he murdered an 11 year old boy with a knife. He was caught holding the knife to one of the girl?s throats. Johnson never made any claim to being innocent of his crimes. George Ryan felt it was impossible to keep Johnson on death row because the “demon of error” made it impossible to tell who deserved to stay on death row and who didn’t.”

  4. No argument, there are several cases where its guilt beyond a shadow of a doubt, and despite the troubling nature of any murder, I would argue that it belies a certain fundamental goodness in any person who was still troubled by killing another, even under the guise of state-sanctioned killing.
    I’d probably have a lot in common with your unease on the issue, U. Where I personally come down as a default is in the 10 Commandments.

  5. So if, hypothetically, there were a judge in, say, Alabama that wanted to post the 10 Commandments in the foyer, your opinion on that would be…?

  6. Not been an argument I’ve been averse to … I say post it. I believe the case you hint at, though, there were some extenuating circumstances. I’d have to look it up again to make sure that was the one, though.

  7. Yeah, this is the one … there’s more than meets the eye on this one. For starters, one has to meet the test of whether they are either coercing or proselytizing. In a quick glance of the decision linked above, it doesn’t smack of coercion (not to me anyway, but the opinion seems to argue that it does), but it does smack a little too much of endorsement. The whole opinion is a pretty nice read .. I’m sure Daniel can give it a more thorough treatment than I possibly could, though.
    Relevant parts, as I see it:

    While not argued by the plaintiffs, the court is concerned that Chief Justice Moore’s involvement with Coral Ridge Ministries, a Christian media outlet, violates the third, entanglement prong of the Lemon test. Aside from its being the only media outlet to record the night-time placement of the monument in the Alabama State Judicial Building, Coral Ridge has used the Chief Justice’s name and his installation of the Ten Commandments monument to raise funds for not only his defense but also its own evangelical purposes. For example, Coral Ridge uses a picture of the monument to raise money for the Chief Justice’s legal defense and, at the same time, to other plaques, these plaques are much smaller and are over seventy feet away with no sign to indicate that they are connected to or related to the monument in any way. Finally, the rotunda is not an open forum; no other group may install a different monument or plaque in the rotunda without the Chief Justice’s permission. Taken together, this history and the physical characteristics of the monument and its surrounding area do nothing to mitigate the monument’s effect of endorsing religion, of showing that Christianity is the “favored or preferred” religion of the state of Alabama.

    A fund-raising letter from Coral Ridge President Dr. James Kennedy included a donor-response form which read, in part, “I want to help provide for Justice Moore’s and the Ten Commandments’ legal defense. Also, use my gift to continue sharing the life-transforming Gospel, through new editions of The Coral Ridge Hour and all the ongoing work of Coral Ridge Ministries.” In another fund-raising letter, Kennedy wrote, “Please pray and send your most generous possible gift to help us aid in the judge’s defense and continue all of the outreaches of the ministry together.” Coral Ridge has also used the Chief Justice and the monument as a subject of many of its television and radio programs and has, a number of times, highlighted the Chief Justice’s lawsuit in its newsletter “Impact.” Coral Ridge even uses the Chief Justice to raise funds on its website: “If you would like to help with the $200,000 Ten Commandments Defense fund and also enable Dr. Kennedy to continue the work of this ministry, send your gift.” Additionally, while the Chief Justice is a state official, sued for his placement of a monument in a state building, the State of Alabama is not paying Chief Justice Moore’s legal expenses; these expenses are instead being paid by a private source, Coral Ridge.
    In a real sense, therefore, the installation of the monument can be viewed as a joint venture between the Chief Justice and Coral Ridge, as both parties have a direct interest in its continued presence in the rotunda. A credible argument could be made that this type of entanglement is specifically the type of “evil[] against which [the] Clause protects … ‘sponsorship, financial support, and active involvement of the sovereign in religious activity.'” Committee for Pub. Educ. & Religious Liberty v. Nyquist, 413 U.S. 756, 772, 93 S. Ct. 2955, 2965 (1973) (quoting Walz v. Tax Comm’n, 397 U.S. 664, 668, 90 S. Ct. 1409, 1411 (1970)).

  8. Thankfully no one here has decided to say something idiotic like “what about the victim’s families? Isn’t he cheating them?” like they’ve been doing all over television.

  9. I oppose the death penalty in large part because in its current form it doesn’t have any productive value. Arguments that it’s a deterrant are unconvincing. It could be a deterrant if there wasn’t 15 years worth of appeals, but then we’d be more likely to kill someone we shouldn’t.
    Instead, keep them in prison for life (note to liberals, when I say life I mean life and no parole).
    I certainly hope none of the killers he gave clemency to ever get out on parole and I really hope if they do they don’t kill anyone, because if they do that will do the death penalty abolition movement irreparable harm.
    I’d actually say parole is one of the biggest arguments for the death penalty in existence…

  10. Oh wow, how impressive. (imagine that said very flatly) Take only two of the absolute worst cases and pair them with out of context quotes that weren’t referring to those cases specifically. What a great argument. Suddenly I have the urge to watch some political ad campaigns.

  11. R. Alex, I feel the same way.
    I also think there’s something sick about wanting to see someone die. That’s the same bloodlust the killer had to begin with. In his mind, he had his reasons too you know, how can you judge what is and isn’t a good reason to kill?

  12. “Suddenly I have the urge to watch some political ad campaigns.”
    *gasp* You say that like it’s a bad thing, Kassi! Well, I should exclude the countless ads advocating prescription drug benefits. Those are a bit dull, to say the least. But man, I sure could go for a rerun of those old Clayton Williams ads … or the Ann Richards ad where she quotes Clayton Williams. Ah, the good ol days.

  13. Several points. I’m undecided on my own feelings regarding the death penalty (though I lean to opposing state-sanctioned killing), but the administration of it is atrocious. I know something about the horrible Burdine case, and I think Ryan’s point was that if we are serious about the death penalty, we ought to be doubly serious about making certain it is administered fairly. And these days, in nearly all jurisdictions, ESPECIALLY TEXAS, it is not.
    Second, I can’t stand when death penalty advocates say things like “you’re letting a murderer off on a technicality.” For my analysis, go to
    I wholeheartedly agree life without parole is appropriate for those convicted of horrific crimes.
    Third, I have very very strong feelings on church-state issues, generally. Regardless of whether one is sympathetic to Justice Moore’s views and motivations (which I decidely am not), based on applicable Supreme Court jurisprudence, this case is actually a fairly easy one. Even his attorney conceded at argument before the district judge that the law is not favorable to his client’s position. With the law the way it is now, even if you disagree with it, there’s no way Moore’s behavior does not violate the Establishment Clause.

  14. (This is only partially humorous) –
    Rather than post the ten commandments, the courts should post a copy of the Stark Fist of Removal, the tract/rag of the Church of the SubGenius, whose motto is “We believe everything”. That would easily take care of all categories.
    Normally I’m not this inconsiderate of the positions of others; I’ve been assigned Bunyan’s PILGRIM’S PROGRESS and am gnashing over it now. (That’s John Bunyan, not Paul.)

  15. Ummm, Kassi? The death penalty is made for exactly such monsters. It’s sad that you can be blase about those “absolute worst cases” (methinks you should read more – those don’t even scrape the bottom). I’m not, and the day someone pulls that shit on my daughter is the day he gets a red-hot poker in his eye and a bullet in the spine. I suppose that may not deter him from such acts in the future, but on the other hand, who gives a shit?
    Stick to your illiterate babbling about all Jesus’ brothers on the RHPS forum. At least that’s funny.

  16. Well, I’ve noted studies on my web log (one from the University of Houston) that show the death penalty does have a substantial deterrent effect. That’s not the real point for me, however. The real points are as follows:
    1) On an ethical level, I don’t believe life without parole is as appropriate a punishment for the most heinous crimes. I just don’t think it is enough. I think the death penalty is.
    2) A prisoner can still kill. I don’t want these monsters put in the general prison population so that they get a chance to kill again (either guards or other prisoners), or worse, to escape. You can put them in a supermax facility to lessen the risk, as is already done in some cases, but those cost far more than the death penalty.
    3) “Life without parole” is often not very serious. There are enough insane judges out there to release old prisoners who supposedly can’t do any harm anymore into society with a new trial or other legal wrangling. I prefer the finality of the death penalty, and so do the families of many victims.

  17. “In his mind, he had his reasons too you know, how can you judge what is and isn’t a good reason to kill?”
    (Comic-Book-Guy voice): “Worst post ever!”

  18. Owen,
    0) I’ve seen some reports that suggest that it does, but on the whole I’ve seen little evidence (if any) that states without a death penalty suffer for it.
    1) This is where it gets spiritual for me. I believe in the redemption of Christ and that the soul can achieve such redemption regardless of what they’ve done. Now, if they’ve been spiritually redeemed I don’t think they should be let free (ever), but they should be allowed to live and, in the more convincing cases, spread The Word. Might betray Daniel’s ideas of seperation and church and state, but there ya go.
    2) They kill someone in jail, they go to The Pit. they are never allowed to deal with another prisoner ever again (Amnesty International and I may agree on the death penalty, but not much else in regards to crime and punishment). As it stands now, Owen, they can do that anyway from Death Row. Except they have nothing to lose by doing so. They’re already going to die.
    3) When I say “without parole” I mean without parole. Ever. For any reason. Period. No judge can grant their release and the only way they can get out is with a pardon. No commuted sentences, either.
    This is where I think liberals are there own worst enemy. The same ones who decry the death penalty are the ones who make it necessary by advocating parole and early release.

  19. Alex,
    I only have a problem with youe stance on 2) because death row is both temporary (average time spent is a little over ten years) and very isolated. Even if they have nothing to lose, they have considerably less opportunity. I think death row is comparable to supermax facilities, only less controversial. I think you would support the supermax alternative, where prisoners spend 23 hours a day in their cells. It’s expensive, but also virtually guarantees that prisoners cannot harm anyone. Ever.
    But, in the same vein of your comments on parole and early release, liberals are challenging supermax prisons on the basis that they are supposedly inhumane and too expensive (i.e. why aren’t we building schools instead of torturing these poor men!) The usual suspects are at work here: the ACLU, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, etc, etc.
    Personally, I’d like to bring back the Auburn system. Work the prisoners half to death under highly supervised conditions, and usually they’ll be to tired to be violent and too over-worked to write novels and become international icons (I mean you Mumia). This also removes the expense issue from the table, since prisons start to pay for themselves. Oh, and if some government contractors start whining about their role being usurped, tough noogies. I’m not paying taxes to subsidize them.
    But then again, I’m that kind of cruel, utilitarian, law-and-order conservative. 🙂

  20. Owen, if the Supermax-like jails you point out are so safe, and they in fact cannot kill anyone while in them, then that takes (your) #2 off the table because we can stick them in there to begin with and they can’t kill anyone.

  21. Alex,
    Yes, it does. However, it adds a secondary consideration, namely cost. Supermax prisons cost a fortune, more than the death penalty, and due to liberal posturing are also not used widely enough (this is my understanding) to be a substitute for the death penalty.

  22. They are not widely used now, but if the death penalty were retired they could be used a lot more often. That strikes me as something to leave up to the jury… do they get Life or Superlife sentences, the latter being in maximum security prisons and not available for any parole or early release.
    As for cost, well, I don’t believe that should be a consideration (and I say the same to the people on my side who say, somewhat erroneously, that executions are more expensive than life sentences).

  23. Oh, silly me, I forgot not to do anything but praise what Jim says or thinks. He might get his feelings hurt.

  24. Bear in mind I am not a communication major nor am I even close to thirty years old.
    The want to watch a person die is bloodlust no matter what reason you have for the want. Whether to aglory in the throes of a “monster’s” death or glory in the throes of a victim’s death, both are still sick in my opinion. You don’t have to agree.
    Whateve nonsense was going on in the murderer’s mind, it was still a justification he made to kill. Whether we agree with it or not, this monster found it to be a good enough reason. The killing of a person by the state for being a murderer, is still only a justification for doing it, whether or not it is a more “right” than the other. In my humble opinion, no killing of a person is truly justified. That is what I meant.
    On the other hand, a hot poker in the eye is a form of torture not death. Killing a person in a way that is quick and sterile (as state sanctioned death penalty is) in no way even begins to echo the torture these monsters put their victims through and (in some cases) enjoyed putting them through. On an emotional level I do nto feel death penalty is punishment enough. It is is an “easy way out”.
    In some ways those two sentiments may contradict eachother, but human emotion is not perfect.

  25. OK, the personal jab I made was unfair and I apologize. Thank you for not taking it too seriously.
    As for your argument, all I can say is that you’re making the case for moral equivalence and I’m not buying it one bit. More than that, the logical fallacy I see here is that your philosophy would apply to the entire issue of guilt. If I can’t kill him for doing it because he thought what he did was ‘right’, how can I punish him at all if he thought he was ‘right’? How can any system of crime and punishment exist without some concept of guilt that doesn’t acquiesce to the criminal’s determination of his guilt rather than ours? It’s a trial by a jury of his peers and if the 12 folks who hear all the pertinent and crucial details of the trial see fit to convict him and sentence him to death, I trust my fellow citizens enough to go along. The criteria for even being eligible for the death penalty are pretty narrow: you don’t get it for knocking over a fruit stand.
    But take comfort: Daniel Goldberg would agree with you that there is no objective “right” when it comes to morality. I think that’s balderdash.
    And of course a hot poker is torture. But whosoever should decide to mutilate a member of my family should be advised that I would have no compunction about employing it. You can disagree with me, but this monster finds it to be a good enough reason.

  26. By the way, you give yourself way too much credit if you think you can hurt my feelings by giving your opinion on a subject like this.
    When I see a philosophical post with your name on it, Kassi… well…, let’s just say I apportion it as much credit as I think it deserves coming from you.

  27. Actually, if said fruit stand happens to have a federal employee and said “fruit stand knocker-over” happened to have a gun on him … you might be wrong on your example.

  28. No, its not that you shouldn’t punish him on the basis that he thought he was right, it is that there is no ‘right’ reason to kill. He was not right because he thought he was and although there is a much stronger case for us we are not right either. Morality is relative, but I don’t think killing is moral at all.
    On the subject of torture, although maybe crueler I’d probably agree with you on the hot poker. To me making life a living hell is much worse than dying. Then again, life without parole wouldn’t exactly do that.

  29. “To me making life a living hell is much worse than dying. Then again, life without parole wouldn’t exactly do that.”
    Perhaps if they legalized prison rape?

  30. Kassi:
    You say:
    “Morality is relative, but I don’t think killing is moral at all.”
    But since killing isn’t objectively wrong, all you’re really saying is “I don’t like killing” the same way somebody might say “I don’t like anchovies.” Moral relativism reduces morality to personal preference, and therefore your own position, that the absolute relativity of morality negates justification of the death penalty, is itself contradictory.
    In short, moral relativism makes the following cliche the only possible explanation for endorsing moral standards: Might makes right. Accordingly, there is no point in arguing a moral issue such as the death penalty intellectually, because it all comes down to “different strokes for different folks.” The only issue is who garners enough power to enforce their ideals onto others, or in this case, the entire judicial system.
    So if this is truely your view, I’d recommend that you simply work to gain political power for your position, because you currently lack a fundamental basis for debating the issue.

  31. It’s just cafeteria style morality. So we just put on our Bill O’Reilly mask and say, “Sorry, counselor, not buyin’ it.”
    Actually, I hate that guy (O’Reilly, that is) which is why I adore the SNL parody of him:
    “Now, Mr. Snow, you say that water is composed of two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen. Sorry, sir, but I grew up near a lake. I’m not buyin’ it. I say it’s made of melted glass. Tell me where I’m wrong.”

  32. To continue completely off-topic, I agree with the slam on Bill O’Reilly. In an interview I saw months ago, he described to the other talking head the way his show is constructed: “It’s the scrappy kid from Philly up against the high and mighty” or words to that effect. In other words, guests get on his show in order to be cut off and countermanded without developed argument.
    People complain that Limbaugh is commentary-tainment; this guy’s 100 times worse.

  33. And to clarify, I’ll take Limbaugh and Chris Matthews over the O’Reilly/James Carville
    approach any day. The first two are guys worth answering since they can actually construct an argument.

  34. Did you just say (type, to be precise) that with a straight face, Pete?

  35. Yeah, I’m not sure I get that either. Sadly, I can’t think of a single conservative talking head that I don’t find annoying.
    Sanctimonious: Bill Bennett and Peggy Noonan
    Ad Hominem Blowhards: Limbaugh, O’Reilly, Hannity
    Whiny Complainers: Coulter and Ingraham
    Frightening Fascists: Rich Lowry, Bob Novak
    So where does that leave me? With the only conservative commentator who consistently rises to the occasion with skilled rhetoric (if not reasoned argument), humor and authenticity: Pat Buchanan.
    Oy vey!
    (For those of you whom Buchanan scares to death, lighten up. Even the most liberal of his counterparts from the old radio show – Barry Lynn and Bob Beckel – have said they do not believe Buchanan is personally racist, anti-Semitic, or any other slander hurled his way.)

  36. Yes, I did indeed mean that with face in straight position, but not due to 100%, or even 40% agreement with specific positions. I complimented those two (RL and CM) since, as opposed to many, they actually give the viewer/listener some of the steps they took in getting to whatever position they advocate.
    “Argument” is defined (by the unassailable authority of Monty Python sketch scripts) as “a connected series of statements intended to establish a proposition”. You don’t have an intelligent discussion if you don’t examine the underpinnings of opposing claims, and with the two mentioned, that is at least possible. Hell, even Buckley allowed for mention of competing principles some of the time on the old Firing Line show. But now there’s more of the “McLaughlin Group” effect – just a bunch of shouting – and John Mc is (amazingly) the LEAST offender of the bunch. Bill Mahr is further down that food chain, IMHO. Maybe I’d be in agreement with U’s list above – if I frequented some of those shows…

  37. *taking the tangent and making a mad dash with it*
    Being a devotee of Politically Incorrect, I’m not sure I see the difference as you paint it between Matthews/Limbaugh and Maher. Granted, I can see your point that “at least they provide a logic to their argument.” Not to say I think much of their logic or their abilities to reason functionally, but still. Granted, I’ve not eternally pegged Maher as a crypto-Taliban for his “coward” comment, but I am definitely of the opinion that he does the same type of logic. The logic may be from a more cynical point of view, it might be disjointed in that there’s no great philosophical underpinning to it, and it would certainly qualify as narcissistic. He’s a stand up comic, so go figure.
    My qualms with Lim. is that he is more prone to argue a straw man, occassionally make an outrageous insult under the guise of political commentary and then run back under his “entertainer” shelter when caught in the crossfire of it.
    Likewise, my qualms with Matthews are basically that he professes no loyalty, while exercising a transparent one to the GOP. Don’t ask me how to explain Matthews going from a Kennedy-ista to GOP trigger man. I’m not sure if its just a simple case of bending over backwards a little too reflexively or a genuine disillusionment with the Democratic party that I’ve yet to investigate an explanation of (probably due to my overall lack of giving a rat’s ass). Whatever the case, he seeks to benefit now by being the Democrat who gives Democrats hell and Republicans a free pass. To each their own.
    As for my own list of particulars, I’ve got a handful that I claim a more-than-regular interest in:
    – Mort Kondracke (sure to endear me to nobody on the left. His case for why he was a Democrat in TNR after the 1984 debacle solidified my belief system at an early age … politically speaking that is.)
    – EJ Dionne (sure to endear me to nobody on the right.)
    – Richard Reeves (not so much anymore, more for old times sake)
    – Michael Kinsley (will never get his just due, but at some point people will look back at his time on Crossfire as not all that bad compared to his predecessor, his time at TNR as “the good ol days” and his time at Slate as revolutionary.)
    From the right, its breif, but worthy:
    – William F Buckley (the granddaddy of em all)
    – Jim Pinkerton (probably one of the most underrated, IMO)

  38. I wonder if we’re talking about the SAME Chris Matthews. The one I’ve seen on MSNBC and read in, I think, the SanFran Examiner, would be the one to the left of Stalin. If he gives liberals a problem, it would be due to being insufficiently liberal. I know of no connection to anything I’d call centrist or conservative or free-market or right-of-center. Either you’re off base or I’ve only seen sporadic liberal examples of a guy All Over The Road…
    The last few of his columns in the Examiner that I consulted for whatever reason struck me as clear, consistent examples of contemporary American liberalism.

  39. Some research: Matthews was a staffer for Ed Muskie, a speechwriter for Carter and an aide for Tip O’Neill – and you characterise the guy as a GOP apologist? I don’t follow.

  40. OK, not left of Stalin, but Matthews is certainly not a right-wing commentator. No doubt he’s left of center, but not hugely so.
    On the right, I neglected to mention the inestimable George Will. He has a way with the written word that comes closest to rivaling Buckley. I also very much enjoy Jay Nordlinger, but the Q-rating isn’t high enough.
    Kinsley comes off much better in print than on camera. (Blink once in a while for God’s sake!!!)

  41. I stand adjusted; center-left is most accurate for CM (who, by the way, closed his SFEx column in September to concentrate on TV; for reference, I hope the Examiner will maintain an archive for him).

  42. My problems with CM are primarily his insistence on relying on GOP talking points when querying Dems, and the same for querying the GOP. Never been a fan of his written work just since its a tad bland and pedestrian for my taste. His TV work is where I focus my ire.
    No argument that Kinsley is better in print than on TV. I can live with either, but given the space and amount of argumentation he can work with in print, its far more enlightening.
    But George Will? Pshaw! Never trust a man who wears a bow tie (checking to see if any photos of Kinsley in a bow-tie now exist).

  43. The bow tie is goofy – I’ll give you that – but he writes very eloquently.

  44. To each their own. Eloquence for the sake of eloquence doesn’t sell me on much. He occassionally comes through with a good take, but for my money he’d be better off sticking to writing books about baseball.

  45. Eloquence for the sake of eloquence? That’s your judgement, but certainly not mine. I think he’s eloquent for the sake of very worthy causes. Personal and political preference, I suppose.

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