Who deserves to die? A discussion on the death penalty

As I have spent the better part of the last month in a courtroom, it seems only fitting that I donate at least one post to what I have been doing.

The Manling Tsang Williams murder case has been ongoing for nearly a month now. Convicted of murder, the case is now being deliberated by the jury to recommend a sentence for Williams: life or death.

The jury’s deliberations come at the same time that retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens has changed course and come out against the death penalty. You can read Stevens’ review of a book on capital punishment – where he details his reasons for condemning the death penalty – at the New York Review of Books.

Stevens was part of the Supreme Court that made the death penalty legal in the 1970s, and his change in opinion has been the subject of major headlines.

In his essay, Stevens argues that system is rife with racism, is often lead by politics, and is contradictory to the principles of the justice system.

In one paragraph, Stevens directly addresses one of the main components of the penalty phase of a trial considering the death penalty. As we have seen in the Williams case, numerous family members and friends – on both sides – have been called to testify. For the family and friends of Neal Williams – some friends of Manling as well – testified to the impact the murders have had on them and their families.

For Stevens part, he criticizes the procedure.

The dynamic supporting a broader application of the death penalty is revealed in cases involving victim-impact statements, felony murder,2 controversy over attitudes toward the death penalty in jury selection, and race-based prosecutorial decisions. As Garland correctly observes, testimony about impact on victims “has been criticized for increasing the emotional temperature of an already highly charged process and exerting additional pressure on the jury to return a death sentence.” In Booth v. Maryland (1987), the Court held that such evidence could serve no purpose other than inflaming the jury and was “inconsistent with the reasoned decision making we require in capital cases.”

You can read the lengthy essay by Stevens for yourself and I suggest you do.

But for this blog, I am curious to see what other people think about the death penalty. I have seen some of the basic comments on my stories, but here I was looking for more of a discussion on the death penalty rather than a checklist of “fors” and “againsts.”

For my feelings, I sit on the fence. I think most people have empathy with victims whose life has been tortured by the murder of a loved one. The death penalty often times seems fair. Eye for an eye. Life for a life.

But it can be more complicated. Despite horrific crimes, can a person still have something to offer the world? A positive impact? Cases like Stanley “Tookie” Williams speak to that. The founder of the Crips gang, convicted of four murders during robberies, Williams later became an anti-gang activist of much notoriety. He was put to death in 2005.

Then there is the efficiency argument. With a decision as serious as the death penalty – and the obvious implications – the system for appeal and review must be exhaustive. The decision to put someone to death must be one made with confidence and clarity. The slightest error, bias, misjudgment, prejudice, etc., could render the decision a grave mistake. To avoid putting to death someone innocent or to deny someone their right to appeal, would defy the justice system’s purpose. But because the process is so lengthy and costly, does it render the death penalty moot?

What do you think?

Email: daniel.tedford@sgvn.com | Twitter: @dgtedford @sgvtribune | Facebook: SGVTribune