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

  • RDL

    I think the death penalty would be okay if it were truly reserved for the worst of the worst. Charles Manson. The Night Stalker. Dahmer.

    But the special circumstances that make a killer death penalty eligible are so broad anymore than almost any murder qualifies, and that’s what’s contributing to the backlog of cases on appeal.

    Plus, the decision on whether to seek death is up to the district attorney on a county-by-county and case-by-case basis, which means that someone who kills in San Francisco could get life, while someone who kills in San Bernardino will get the gas chamber. That hardly seems like equal protection under the law.

    Lastly, I can’t help but believe these lengthy appeals processes only add to the torment of the victims’ families.

    When a killer is sentenced to life in prison, we can try to forget about them and move on. But when the mother of a murder victim has to attend two decades of appeals hearings, I can only imagine the process serves to keep the wounds fresh and prolong her grief.

    Is the death penalty wrong? That’s an arguable question. Is the current system hopelessly broken? Absolutely.

  • Rich D.

    An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth and the world will become blind and toothless. Mahatma Gandhi

    I think killing someone to show that killing is wrong makes no sense. If executions brought the victim back to life only then would there be a good reason to execute a prisoner. Maximum-security prisons are effective alternatives to executions and insure the public will be protected.

  • James B

    There are many aspects to the debate over the legitimacy of the death penalty, and part of what makes the argument so difficult to resolve is this confusion over what exactly is being argued about. In particular, there seems to be a discussion about the moral legitimacy of capital punishment in the abstract which is quite different from a policy debate over the merits of the death penalty as currently practiced. Pro-death penalty advocates benefit from the conflation of these two discussions because their arguments are much sounder as applied to the former then they are to latter.

    While there are strong moral arguments for the legitimacy of capital punishment, these arguments have little bearing on the system of capital punishment as currently constituted. Instead, we have been left with an imperfect system which is highly vulnerable to accidentally executing the innocent and which in the mean time costs hundreds of millions of dollars a year which could be otherwise spent to improve the social conditions which are frequently at the root of violent crime.

    In California alone, $137 million are spent on capital punishment a year. Moreover, in order to implement the type of reforms necessary to try to eliminate the risk of wrongful executions, the state would have to spend upwards of $232 million a year. The question we need to ask ourselves is, what costs (financially and otherwise) are we willing to pay in order to go on executing people?

  • http://griefsjourney.facesofthemissing.org Jan Williams

    I’m sorry, but I really hate it when people talk about the financial cost of dealing with a murderer. I’m sure it costs the state a lot of money, and I know it’s a tough year. But just try talking about the monetary cost of trials and prison to a parent who has lost a child to violence. He or she has already lost more than can ever be calculated. And the loss continues every day with every tear, every hearing, every sleepless night and every nightmare. Forever. A sentence of death for the murderer means decades of appeals. Is the gain going to be worth the cost you are asking the family to be willing to pay? That cost is something that should have a little more weight in deciding this issue. What will the death sentence accomplish in this particular case? Will it help the survivors who are dealing with the loss of a loved one? Or will it end up victimizing the victims? There is no cookie cutter answer to that. Every case is different and while Justice may try her best to be blind and treat everyone fairly, there isn’t really any such thing as “fair” in murder. Every family who has lost someone to murder is in pain, and every murder victim is a terrible loss. They all deserve justice. We need to figure out what that really is, because the system we are working with now is seriously broken. A death sentence trial is a terrible ordeal for everyone involved, including the jury members who have to make such a difficult choice. So if we’re going to put everyone through the fire – if a death sentence is that important in certain instances – we need to find a system that works. Really works.