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Is it time to abolish the death penalty?

Panelists ponder the moral, racial and ethical aspects of the long-simmering debate at a Levan Institute conversation

Hand cuffs, crime, punishment,
The death penalty debate was organized by the Levan Institute for Humanities and Ethics.

A bumper sticker reads, “Why do we kill people who kill people to show that killing people is wrong?”

The question was examined during a recent panel discussion held on the University Park Campus. “Is It Time to Abolish the Death Penalty?” was organized by the Levan Institute for Humanities and Ethics, housed in the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

Recent botched executions by lethal injection have renewed the debate. New advances in DNA technology are leading to the exoneration of more and more prisoners on death row. Calls of racial discrimination in the selection process have raised concern.

Panelist Ralph Wedgwood, professor of philosophy at USC Dornsife, specializes in ethics and epistemology. He argued against the death penalty, saying that while killing someone who is posing an imminent threat — or in self-defense — can be justified, executing a condemned person in prison offers no advantage to the public.

“The condemned prisoner is locked up in a cell, he is defenseless and poses no threat to anyone,” Wedgwood said.

Executing a prisoner runs a high risk, he added.

I don’t think we can ever be certain enough to justify risking the extraordinary injustice of killing someone who may be totally innocent.

Ralph Wedgwood

“Speaking from the perspective of epistemology, I do not believe the past is ever utterly certain. People can be framed, evidence can be planted, memories play tricks on people. I don’t think we can ever be certain enough to justify risking the extraordinary injustice of killing someone who may be totally innocent.”

Wedgwood brought up legal philosopher Antony Duff, who believes that when we punish people, we still must regard them as human beings — they are members of the human family.

“I believe in punishing someone, we should always leave room for the possibility of their repenting for their crime, with the goal ultimately of reconciliation,” Wedgewood said. “If you kill someone, you preclude that possibility.”

Alone in the world

Moderator Sharon Lloyd, professor of philosophy, law and political science at USC Dornsife, said the topic resonates more with people now because the public has become more educated on the issue.

The United States is almost alone in the civilized world in imposing the death penalty on its own citizens.

Sharon Lloyd

“The United States is almost alone in the civilized world in imposing the death penalty on its own citizens,” Lloyd said. “Under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, life is a human right, and for a government to kill its citizens is a violation of that most fundamental right.”

According to Lloyd, support for the death penalty has been slowly eroding in the U.S., due in large part to economic concerns.

In the discussion, panelist Dan Simon of the USC Gould School of Law pointed out that the cost is about 100 times more to convict and sentence someone to death than to incarcerate them for life. He said cases of botched executions have raised the concern that the death penalty violates our constitutional right not to be subjected to “cruel and unusual punishment.”

Racial bias?

Panelists — who also included USC Dean of Religious Life Varun Soni and Martin Levine, USC vice provost and senior adviser to the provost and Michael Brennan of USC Gould — touched on the issue of racial bias and how minorities and lower socioeconomic classes are disproportionately affected.

“One benefit to the death penalty debate is that it’s focusing more attention on the functioning of the criminal justice system,” Simon said.

Brennan, who has worked as a criminal defense attorney, noted that the system of capital punishment in the U.S. simply does not work. Death penalty cases can take as long as 20 years in the courts, becoming incredibly expensive. In the past 40 years, 12 people in California have been put to death, he said, costing $4 billion.

“The combination of too many mistakes and too much money doesn’t justify the few people who are actually executed in California.”

The religion perspective

Soni discussed the death penalty from the perspective of religious traditions. He maintained that religions and their ancient texts must be malleable and interpreted within a modern social and technological context. In past civilizations, he said, justice was meted out much differently in the absence of modern legal and prison systems as well as scientific and DNA-based evidence.

But even the modern system is flawed, he said, quoting 12th-century Jewish legal scholar Mosheh ben Maimon, who said, “It is better and more satisfactory to acquit a thousand guilty persons than to put a single innocent one to death.”

“And yet we know in our modern criminal justice system, we have not upheld this ideal,” Soni said. “We know we have killed people who were later exonerated through DNA evidence.”

One argument often cited by proponents asks whether a person would support the death penalty if it was their family member that was murdered.

We have substantive and procedural due process, and it’s not up to us to mete justice.

Varun Soni

“Many of us would say ‘yes’,” Soni said. “Of course — we are human, we are upset and angry. But that’s why we have the criminal justice system and not a system of posse justice. We have substantive and procedural due process, and it’s not up to us to mete justice.”

Levine brought up what he called “the informal justice system” in our country, or excessive use of force.

“The formal criminal law process in America executes 30, some years maybe 100 people. But the informal way to execute people is for a policeman to pull out his gun and kill a person. That’s something in the order of 1,000 people a year.”

All things considered, Levine said the “unofficial death penalty” is more important than the official one. Reforming the criminal justice system should have as much to do with the police force and its rules of engagement, and what can be improved systematically within law enforcement organizations.

Rise above it

Wedgwood’s final comments questioned the emotional urge for retribution.

“When you really, deeply hate someone, you have a wish to destroy them. Lots of religious traditions have observed natural human impulses like this one, but nonetheless dictate that we have to rise above them.”

He cited Socrates and Plato, who argued that the belief in retaliation should be rejected.

“In the end, the kind of certainty and level of confidence you’d need to justify running the risk of killing an innocent person would have to be extraordinarily high,” Wedgwood said. “Going back to Duff’s theories of punishment, I believe we should always hold the hope for reconciliation, however forlorn that might seem.”

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