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Ultimate Justice

This day, the 235th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the day we consider our nation's "birthday," seems an appropriate topic to discuss a question that has possibly brought up more Constitutional questions than any other:

The death penalty.

As odd as it sounds for such a weighty matter, I really don't have any strong feelings on the matter. It's almost purely an intellectual issue for me; I don't have a lot of emotional value invested in it. But a lot of other people do, and it's almost always a flashpoint for quite heated discussions.

And the Constitutionality of the death penalty is often questioned. In fact, at one point, the Supreme Court overturned the death penalty laws of all 50 states, forcing each and every state that wanted to continue the practice to rewrite their laws from scratch. (That "window" is why Charles Manson, among others, was not sentenced to death.) But is it Constitutional?

In the abstract, absolutely. It's explicitly referred to in the Fifth Amendment, where restrictions are cited -- and by imposing restrictions, it's clear that it is allowable if those restrictions are met.

My own opinion on the death penalty is that it is Constitutional and, occasionally, necessary. It was largely shaped by a single case: Massachusetts' Joseph Druce.

Druce was convicted of first-degree murder in Massachusetts, which has no death penalty. He was sentenced to life without parole. But while imprisoned, he stalked a fellow inmate -- convicted pedophile priest John Geoghan -- until he cornered him in a cell, jammed the door shut behind them, and beat Geoghan to death before guards could open the door. Premeditation was never a question; Druce had calculated just how thick a book would have to be to jam the door, and had torn pages out of a book to be precisely the right thickness.

For his crime, Druce was indicted, tried, convicted, and sentenced -- life in prison without possibility of parole.

In other words, nothing. But in the course of that procedure, he was shuttled back and forth from prison to court for weeks -- a nice change of scenery and pace for a man who had no other diversions or distractions to distract him from the endless tedium of waiting to die.

In the case of prisoners in such situations, there is literally no incentive for them to not commit murder, and a healthy one to do so. And while Druce's victim was, to be blunt, no great loss to society, next time it could be a guard or other more worthwhile person. People like Druce are beyond the reach of any other penalties; they literally have nothing to lose, and therefore no reason why they should not commit murder. The death penalty would serve as a potential check on their behavior where nothing else can.

On the other hand, there are cases like Cory Maye. Maye has been noted libertarian scholar and pundit Radley Balko's personal cause for years. Maye was in his home, minding his own business, when police -- acting on a seriously flawed search warrant on the wrong home -- carried out a "no-knock" entry. Maye, believing he was defending himself and his family, opened fire. As soon as he realized the invaders were police, he dropped his weapon and surrendered, but it was too late -- one officer was killed. For that, he was arrested, tried, and sentenced to death.

Years later, he's finally had his sentence commuted and is being released -- thanks in no large part to Balko's tireless efforts on his behalf.

It's usually a bad idea to set a law or a policy based on a single case. But here are two cases that seem to give two conflicting opinions on the death penalty: the Druce case shows how the death penalty is necessary, the Maye case shows how dangerous it can be when the justice system is abused.

There has to be a "happy medium," a way that keeps the penalty for those cases where it is truly merited, but restricted enough to prevent (or at least greatly limiting) the chances of injustices like that perpetrated against people like Maye.

I just don't know how it could be crafted to meet both needs -- if it even can.


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Comments (7)

There has to be a "happy me... (Below threshold)

There has to be a "happy medium,"

Maybe but so far the anti-death penalty crowd (to include lawyers and judges) have done their utmost to thwart and pervert it here in Kalifornia. We have over 600 on 'death row' here. From sentencing to imposition of death = 25+ years.

It already is "crafted to m... (Below threshold)

It already is "crafted to meet both needs".

If you believe Maye (and not the jury that heard the evidence and who chose to not believe Maye), the system worked in that he wasn't executed.

The proceedings took long enough (as they do even for people who are executed) for the bleeding hearts (whether it be your traditional 'free Mumia' liberal or Balko, who rushes to the defense of anyone killing a cop during a so-called 'no-knock' raid) to rally around the killer and sift for any shred of anything that could be used to taint the trial and/or sentence.

Given this and the abundance of people who devote their hours to keeping killers from being executed, I'm pretty comfortable that anyone who is executed was executed only after it is proven - over and over again - that there is no reasonable doubt as to either guilt or the appropriateness of the sentence.

For the Maye case, simple. ... (Below threshold)

For the Maye case, simple. Declare no-knock raids unconstitutional. Put extreme limits on what police can and can not do in entering someone's house. Restrict and downsize SWAT units and demilitarize the police force. Hold the police responsible (with appropriate criminal charges) when they use bad information and commit violence against innocent people. Hold "informants" responsible (with criminal charges) for delivering bad information that leads to these situations. When reparations are paid to victims of over-zealous police and prosecutors, fire the police chief, fire the prosecutors, pull their law license, and pull the money from their budget. The police serve us, make them remember it.

The fault in a unjust death... (Below threshold)
Jeff Blogworthy:

The fault in a unjust death penalty case lies with the law and its application, not with the existence of execution itself. As with guns, leftists seek to eliminate the inanimate thing rather than the unjust act(s). Some cases so clearly indicate the death penalty (Gacy, Dahmer, bin Laden, Loughner) that it is the only thing that even approaches, yet still fails to achieve, justice or equity in this life. Even so stark a fact does not keep some from opposing it, although the existence of conservatism often causes the left to set aside their death penalty grievances.

Two Observations from someb... (Below threshold)

Two Observations from somebody who is very definitely not a member of the "anti death penalty crowd"

1. The people who run the justice system cannot be trusted to exercise the responsibilities of office. A small minority (but maybe not as small as we think) will send people to jail or death row for political gain and not even think twice. That's the only reason you can't have the death penalty.

2. Maybe if more cops got shot kicking in the wrong door they'ed be more careful. One of my co-workers woke up at 3:30AM with his house surrounded by Sheriffs deputies looking for a wanted parolee. They ordered the residents out at gunpoint and recognized my friend because he was the captain of the volunteer fire department. The Sheriffs Captain in charge of the 9 car 14 deputy detail said "Hey Ed, what the hell are you doing in blank blanks house?" He had no idea the house they wanted was across the street. They had the right address on their warrant and both houses had lighted street numbers in plain sight. If the guy they were looking for had been wanted for something besides parole violation the Sheriffs would have kicked it the door. BTW, the parolee? As soon as the Sheriffs surrounded my friends house he went out his back door, got in his car and drove away. Took 'em two weeks and lots more hours to find him.

Bill Clinton taught me to o... (Below threshold)

Bill Clinton taught me to oppose the death penalty. And in the best way, he taught me by his actions and not a lecture.

I don’t believe that any system that could allow a man to be put to death based on whether or not it is politcialy expedient or beneficial to the deciding individual has the moral authority to condemn a man to death.

I wrote the below back a long time ago to explain:

The death penalty is not gi... (Below threshold)

The death penalty is not given because it's politically expedient or because it's beneficial to the deciding individual. The death penalty is given because it is just - that is if the person given the penalty is actually guilty of first-degree murder.






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