April 14, 2005

Life Without Parole

A couple months back I replied to a Luke post about the death penalty. I support the death penalty, with it's myriad avenues of appeal and delay, giving every last ridiculous opportunity to question the validity of the original verdict, and the original sentence.

The 20+ years that the doomed man appeals his case and sits in solitary confinement is 20+ years without the perks that he definitely doesn't deserve and which ordinary lifers do get. Books. TV. Sunlight. I guess you could include gang affiliation and rough sex.

Oh, and a decent night's sleep. The great thing about a condemned man's twenty years of appeals is that every sleepless night gets him one day closer to that nagging final beyond that sits smiling right down the hall. What a monkey to have in your cot with you.

But secondly, more importantly, I threw in a practical concern that I don't think enough people appreciate: Bargaining power.

Seriously, say what you will about the death penalty not being a deterrent to capital crime. Honestly, I can understand that taking upwards of 25 years to actually execute a death row inmate, isn't scaring anyone straight on the outside. Fair enough. "BUT," I said:

If we never in fact execute another death row inmate I still think the death penalty has done its job. How so, you ask?

I'll answer with a question: Under what other circumstances could you ever see a convicted criminal BEGGING AND PLEADING for Life in Prison with No Parole?

Well, time's up. None. I'm perfectly thrilled to live in a state where the heinous special-circumstances worst of the worst scum, have to actually HOPE for Life without Parole (LWOP) instead of the alternative.

And, if we didn't have this system in California where LWOP is a BEST ALTERNATIVE for a Special Circumstances defendant we wouldn't have nearly the number of guilty pleas for capital crime as we do, either.


[Hey - I blockquoted myself! Very very cool.]

Anyway, the Olympic Bomber Jackass is my told-ya-so CASE IN POINT.

If there were no death penalty then he would have no reason to plead guilty - we would be spending the next five freaking years having a trial for this noodlehead that would have allowed him and his ilk to filibuster the process and make statements of their righteousness, all for possibly ending up with a hung jury or lesser charges or, worse, an acquittal.

I always just wonder, if a decade ago, L.A. had announced their intent to rigorously pursue the death penalty in the O.J. trial, you know, for the murders he sloppily committed, would O.J. have simply pled guilty and accepted life without parole?

Actually, I don't wonder at all.

He would have.

4 Comments:

At 1:41 PM, Blogger Luke said...

As pragmatically alluring as all that is Don, there are still those horror stories that ruin the broth for me personally.

Outside your more enlightened California, cases like that of the West Memphis Three are incredibly disturbing.

The idea that Damien Echols is convicted of motherfucking MURDER and sentenced to death without one shred of physical evidence, no witnesses, nothing at all beyond some early nineties anti-pagan hysteria, and that the intervening 10 years of appeals has done nothing to overturn the case, at least mitigating the evidenceless death sentence.

The thing is, really, that it's the guilty who are more likely to cop a plea. The innocent are more likely to take it to trial, hoping to see truth win out. Hense, rather than having a bunch of innocent people serving life sentences, you will naturally have most of those wrongly convicted getting gassed, needled, shocked, hanged.

For all the tax dollars saved, if one innocent person dies, I think the price is too high.

Where I come from that makes me a faggot communist bleeding-heart tree-hugger.

 
At 7:59 PM, Blogger Don Sheffler said...

That is a good point, Luke, which is weird because anyone deemed a faggot communist bleeding-heart tree-hugger isn't supposed to make good points. :-)

As I related in my comment to your original post, that one point, the wrongful conviction of innocents, is actually the one point that pulls at me in the whole argument. However, being that I'm in California, where there have been about 3 executions in nearly 30 years, I'm comfortable in the belief that two to three decades of appeals and pro-bono investigative work is designed to ferret out such cases as in your example.

I'm quite willing to bet going forward (and looking back roughly 50 years) that never in California will there be an innocent person executed. We don't even execute the deserving. The process which California employs certainly enrages the law and order crowd, because of it's built-in abundance of caution in the trial phase, then the penalty phase, and still yet in the appeals process. Yet it still allows for a death penalty that penalizes the guilty, if in no other way than getting them to plead for life without parole.

I'm also willing to bet that Damien Echols never gets executed. (Barring an actual un-coerced confession someday). But we won't know for another decade or three.

But, to further engage the nuances of our discussion: If our overriding concern is the injustice of a single innocent person getting executed, shouldn't we have that same concern for a single innocent person serving life in prison without parole? Or a single innocent person serving 25 to life? At what level of incarceration is there an acceptible level of certainty that we're punishing the right people? In other words shouldn't we be more worried about the process of conviction than the severity of the punishment?

And remember, I'm going with the California example here: NO ONE is getting executed inside of 25 years from their conviction so it's a pretty safe bet that we're not going to suddenly realize a mistake 10 minutes after he's dead.

Certainly we can't simply decide to abandon altogether the imprisonment of convicts for fear of locking up one innocent person. Even Lot's deal with God regarding Sodom had a threshold of about 10 people. (If we wish to employ biblical reference -- and we don't, so ignore that last sentence, I was just trying to look acceptably learned).

The real question is, shouldn't we increase the diligence of the application of appropriate due process and legal appeals?

Over the decades our process of justice has been tweaked and redefined, particularly in California, but also on the Federal level. Some states have done better than others and that process is always in flux.

In the last 30 years the few people executed in California have CLEARLY DESERVED IT. I think that, rather than rail on the death penalty itself, perhaps we the people should rail on the Louisiannas and the Texases perhaps, and get them to bring their processes into line with the rest of civilized society.

[I think in some places the above questions and comments would get me labelled as a right-wing fire-n-brimstone heartless blood-monger. Which I would find even funnier than your badge.]

 
At 8:47 PM, Blogger Luke said...

"If our overriding concern is the injustice of a single innocent person getting executed, shouldn't we have that same concern for a single innocent person serving life in prison without parole? Or a single innocent person serving 25 to life? At what level of incarceration is there an acceptible level of certainty that we're punishing the right people? In other words shouldn't we be more worried about the process of conviction than the severity of the punishment?"

GOD YES!

But remember that diligence does not equate to "simply decid[ing] to abandon altogether the imprisonment of convicts for fear of locking up one innocent person."

And saying that stopping the death penalty for fear of killing innocents leads logically to the end of imprisonment for fear of locking up innocents is a slippery slope fallacy, akin to saying, "those faggot treehugging communists took my grenade launcher, next they'll be after my deer rifle."

Lines can always be drawn without walking the ad absurdem chain back to its initial link, and there is a huge gap between the revocation of freedom and the revocation of life, so that seems a natural place to draw the line for starters.

You're absolutely right that dilligence is the most necessary, and though I am categorically against the death penalty, I admit that California's system is perhaps the most humane. But at some point, you have to ask yourself, does 25 years on death row really save you that much money as opposed to dying of natural causes after 30?

I'm not sure.

Finally, I grant wholeheartedly that the threat of death has probably spurred tons of plea bargans, and looking at the sheer beaurocratic girth that does into every trial, big and small, that's a huge pragmatic advantage.

But blind pragmatism, like blind utilitarianism, can justify some pretty fucked up things given the right circumstances.

 
At 1:10 AM, Blogger Don Sheffler said...

Well, I'm certainly not a slippery sloper by any means. I don't at all believe the implication that "stopping the death penalty ... leads logically to ending imprisonment."

I was questioning the logic in the idea that reducing the severity of a punishment for all, in any way addresses the problem of wrongful conviction. It makes vastly more sense to rigorously validate the thresholds of due process and appeal, rather than invalidating a powerfully useful punishment option, out of perceived difficulties in achieving the former goal.

Removing the death penalty option would have avoided the execution of 3 men in California since roughly 1970. All of them pathetically guilty and deserving. At the cost of how many Life-Without-Parole-Guilty-Pleas? A Zillion. It just makes mountains more sense to focus on the front end of the process in terms of exacting true justice for the innocent. There is ZERO effect in that regard in removing the death penalty option.

So what looked like a slippery slope fallacy was just me positing this: It would make as much sense to release all the lifers as it would to end the death penalty, if for the purpose of addressing wrongful conviction.

"you have to ask yourself, does 25 years on death row really save you that much money as opposed to dying of natural causes after 30?"

No, probably the opposite. But my pragmatism here isn't financial. I don't concern myself with "saving a buck" in getting a plea bargain.

I think that if the huge number of truly guilty murderers weren't compelled to cop pleas in order to save their lives, none would! Why would they?! And the resulting upswell in long and drawn out trials would add further dead weight to an already burdened system. Cops to forensics to courts and prosecutors and appeals courts and who knows, all having to focus for up to 2 years, or 3 or 4, on one obviously guilty killer's case; that's an awful lot of criminal justice hours that become available for other cases when this guy pleads down to Life to avoid the Death March.

As you said in your first comment, the guilty are more likely to cop a plea. True! And the innocent are more likely to take it to trial. True! And an innocent person getting wrongly suspected, wrongly prosecuted, wrongly convicted, and then getting all the way to the death chamber, in California, is a virtual impossibility.

 

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