The perverse logic of capital punishment

The execution in Singapore on Wednesday of a mentally disabled Malaysian man for drug trafficking sparked international protests and outrage. Executing a man who no longer threatens his government or his community – especially a man with the mental capacity of a child – is not justice. It is murder, even if it is sanctioned and disguised by an irrational and barbaric law. Nagaenthran Dharmalingam, 34, was convicted of trafficking approximately 43 grams of heroin, an amount with a street value in much of the world of just over $20,000.

Texas has already executed two mentally handicapped prisoners. Now he is seeking to execute Melissa Lucio, a 14-year-old Latino mother who was convicted of murdering her 2-year-old daughter. New evidence, however, raises doubts about his guilt, suggesting that the police made him make a false confession. This week, an appeals court stayed his execution.

In Pennsylvania, Governor Tom Wolf halted the state’s killing machine in 2015, imposing a moratorium on executions. But the state’s death penalty law remains in effect; defendants continue to be tried under this law, despite the enormous costs it imposes on taxpayers, the grave risks of executing innocent people, and the specter of numerous botched executions across the country. About 100 prisoners, half of whom are black, remain on Pennsylvania’s death row. With the moratorium on executions set to expire when Governor Wolf leaves office in January 2023, lawmakers must abolish the death penalty this year.

In April, Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala made the ill-advised decision to seek the death penalty for two separate murders: one involving Karli Short; the other, Christi Spicuzza, Uber driver. True, both cases involve serious offences, but they do not alter the fundamental practical and moral problems posed by an expensive and ineffective death penalty law, for which there is no evidence – none – that it deters violent crimes or serves any useful purpose.

Since 1976, when the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment, Pennsylvania has sentenced more than 400 people to death — at a cost of $1 billion, former auditor general Eugene DePasquale reported in 2020. That’s an average of over $300 million per run. Meanwhile, 10 Pennsylvania prisoners on death row have been exonerated.

The perverse logic of capital punishment represents the victory of rage over reason. Capital offenses, almost always involving murder, make any relatively normal person vomit. The question, however, is not whether some people deserve to die – a reckoning unknowable except, perhaps, by a higher power. The real question is whether the state has the right, without pretense of self-defence, to suffocate a life. Even if it can claim such a prerogative, the government must answer an equally compelling question: is the death penalty a prudent public policy?

In Singapore, Texas or Pennsylvania, the answer to both questions is a resounding no.

— Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, April 30

About Norman Griggs

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