SCHWARTZ: In Hartford, incoherence on the death penalty

The Connecticut House of Representatives voted on Wednesday to repeal the state’s death penalty. Governor Dannel Malloy, who pledged to support the repeal, is expected to sign the bill soon. Opposition to the death penalty is certainly a legitimate — perhaps even laudable — political position, but this repeal bill represents political incoherence at its worst.

Assuming the bill becomes law, the death penalty will be replaced by life without the possibility of parole. There is, however, something fishy about the repeal. It exempts the 11 inmates currently sitting on Connecticut’s death row. Assuming their plethora of projected appeals fails, these 11 will die by lethal injection.

This exemption has provided fodder for criticism from death penalty advocates. “If it is the will of this chamber that this state is no longer in the business of executing people, then let’s say it and do it,” Connecticut House minority leader Lawrence Cafero Jr. has demanded. “You cannot have it both ways.”

Of course, advocates of repeal need to have it both ways. The alternative would be politically untenable. After all, in 2009, Governor Jodi Rell vetoed a similar bill. The public, incensed by the rape and murder of Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her two young daughters, Michaela and Hayley, overwhelmingly supported that veto. Since then, the Hawke-Petits’ murderers have been sentenced to death. Most death penalty opponents understand that the public will not stand for clemency for these murderers.

But the fact that the exemptions are politically expedient does not make the impending repeal any more philosophically coherent. If our moral intuition indicates that those who rape and burn alive an innocent 11-year-old girl ought to die at the hands of the state — and for the majority of people, that seems to be the case — why deny justice to future victims of similar brutality? What makes future Michaelas different from the girl killed five years ago? Alternatively, if we reject our intuitions as clouded by an irrational lust for vengeance, why sustain the sentences of those currently awaiting execution?

The incoherence only deepens when we examine the language of the repeal’s supporters. Malloy defended the repeal by pointing to the inefficiency of the death penalty’s administration: “For decades, we have not had a workable death penalty,” he said. “Only one person’s been executed in Connecticut in the last 52 years, and he volunteered for it.”

To any reasonable person, this would be an argument in favor of reforming the death penalty’s application and appeals process. Why give up rather than trying to fix what is broken?

Inevitably, death penalty opponents respond that the process cannot be reformed. After all, the ultimate penalty demands an astronomically heightened — and costly — degree of care by courts. Furthermore, death penalty cases naturally attract flashy and talented death-penalty lawyers from all over the country. The efforts of these crusaders can drag out the appeals process for decades.

But none of these costs will go away after repeal. The cost of housing these inmates will remain constant: The repeal bill dictates that murderers who would have been executed be held in conditions identical to those of current death row inmates.

There is also no reason to believe the headache and cost associated with appeals and endless court procedures will disappear. As death penalty cases dwindle, we can expect the costly lawsuits and hotshot lawyering to shift from death row inmates to those paying the new ultimate price.

Without a scholarly consensus in favor of its deterrent value, the justice and decency of the death penalty is a question of personal morality. Where any of us stand on the issue is the product of our values, beliefs and upbringing. But as students at a university, we should be able to unify around philosophical coherence — and this repeal positively stinks of incoherence.

Of course, politics is full of compromise, inconsistency and half measures, and those of us who oppose the death penalty should probably hold our noses and be grateful. But for those who see politicians fooling the public to dial down opposition to an unpopular agenda item, Malloy’s inevitably approaching signature is the tragic conclusion of a slick trick.

I am agnostic on the death penalty. What I do fear is that the energy spent on saving murderers from lethal injection is an unconscionable waste of resources that could be better spent demanding substantive justice and prison reforms.

The death penalty is a sexy target, but attacking it is a phenomenal waste of time. And to do so in a matter rife with philosophical inconsistency is an embarrassment to our collective intelligence.

Yishai Schwartz is a junior in Branford College. His column runs on Tuesdays. Contact him at yishai.schwartz@yale.edu.

Comments

  • RebelYale00

    Should we hold such power over other human beings? Can we cradle life and death in our hands? Some say no. They would claim that we hold no such power as life and death over others. I feel differently. I believe that when humans started to congregate together and form social bonds that we gave permission for others to sit in judgment over our actions in direct conflict of our social norms. So, are we empowered by the state or by our own social contract to forfeit our lives when the majority deems it necessary? I believe the power comes from the people. We give each other this necessary charge over life and death.