Do The Right Thing; A Bill Richardson Joint

Via Steve Benen, news that Bill Richardson has signed legislation repealing New Mexico’s death penalty.

Good on him.  Benen hypothesizes that Richardson found the courage of his convictions now that it appears that his public sector life is pretty much over with – he will be leaving the N.M. statehouse next year, and had to bow out of consideration for Commerce Secretary with the Obama administration due to a grand jury investigation. This is probably not entirely untrue, although I suspect that it isn’t a complete description of the circumstances either.

It sounds like Richardson has gone through a conversion much like mine, so I’ll settle for describing my opinions about the death penalty here, and let go at that. I am strongly pro-death penalty, in theory. Although I think that there is, fundamentally, something wrong with a justice system that attempts to outlaw things that people are definitely going to do, I’m not sure that a large, modern, urban society has any other options. And, in that system, there are going to be crimes so heinous, so horrible, that the only thing to do is to make 100% positive that the criminal will never have the chance to commit such a crime again. As such, I support the idea of a death penalty.

However, such a penalty needs to be placed under the tightest of restrictions. It should, in my opinion, be reserved for only the most horrible of crimes, it should only be applied when the crime resulted in a death, or several deaths, and it should only be applied when there is a 100% ironclad indisputable conviction. Since it was reinstated in 1976, the facts have proven out that the death penalty is simply, in practice, not able to be applied this way. There are well-known systematic biases of class and race, where poorer, blacker convicts are much more likely to receive it than richer, whiter convicts. And, even worse, there have been numerous cases of death row inmates being exonerated for their crimes, sometimes post mortem. And that should shame us, as a society – I believe it is much worse to have killed one innocent man (and it’s almost always a man) than to let ten guilty men go free. Richardson alluded to this in his statement, saying that 4 New Mexico death row inmates had been exonerated.

However, the fact remains that national death penalty repeal is simply not an issue for either of the major parties these days. The Republicans can continue to rail against President Obama, calling him the most liberal Democrat ever, or a socialist, or whatever, but the fact is that the modern Democratic Party is a much more moderate institution than the one of my childhood. None of the major party figures are talking about major gun restrictions. None of them aretalking about banning the death penalty. 

I see the political necessity of these compromises – I remember watching Mike Dukakis fumble through his non-answer about the death penalty in the 1988 Presidential Debates and thinking to myself, ‘boy, I agree with this position less now than I did before he started his answer.’ This is pretty clearly still a pro-death penalty country, although I suspect that if everyone knew all the facts about how fairly or, more to the point, unfairly, the death penalty was handed and carried out, they’d be a lot more reticent in calling for its application.

To my mind, the only correct moral case is to say that until we really overhaul the way it is applied and carried out, there ought to be a permanent moratorium on executions in America. And if it takes someone in the twilight of a long, storied, and honorable political career to be able to speak this truth, so be it. I’m not a huge Bill Richardson fan, but today I sure am…


2 Responses to Do The Right Thing; A Bill Richardson Joint

  1. Tripp says:

    The death penalty costs too much. It’s cheaper to keep someone in prison for life.

  2. Mike S says:

    That’s not true at all. The death penalty is fairly inexpensive. The system we have in place now, with the infinite appeal process and all of the special considerations, makes it cheaper to give someone life in prison than the death penalty, at least in most states.

    I agree with the death penalty. I think there are crimes, and people, that death is the only solution. It is not a deterant. It is not about retribution, or rehabilitation. There are situations where the crimal is “broken” and cannot, ever, be considered a productive member of society.

    What’s wrong with the death penalty isn’t “killing people who kill people to show that killing people is wrong” it is the system around it. Technically, anyone who is guilty has to be guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Unfortunately, that isn’t always true, which is how we have people being exonerated much later.

    If we’re going to have a death penalty, we need to do it, and do it right. When they’re guilty and meet some predefined standards, so that it is equal of poor black men as well as rich white women, they get taken out back and shot, almost immediately following the trial. This crap where they wait an average of 20 years with a few appeals, just makes the death penalty look stupid and causes arguments like “the death penalty costs too much”, when in fact killing someone is quite cheap, roughly $.30 for a bullet and the sheriff’s time.

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