THE ISLAND OF DOUBT
An irregular exploration of the ongoing struggle between the power of rational discourse and the scientific method on one hand, and the forces of superstition and dogma on the other.
The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark
by Carl Sagan
The Doubter's Companion:
Skeptic Magazine: www.skeptic.com
Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal: www.csicop.org
A poem by Yehuda Amichai:
The Meaning of
the Island of
More Doubtful Blogs
Chris C. Mooney
SciAm Perspectives Panda's Thumb
Other Worthy Blogs
Random Douglas Adams quote
doubting we come to inquiry; and through inquiry we perceive truth.
Undisguised clarity is
easily mistaken for arrogance.
As for evolution, it
happened. Deal with it.
THE DEATH OF DECENCY
A Henderson County jury handed down a death sentence last week, the first in these parts of North Carolina since 1982 -- and that earlier decision was later commuted to life in prison. Compared with what goes on in Texas, I suppose those of us troubled by even the possibility of one state-sanctioned execution should be thankful.
I am, of course, anything but. Making matters worse, not a word about the constitutionality of capital punishment has escaped the lips of anyone associated with this week's confirmation hearings for U.S. Supreme Court chief justice nominee John Roberts.
It's not that I expected the subject to dominate the hearings. The Supreme Court looked at the arguments for and against it twice not so long ago -- abolishing it in 1972 and then reversing itself four years later. Calls for abolition aren't exactly ringing from the rooftops. But there is the matter of the recent moratorium on executions in Illinois, following a journalism student group's exposure of 13 wrongful convictions among the state's death row population. Can one be excused for holding out hope for at least a passing mention?
The traditional argument against the death penalty is that it violates the Constitution's ban on "cruel and unusual" punishment. Only a few states bought that argument, not the Supreme Court, and there probably isn't much point in making the same case today in those 38 states that have reinstated executions.
Instead, I would suggest a more scientific and skeptical approach, one that appeals not to legal arguments, but to the logic and common sense of state legislators who have it their power to get rid of what is one of the world's very worst ideas.
With all due respect to those who have fought for so long and hard against the death penalty, the problem with killing people is not that it is cruel or unusual. It is, for one thing, hard to argue that life in an American maximum-security penal institution is less cruel than a quick and painless death. (There is evidence that lethal injection, the most common form of the executions in America, is neither quick nor painless, but that is a technological problem that can easily be addressed.)
For another, while state-sanctioned murder is unusual compared with almost all liberal democracies, there are plenty of other places that continue to get rid of unwante criminals that way, including the world's most populous nation.
No, the problem arises from a combination of the irrevocable nature of the punishment and the inevitability of error in judgment. What happened in Illinois is but the tip of the iceberg. An embarrassing richness of incompetence among Texan capital-crime defense attorneys is another example. (It's hard to believe that a lawyer sleeping through his client's trial isn't cause for revisiting a case, but that's Texas for you.) As a result, there is a virtual certainty that any jurisdiction that executes people will, sooner or later, execute innocent people.
Even the relentless march of forensics science will do little to reduce uncertainty. Yes, DNA tests make it easier to exonerate and identify suspects. But at the same time, prosecutors are worried about the CSI effect, in which criminals are getting wise to the techniques being used against them, planting false evidence and obscuring their own trails.
Again, human weakness is the real challenge. Right here we have the case of State of North Carolina v. James Alan Gell, in which it took nine years for the truth of what the Charlotte News and Observer called a "disgraceful prosecution" to come out. A second trial got Gell off death row and back into the free world last year.
There are those who are not bothered by this statistical likelihood. But they are people who want resolutions to all outstanding issues. They will not accept emotionally unsatisfying compromises for the sake of society at large. For them, death is a straightforward response to a straightforward crime. Right and wrong are set in stone; so should justice be.
But for the rest of us, those who recognize that the world is a complicated place, full of unavoidable errors and unanswered questions, in perpetual need of improvement, the death penalty should be an affront to everything that civilization stands for.
The Henderson County jury that sentenced one Billy Raines to death for killing two of his friends likely believed there wasn't even a shadow of doubt that he is guilty of the crimes. But I wish those 12 jurors could have set aside their need for revenge, and looked at the bigger picture, the one dominated by shades of gray, rather than mere black and white.
It would also be nice if North Carolina came to the same conclusions, if and when it ever gets around to studying the practice as state legislators keep threatening to do.