Capital Punishment in the News (Again)

Today, October 6, 2010 there are two stories circulating about capital punishment. The first regards the horrific case of the family of Dr. William Petit Jr. Dr. Petit lost his wife and three daughters who were killed by two monsters masquerading as human beings. The prosecution has just proved its case against the first of the two defendants and will soon be moving to a penalty phase which will request the death penalty.

The second story concerns the case of Cameron Todd Willingham who was executed by the State of Texas for the murder of his three daughters. According to Texas, Mr. Willingham deliberately set fire to his house causing the deaths of his children. The state Fire Marshall was responsible for the finding of arson. When Mr. Willingham came to trial, the state funded public defender hired a local fire expert who agreed with the State, so Mr. Willingham was unable to present a contrary expert opinion. The case came to the attention of Craig Beyler, the chairman of the International Association of Fire Safety Science who studied the facts and concluded that the arson finding was contrary to the evidence and that the state’s investigation failed to follow common, national standards of investigation. Several other fire experts not connected with the state have studied the evidence and concluded that the fire was accidental. It’s too late for Mr. Willingham who was killed by the State of Texas in 2004.

In another case coincidentally reported this same day, federal Judge Jack T. Camp has been accused of hiring the services of a stripper he is alleged to have frequented to obtain cocaine. Judge Camp, a Reagan appointee, has a reputation for handing out harsh sentences for drug offenses, among other things.

Many in our national media are using the case of Dr. Petit’s family as a clarion call for the death penalty. But the other two cases amply demonstrate why we should be slow to accept that advice. The question is not, in my mind, whether the perpetrators of those heinous acts deserve death. There is not a shred of doubt in my mind that they do. I will shed no tears for either of these men should they suffer execution. But I still oppose capital punishment for a very simple reason, one that I would have thought conservatives would understand.

As the other cases I cited from today’s news amply demonstrate, we simply can’t trust the government with the ultimate penalty. There is too much corruption, too much financial advantage to the prosecution, and too much plain incompetence in the judicial systems for us to trust the government to properly enforce a death penalty.

What baffles me is that a reluctance to trust the government is the most central plank to American Conservative ideology. Conservatives don’t trust the government with our tax dollars. They reject gun laws because they insist that the government should have little or nothing to do with regulating their right to “keep and bear arms.” They rail against regulation of almost any sort. But somehow, they do trust the government to choose the right defendants to kill. I don’t get it.

There is a “Jewish angle” to this issue. It has often been observed that Jews are more likely to oppose the death penalty than other ethnic groups. Although this is changing in America as the community matures, gains wealth, and more people move towards opinions generally held by the more affluent, the percentage of Jews opposed to capital punishment remains higher than the general population. One reason occasionally cited for this is that Judaism has opposed capital punishment for most of the last two thousand years. I believe that the reason is the reason which is behind that traditional opposition to capital punishment–the certainty that Jews have had over the centuries that if the State has the power to kill people, innocent Jews will be not infrequent targets of state sanctioned brutality.

It is certainly less likely in our time that the American state will target Jews this way, but it wasn’t that long ago that Jews were lynched in America–the case of Leo Frank probably the most infamous. And while there haven’t been mass, state countenanced slaughters of Jews in America, Jews have experienced exactly this from states and governments which were considered to be “modern” and “democratic.” Jews have learned from bitter experience that populations and governments can turn on them in short order. So opposition to capital punishment among Jews is not just a matter of trending liberal, it is to some extent an exercise in self preservation.

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