Death penalties and justice denied

June 17th, 2017
by Chris

There is a piece on the Red Letter Christian blog which explains how a pastor changed his mind from approving the death penalty to opposing it.

I endorse the thinking there, but it didn’t escape my notice that, in the real life situation which John Grisham wrote about in “The Innocent Man”, the innocent man wasn’t actually executed, but his life was completely ruined by 11 years in prison.

I therefore ask myself whether, in truth, not having the death penalty is really the issue there. The real issue is the conviction of innocent people.

20 years ago, I had the opportunity of talking at length with a range of prisoners in a UK prison (the opportunity of talking at length to a lawyer without having to pay fees was irresistible!) This yielded two conclusions.

The first was that an alarming number of them (I estimated maybe 25%) had been wrongly convicted. I will grant that in the vast majority of those cases, they had merely been convicted of what was technically the wrong offence, or they had been convicted for an offence which they hadn’t actually committed on the occasion they were charged with, or they shouldn’t have been convicted on the evidence there was but were actually guilty, but there was still a residue of maybe 5%. That’s 1 in 20 prisoners who shouldn’t have been convicted at all.

OK, of those, maybe half had been so associated with people committing offences that it was difficult to have full sympathy with them. But that leaves 1 in 40.

The second conclusion was drawn from talking with some people who had been rightly convicted of serious offences such as murder or manslaughter, and who were nearing the end of their period of imprisonment. They had been in prison for years upon years – ten, twelve, even twenty five (in the case of the ex-IRA enforcer). And many of them were terrified about the prospect of being released. They couldn’t see how they could function in society any more (the ex-IRA guy commented that everyone he had known well was now dead). Three of them expressed a wish that there had been a death penalty and that they had been spared all those years of incarceration. One remarked that his life had effectively ended when he was imprisoned, and the rest was just torturous waiting…

They were maybe not as mentally damaged as the subject of Grisham’s book, but were in any event very damaged.

My point is that yes, the argument that you can’t later turn round and put right a wrongful conviction where the innocent has been executed is valid, but you also can’t put right a long period of imprisonment, at least not in the UK prison system (and, from everything I read and see, even less so in the US one). In some, but not all, cases, the government pays compensation to those wrongly convicted, but money is not an adequate restitution for what is probably irreparable psychological damage.

Is this an argument for the death penalty? Well, probably not. It’s more an argument for treating prisoners more like human beings and not subjecting them to horrific conditions.

But it is an argument that the US system, which operates to imprison people for very long periods and then execute them, is doubly barbaric. Yes, I know the delay is caused by a labyrinthine legal system which tries very hard to correct errors which occur. But justice deferred is justice denied.

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