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Death Waits

Today, New Jersey became the first state to ban the death penalty since it was reinstated by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1976. In honor of the development, I wanted to link to this 1998 piece by Jonathan Rauch on uncertainty and the death penalty, which is among the most thoughtful essays I can recall ever reading on a matter of public policy:

In 1868, John Stuart Mill rose in Parliament to make the case for death as eloquently as human words permit. ''Does fining a criminal show want of respect for property, or imprisoning him, for personal freedom? Just as unreasonable is it to think that to take the life of a man who has taken that of another is to show want of regard for human life. We show, on the contrary, most emphatically our regard for it, by the adoption of a rule that he who violates that right in another forfeits it for himself, and that while no other crime that he can commit deprives him of his right to live, this shall.''

Three-fourths of the American public shares Mill's moral intuition; and, for what it's worth, I share it, too. The picture of Timothy McVeigh living to a ripe old age, watching television every night and smelling the new-mown grass every spring, makes me cringe. The prospect of McVeigh assuring us in 20 years that he deeply regrets the error of his youth strikes me as revolting, when I think of the 168 people whose moral journeys he ended.

However--the big however. Mill recognized ''one argument against capital punishment, even in extreme cases, which I cannot deny to have weight. . . . It is this--that if by an error of justice an innocent person is put to death, the mistake can never be corrected; all compensation, all reparation for the wrong is impossible.''

If you think that executing McVeigh, or anybody else, is unjust, then you know what you think about capital punishment. But if you believe, along with me and Mill and the American majority, that capital punishment is just, at least for heinous killers, you must still advance to the next question. What if we kill the wrong person?

Read the whole essay here.  

--Christopher Orr