Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Is the Death Penalty Bogarting the Spotlight?

Yesterday, during a post about new reports from the American Bar Association and Amnesty International about the death penalty in the United States, Doug Berman at Sentencing Law & Policy went off a bit:

My (inappropriate?) reaction: I view these reports as a disconcerting waste of time and energy, and as further proof that the Supreme Court is not alone in getting caught up in a "legal culture of death." I continue to be troubled by how much time and attention is given to death penalty processes and defendants, especially since (1) everyone on death row has been convicted and sentenced to death for murder, and (2) the alternative to execution is life in prison. Putting innocence issues aside, I find it amazing (and annoying) how much energy is spent trying to ensure that a bunch of murderers get to spend a bit more time locked in a cage before they die.
Let me say that I agree with Berman's sentiments. On a grand scale, the administration of the death penalty in this country touches only an infinitesimally small number of people. Far more people are doing life in prison (which is equally barbaric, IMHO) in state pennitentiaries. And, of course, the continuing ratcheting up of sentences for all offenses continues unabated in Federal court (even after the failed promise of Blakely and Booker).

Having said that, I think Berman is slightly off base. Like it or not, death is different, as the Supreme Court has noted on numerous occasions. The finality of a carried out death sentence, particularly in light of the inequities that have been demonstrated in the system, justifies a lot of the disproportionate attention it receives. The solution to that, of course, is to do away with capital punishment altogether. That eliminates the inherent problems of justice associated with it while freeing up the resources (both financial and intellectual) to be better used elsewhere.

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