Tuesday, December 13, 2005

James Wolcott comes out against clemency 

James Wolcott laments the execution of "Tookie" Williams, or at least the law that authorized it. I myself am not a huge fan of capital punishment -- I support it for only three specific offenses1 -- but I am at least a little confused by Wolcott's reasoning, at least as reflected in this post:
The death penalty must be abolished. No former movie action hero--or Yale cheerleader with enough psychological baggage to sink the African Queen--should be entrusted with the power of life and death over his fellow citizens. These are essentially frivolous, uninformed men playacting blue-suited roles of grave responsibility. And, no, I don't think Bill Clinton should have executed Ricky Ray Rector either. Capital punishment must be de-politicized, and as long as politicians make the final decision, depoliticization is impossible. So abolish it.

Well, when you put it that way...

Of course, no "Yale cheerleader" or "former movie action hero" or, for that matter, "office-purchasing union-girlfriend-loan-forgiving centi-millionaire investment banker"2 can order the execution of anybody in any state. All they can do is overrule the theoretically non-politicized branch of government and prevent the execution. Indeed, since the President and governors can also commute non-capital sentences, Wolcott's argument indicts the legitimacy of the entire criminal justice system.

Now, the obvious way to overcome Wolcott's objection is to eliminate the power of elected officials to commute sentences, capital or otherwise. There is merit in the idea -- Marc Rich would still be on the lam had Wolcott's proposal been in force five years ago. But does Wolcott really want to eliminate the power of office-purchasing union-girlfriend-loan-forgiving centi-millionaire investment bankers to show mercy, however unprincipled their rationale?

I do not support capital punishment for crimes such as those for which Tookie Williams was convicted (although he was accused of plotting to kill a cop). But it is absurd to argue (as others, not Wolcott, have) that the admitted leader of the Crips, duly convicted of murder (notwithstanding 11th hour claims that he was framed), is somehow redeemed because he wrote children's books. If we apply the left's broad conception of managerial culpability to street gangs, Williams is no doubt responsible for the destruction of many hundreds of lives. That he should make some small contribution in recompense for that -- oh, wow, books for children with "anti-gang themes" -- is not even slightly redemptive.

The anti-death penalty movement has some useful arguments to make. That it chose to make them in the Tookie Williams case exposes the anti-death folks as poor tacticians. James Wolcott's argument that the clemency power undermines the legitimacy of capital punishment is absurd.
1. I support the death penalty for murder for the murder of hostages and law enforcement officers (including corrections guards and officials), and in the case of insurrection, including terrorism. Why? In the first case, you have to give hostage negotiators something to bargain with. In the second case, you have to give prisoners and other cornered criminals a reason not to kill the guards and cops. In the third case, because we should always deal with violent threats to our democracy ruthlessly, and with no regrets.

2. True, New Jersey has not executed anybody since the return of the death penalty in 1976, but there are 14 prisoners on death row and Jon Corzine may yet have the opportunity to commute a sentence.


By Blogger Gordon Smith, at Tue Dec 13, 10:44:00 AM:

Good Morning, Hawk.

The death penalty question ought not be taken out of the context of the penal system as a whole.

Our system of justice allows people to "pay" for their crimes through time served. This notion indicates a willingness for people to believe that criminals can "learn their lesson" and return to society to be productive, helpful, and perhaps even excellent.

When we remove the idea that rehabilitation is a motive of the penal system, then what we've got is a gulag system intent on breaking wills.

Williams' crime was horrible, of course, but he simply was not a danger to society on the night he was put to death. He was, in fact, even in the minimized way you frame it, aiding society through his actions and his voice.

If a criminal rehabilitates himself, then doesn't our morality dictate that redemption is permissible and wanted?

I am firmly against the death penalty. I am also firmly against a penal system that does not have rehabilitation at its forefront.

Thanks for taking on the subject.  

By Blogger Sotosoroto, at Tue Dec 13, 04:06:00 PM:

The way I see it, if you kill somebody, you forfeit your own life. Simple as that. If you only get a life sentence, you should feel lucky.  

By Blogger Lanky_Bastard, at Tue Dec 13, 04:16:00 PM:

Nice post. I concur with limited applicability of the death penalty. If society is to take another's life, there should be a substantive rationale.

It is good policy to execute terrorists (and quickly) before their terrorist fellows take hostages and negotiate releases (as happened with some of the Palestinean Olympic terrorists). Terrorists should be summarily executed for the benefit of society.

In the case of Williams, I don't see how society benefits by executing him, whereas to some extent, he was contributing to society while condemned.  

By Blogger TigerHawk, at Tue Dec 13, 06:14:00 PM:

I sort of look at the death penalty the way I look at gun control. Both are offered as some sort of panacea for crime, the former by the right and the latter by the left. Both, however, raise serious moral issues. Neither capital punishment nor gun control actually accomplish what their proponents think they accomplish. Both can be effective in certain very specific applications. Both inspire tremendous emotionalism on the part of their proponents.

Hey, I feel a post coming on.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Tue Dec 13, 06:34:00 PM:

Screwy: Williams did not go very far to rehabilitate himself. He had 25 years and what did he do. Wrote some childrens books with a total sales of 308 (The books cowrotten by an anti-death penalty journalist.) Williams never helped the police with the crips. Williams also was not an angel in prison.

I am convinced that the anti-death penalty crowd took on the Williams case because if the Governor commuted his sentence then how in all conscience could he not commute everyone else's sentence.  

By Blogger Dawnfire82, at Wed Dec 14, 06:44:00 AM:

I once knew a Chinese speaking interrogator who had studied (and taught English) in China. We were talking about China one night on watch and he made this comment;

"You know all these people who want to abolish the death penalty because they don't think it's a deterrent, and it's wrong to kill people if it serves no greater purpose in society? Tell them to visit China. People there almost never commit crimes, because they are terrified of being executed. Muggings, burglaries, murders, tend not to happen at all. That's deterrence in action."  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Dec 14, 07:19:00 AM:

Indeed, Screwy (and, FTR, I was saying "Indeed" before Glenn Reynolds entered law school); was is needed is a law abolishing not only the death penalty, but prison sentences in general...providing someone not convicted of any crime signs a pledge of good behavior for the convict, guaranteeing that (s)he will accept the original penalty if the convict commits another crime.

I confidently await the vast number of such pledges to be offered in that legal regime.  

By Anonymous muebles baratos, at Thu Nov 10, 08:24:00 AM:

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.  

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