Death Penalty and Innocence

Cross-posted from ProLife NZ

Today I’d like to draw your attention to an argument against the death penalty and tie it to euthanasia and abortion.

Here it is in brief:

There is the chance that an person will be convicted of a crime they aren’t guilty of, and sentenced to the death penalty. Because there is the chance an innocent person may be killed, we should not have the death penalty as an option (and instead perhaps keep those who’ve committed the worst offences in jail for the rest of their life).

Pretty straightforward (someone might even point out that there have in fact been several real-life cases of innocent people’s death sentences being overturned by better evidence being considered, but let’s just examine the ‘chance’ argument, i.e. before any real-life cases had actually been proven to happen).

I’m interested here in how this might relate to euthanasia. Let’s grant, for the sake of argument here, that some people are completely willing to die at the hands of another, in their right minds, their family haven’t coerced them, etc. In short, they are ‘suitable’ candidates for the “right-to-die” campaign.

Does this mean assisted-suicide should be legal in NZ? What about the people who might feel coerced to die (sort of like the innocent person killed via the death sentence)? Surely one must grant the possibility that people like this might exist. Perhaps they would be 1% of those killed under a law change. Maybe 30%. I don’t know. But there is a chance, and among other reasons, I think this is a powerful one against euthanasia being introduced. Innocent people might get iced.

Finally, how does this tie into abortion? The argument is sometimes heard that no-one really knows when life begins. If there’s a 50-50 chance that a new human being with full human rights comes into existence at conception, then it seems pretty clear-cut that the “no-one knows” argument actually works against the right to abortion. Even if there was a 1% chance, it easily outnumbers wrongful deaths from the death penalty. And there are none more innocent than those in the womb.

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  • 08chuadav

    If you think this is a good argument against the death penalty, then you should think it is a good argument against abortion and euthanasia. But it seems to be a bad argument against both, because it can be applied to any form of punishment whatsoever. For instance if you can run the argument against the death penalty, why not against life imprisonment as well? (there is a chance an innocent person may be life-imprisoned). Why not against fines and corporal punishment? It would be arbitrary to draw the line at any particular point, for in all cases, the relevant similarity holds: it is possible that innocents will be wronged. But surely some forms of punishment are legitimate, even despite the risk of harming innocents. (After all, so many activities we engage in are risky yet we think them permissible). So, it seems best to reject the argument altogether.

    • G

      There is a distinct difference, though, between the death penalty and other forms of punishment. Like you said, there is a chance an innocent person may be imprisoned for life, but at any stage during that person’s life, the truth may be discovered and amends made. The death penalty, once enacted, cannot be reversed if the innocence of the person killed is later discovered.

      • 08chuadav

        The only difference between life imprisonment and the death penalty is that the death penalty is quicker to enact. You can’t reverse the penalty of an innocent person who has been sentenced to life imprisonment, and who has completed that sentence (and died in prison). So life imprisonment still bears the risk of irreversibly harming innocent persons. Perhaps you might reply: but it takes longer to enact the sentence of life imprisonment, and that *length* of time gives us more of a chance to ensure that innocents are not wrongly sentenced. But this reply doesn’t seem sufficient because (1) it still concedes that both life imprisonment and the death penalty risk enacting irreversible punishments. Thus, it still negates the original argument (which was that we should not enforce the death penalty is *because* there is a chance of killing an innocent person/enacting irreversible harm to an innocent). But that was the point: the original argument doesn’t seem convincing. (2) it seems excessively arbitrary to permit life imprisonment but forbid the death penalty, purely because of the *length* taken to enact the punishment.

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