Sunday, September 25, 2011


Ross Douthat's take on the Troy Davis case is really rather mind-boggling:

If capital punishment disappears in the United States, it won't be because voters and politicians no longer want to execute the guilty. It will be because they're afraid of executing the innocent.

This is a healthy fear for a society to have. But there's a danger here for advocates of criminal justice reform. After all, in a world without the death penalty, Davis probably wouldn't have been retried or exonerated. His appeals would still have been denied, he would have spent the rest of his life in prison, and far fewer people would have known or cared about his fate.

Instead, he received a level of legal assistance, media attention and activist support that few convicts can ever hope for.

So, really, even though he was executed and all, Troy Davis actually benefited from the fact that there's a death penalty.

Good grief. What is Douthat saying? Is he arguing that no one has ever called for the reexamination of evidence in a non-capital case? (That would be news to the Innocence Project, which focuses on both, as well as a wide range of other criminal justice issues.) Is he saying that no exoneration in a non-capital case ever makes the news? (The young men convicted in the Central Park jogger case weren't on Death Row, and news that they were wrongly convicted certainly got quite a bit of attention here in New York.)


It pains me just to process the nonsense Douthat is peddling here. The convoluted argument he's making is that a focus on the death penalty is immoral because it draws attention away from other abuses in the criminal justice system. But is that even correct? And why on earth can't we have a discussion of both?

Simply throwing up our hands and eliminating executions entirely ... could prove to be a form of moral evasion -- a way to console ourselves with the knowledge that no innocents are ever executed, even as more pervasive abuses go unchecked....

This point was made well last week by Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, writing for The American Scene. In any penal system, he pointed out, but especially in our own -- which can be brutal, overcrowded, rife with rape and other forms of violence -- a lifelong prison sentence can prove more cruel and unusual than a speedy execution. And a society that supposedly values liberty as much or more than life itself hasn't necessarily become more civilized if it preserves its convicts' lives while consistently violating their rights and dignity.

Is there a quota on how many abuses in the criminal justice system we're allowed to discuss at once? A lot of people are trying to discuss both the death penalty and other abuses. A lot of people are open to a discussion of both the death penalty and other abuses. Douthat's problem is that he himself isn't open to a discussion of both, because he thinks the death penalty is moral, and so he's using that belief as an excuse to ignore calls for other reforms that he claims he would actually support. In other words: you liberals support doing A and B; I support doing B, but because I reject your call for A, it's your fault that we can't work together on B. And he's ascribing that line of reasoning to all of America.