Cesare Beccaria, Italian criminologist, jurist, philosopher and politician, was one of the multi-faceted geniuses who sparkled during the Enlightenment.
In a celebrated treatise in 1764 called “Crimes and Punishments,” Beccaria condemned the death penalty.
But more than two hundred years later America still has not abolished capital punishment. All other cultivated and civilized countries have done so.
Beccaria denounced the death penalty on two grounds:
• The state has no right to take lives.
• It is neither a useful nor necessary form of punishment.
“Crimes and Punishments” also denounced torture to get confessions, secret accusations, discretionary power of judges, inconsistency and inequality of sentencing.
America still uses these “companions” of the death penalty, most notably in Guantanamo (Cuba), with torture and forced confessions. The U.S. military administers grossly lengthy sentences. And American jails all over the country have solitary confinement, falsely-accused prisoners and prisoners suffering terribly unfair sentences.
Some states keep dropping drugs or other forms of sedation for prisoners about to be executed. One botched execution in Arizona took nearly two hours. This “humane” treatment is fine. But even more humanity would be shown by ending executions altogether.
In Alabama, juries often vote for life in prison rather mete out the death penalty but are overruled by judges. Such wantonness is allowed under Alabama law, the only state in the Union with this blind justice.
In Florida, the state supreme court recently ruled that the death penalty cannot be imposed without the unanimous support of a jury. Progress, but not enough progress.
California, alas, reaffirmed the death penalty in a referendum last month. It also defeated repeal in 2012. So even a liberal state permits judicial murder.
California proves that the recent optimism in the New York Times about death-penalty abolition is unwarranted. The “barbaric practice diminishes with each passing year,” it pronounced in an editorial. The headline on the edit declared: “The death penalty nearing its end.”
Again, progress, but not enough.
The U.S. Supreme Court keeps dancing around the issue, unable to muster the vote of five justices. It recently agreed to hear an appeal of the conviction of seven defendants in a 1984 murder case in which exculpating evidence was withheld at trial. That should not be the issue. Abolition is.
Justice Stephen Breyer is a constant opponent of capital punishment. He again voiced his opposition in a recent “lecture” to the court:
“Individuals who are executed are not ‘the worst of the worst,’ “ he said. “Rather, they are people chosen at random on the basis of geography, differing prosecutors and still worse, racism.
“For example, this court, by a divided 4-4 vote, denied a stay of execution to Ronald Smith of Alabama. He was sent to death row by the trial judge despite the fact that the jury voted 7 to 5 for a life sentence.” Smith was executed.
Alabama is the only state that allows such a perversion of justice.
As the New York Times wrote in a feature story: “Lethal gaps exist in how the Supreme Court handles the death penalty.”
For instance, it takes four votes to put a case on the court’s docket but five to stay an execution.
Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts at his confirmation hearing in 2005 was ambivalent about the death penalty. On the bench he has had it both ways. One way was to grant a stay as he did in one capital case. Another way was to deny a stay as he did in another capital case.
As to abolishing the death penalty, Roberts is a dubious “aye” vote. His 13 years of heading the court show a deep-seated conservatism.
Alas, the court has only four votes for abolition: Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Stephen Breyer.
The Times concluded: ”The nation has evolved past capital punishment. It is long past time for the court to send this morally abhorrent practice into oblivion.”
Agreed. But the Supremes keep dancing, not abolishing.
U.S. HAS NO RIGHT TO TALK
Sometimes letter writers to newspapers and magazines are terser and sharper than the columnists. For example, Robert Cromey writing in the San Francisco Chronicle.
“What’s all this self-righteous palaver about Russian President Putin interfering with the U.S. presidential election. Oh, horrors,” Cromey writes. “I recall that the U.S. interfered with Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Lebanon, El Salvador and Nicaragua, just to name the countries I can remember.
“The CIA disrupts governments, electorates, politicians and the military all over the world. Our tax dollars pollute other nations right up to this very moment through the nefarious activities of the CIA, Secret Service and the U.S. military.”
Jake Highton is an emeritus journalism professor from the University of Nevada, Reno. (firstname.lastname@example.org)