Capital Punishment (28): Extreme “Tinkering With the Machinery of Death” in the U.S.

The title of this blog post refers to a famous quote by former US Supreme Court Justice Harry A. Blackmun. It’s my belief that the U.S. Supreme Court, in its desire to both uphold capital punishment and simultaneously limit its scope, has maneuvered itself into an incoherent position. It has “tinkered with the machinery of death” to such an extent that the application of capital punishment in the U.S. should be viewed as a complete mess, even by those of us who don’t have an instinctive repulsion for capital punishment, who don’t make a philosophical or moral argument against it, and who don’t agree that there are so-called “systemic problems” in the application of capital punishment in the U.S. (as opposed to the moral problems of capital punishment per se), such as

  • the racist component
  • the discussions about non-cruel methods
  • the failure of legal representation
  • the extensive appeals procedures
  • the sadistic death row phenomenon
  • or the lack of deterrence.

(For irregular readers, I’m personally convinced that there are moral reasons not to apply the death penalty, and that these are sufficient reasons. I view both the systemic problems cited above and the inconsistent reasoning of the Supreme Court discussed below as supplementary reasons for those who are difficult to convince with moral reasons alone).

Here’s an overview of some of the contradictory judgments of the Supreme Court. There’s a tendency, among many supporters of the death penalty in the U.S., to extend its reach beyond homicide. (I believe that’s a natural tendency, especially for those counting on a deterrent effect. If the main objective of capital punishment is the deterrence of crime, then why stop at homicide? There are many other heinous crimes that could possible be reduced with an effective deterrent and if it can be argued – but I doubt it – that capital punishment is such an effective deterrent, then why shy away of it?).

In Coker v. Georgia, the Court had to decide whether the crime of rape of an adult woman warrants the penalty of death. The Court argued that it doesn’t, since rape does not mean taking a life. Again, in Enmund v. Florida (does a homicide accomplice who does not kill or attempt to kill deserve the death penalty?), the Court judged that capital punishment should not be a possible punishment for crimes that do not involve the death of another human being. (This is part of the doctrine of proportionality, see below).

And yet, in Kennedy v. Louisiana, the Court stated that crimes against the state, such as treason and espionage, but also terrorism and drug kingpins etc. may be deserving of death even if no loss of life was involved. I find this distinction highly arbitrary. From the point of view of an opponent of capital punishment such as me, it’s obviously good that the Court imposes some restrictions on the sentence, but doing so in this arbitrary way just serves to undermine the legitimacy of these restrictions and opens the door to future reversals.

Another restriction imposed by the Court is based on the degree of culpability of offenders and their capacity to evaluate and control their actions. In Thompson v. Oklahoma for instance, the Court examined the constitutionality of executing child offenders (under the age of 16). The Court decided that children are generally less culpable for their crimes because, compared to adults, they are

  • less able to judge the consequences of their actions
  • more emotional and less able to control their actions
  • less prone to “cold calculation” and therefore there is less reason to assume a deterrent effect.

Moreover, the Court assumed that offenses by the young represent a failure of society, school and the family:

youth crime as such is not exclusively the offender’s fault; offenses by the young also represent a failure of family, school, and the social system, which share responsibility for the development of America’s youth. (source)

Again, nice to see the Court limiting the scope of the death penalty, but why assume that adult criminals don’t also represent a failure of society? If young people offend because of failure of the educational system for instance, is it safe to assume that these causes magically disappear after a certain age? (Of course, I don’t assume that “society” causes all crime, but crime does, in certain cases, have causes beyond the decisions of the criminals). And are there really no adults who are relatively less able to judge the consequences of their actions and act in a non-emotional and calculated way?

Yes, says the Court, but at the same time it limits this category of adults in a somewhat arbitrary way to the mentally retarded (for example Atkins v. Virginia). I believe the reduced culpability of the mentally retarded is obviously a good thing, but why stop there? Aren’t there any “non-retards” who also can claim diminished culpability? And, anyway, where to put the border between the retarded and the rest? There’s always going to be a gray zone, and hence arbitrariness.

Furthermore, recent judgments of the Court tend towards undoing the restriction on capital punishment based on diminished culpability. Scalia for instance (dissenting in Atkins v. Virginia) claimed that culpability and deservedness depend not only on the mental capacity of the criminal but also on the depravity of the crime. One can read this as a justification of capital punishment even for children or the mentally retarded if their crime is depraved enough.

In Kennedy v. Louisiana, the Court also expressed contradictory views on deterrence. Deterrence has always been an important justification for the Court, but in Kennedy v. Louisiana the Court decided that in the case of child rapists, capital punishment would encourage rather than deter the crime. It claimed, correctly I think, that the death penalty for this crime could encourage non-reporting. A third party, for example the wife of the rapist, could decide not to report the offender for fear of capital punishment, which then leads to the continuation of the crime, and hence the failure of deterrence.

Again, a welcome restriction from the point of view of an abolitionist, but also a highly arbitrary one. The same non-reporting effect of the death penalty can occur in other types of crime. Moreover, the consideration of counter-deterrence effects in this case is very unusual for a Court that consistently ignores evidence against the deterrent effect.

Finally, the argument of proportionality cited above and used against capital punishment for crimes such as rape (see also Gregg v. Georgia) is a welcome limit, but it also is an argument that’s used very selectively and arbitrarily by the Court. In non-capital cases, the Court often refuses to consider the lack of proportionality as a reason to undo decisions of other courts. In Rummel v. Estelle for instance, the Court refused to see anything wrong with a sentence of life imprisonment for obtaining $120.75 by false pretences!

All these inconsistencies and arbitrary limits and restrictions in the Supreme Court’s handling of capital punishment have turned this sentence into a shambles. Many of us think it’s much worse than that, but a shambles may be a sufficient reason for others to review the practice.


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