It is the coldest morning of the season... we have had snow in the Western panhandle of my home state of Florida. And I am going to devote a blog post to the cheery subject of Capital Punishment. I'm for it, by the way. Having said that, I would also like to point out that I would be extremely selective in the cases where I believe it to be an appropriate sanction. But I believe that the authority to take a life as a deterrent to extraordinary antisocial acts is inherent in governmental sovereignty - and should be.
Opponents of capital punishment typically say that no case has been made for the deterrent effect of the government taking a life under color of law. It is true that it a very difficult task to prove a negative fact of deterrence.
I was an official state witness for a Florida execution in 1979. So this is not simply an academic discussion for me. Capital punishment was halted in this country in 1972 by the US Supreme Court (Furman v Georgia). The Court wrestled with arguments that the death penalty, as it was being applied, would violate the Constitutional prohibitions of cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the 8th Amendment and the 14th Amendment. Death row inmates -- to include Charles Manson in California, recently deceased at 83 years of age by natural causes -- had their sentences commuted to life in prison. If you are not familiar with the Manson case, you should probably look it up. Florida revised their statutes to include a separate sentencing phase to the trial, consideration of mitigating and aggravating circumstances and an automatic appeal to the Supreme Court in death penalty cases. The new Florida statutory scheme was approved by the Supreme Court in 1976 (Proffitt v Florida). John Spenkelink was tried and convicted under the new laws and was set to die by electrocution at Florida State Prison in Stark in May of 1979.
I had flown to Stark in a private plane. The apron for parking of aircraft at the prison was located between the area occupied by protestors and the building that housed the execution process, so officials suggested that I fly to a neighboring prison facility and park the aircraft there, returning by car. I returned with the warden of the neighboring facility. He was a long time employee of the correctional system and was extremely experienced in his job - and, in fact, his father had been a prison warden who had died in a prison riot years before. He explained things to me that made me secure in my belief in favor of maintaining the death penalty in certain limited circumstances - and I have never forgotten our conversation.
He told me that in the limited population of inmates in the state prison system, the deterrent effect and benefit of the death penalty was easy to demonstrate. In fact, without the death penalty, it would be difficult to maintain order in the correctional facilities. Without a death penalty, any prisoner with a life sentence would be able to murder inside the facility with impunity - guards or other prisoners would be their victims - because there was no further penalty that they could be subjected to.
So there is the answer, for me, to opponents of the death penalty who ask for proof of deterrence or benefit to the society. However, there are currently 19 states which do not approve the use of capital punishment meaning that 31 states and the federal government approve the practice at present.
At present, there are few suppliers of the drugs which have been approved to put a person to death. This has created a shortage and some executions have had to be postponed. This is reminiscent of recent gun control advocates who have tried to limit the amounts of ammunition available in the supply chain to legal owners of firearms.
There is evil in the world which still needs to be faced by our society. Capital punishment is, regrettably, still necessary in these dangerous times as a response to the depraved acts of antisocial (whether sociopaths or psychopaths) people. There are other approaches which may be appropriate for some cases but as a last resort, the state or federal government must have this ultimate power to survive and to protect their citizens.
I apologize for intruding on our holiday season by directing your thoughts to these uncomfortable topics. My post was prompted by a series of recent articles citing the shortage of some of the necessary chemical agents to carry out an execution and the observations that witnesses to executions were being subjected to unpleasant sights to carry out their duties. While that may be true, I hope we can concentrate on the importance of the task, though unpleasant. Although a state witness to the execution, I am not convinced that the case of John Spenkelink was an appropriate set of circumstances to call for the death penalty. But that determination was made by the judge and jury on the case and approved by a series of appellate judges ending with the US Supreme Court.
By the way, there is a disconnect between the legal definitions of insanity and the medical definitions. For example, while serial killers may exhibit antisocial personality disorders of sociopaths and psychopaths, neither is considered to be a mental illness according to the American Psychiatric Association (in their DSM-5). More on that in a later post if I get interested comments.