A 4% Failure Rate

How much of a failure rate would you accept for seat belts? If your seat belt was of a kind that was known to fail approximately 4% of the time, would you be ok with that? What about with an airplane of a variety that was known to crash about 4% of the time? What if there was a wonderful kind of food that, unless it was prepared perfectly, stood a 4% chance of killing you? Actually, to be fair, that exists, and it’s called fugu, and apparently has a death rate of 6.8% for people who eat the sort that’s prepared wrong. So…yeah.

Anyhow, I think we can all agree that, in general, a 4% failure rate is not acceptable in any field, really. Yet it turns out that, according to a new study, about 4% of the people in the United States who are sentenced to death may actually be innocent. Whoops.

Now regardless of where you stand on the issue of the death penalty, I’d like to think that you’d at least want a fairly high level of proof before someone is sentenced to die, and that you’d find a failure rate of even 1% to be unacceptable. But 4%? I don’t see how any person with a conscience can accept a system that would intentionally kill innocent people approximately 4% of the time. That’s insane, if you really believe that’s acceptable, than, frankly, your morals are seriously fucked-up.

Oh, and by the way, for those of you who think life sentences are acceptable, something I’m increasingly against, then you should know that the failure rate for that is likely way, way higher.


Leaving the Valley of the Shadow of Death

Washington state governor Jay Inslee (D, naturally), has announced that he is suspending use of capital punishment in the state. His reasoning? Basically there’s been too many exonerations over the last few years, proving the system is less-than-perfect. Given that, he reasons that killing people who may be innocent is just too damn risky.

I couldn’t possibly agree more. The death penalty is a relic of an outmoded way of thinking and needs to go away. Inslee didn’t commute anyone’s sentences, so in theory another governor could come along and restore them, but at least this is a step in the right direction.

What Remains for Progressives?

Those of us on the left have won just about every fight there is. Americans are generally pro-choice, civil rights are spreading far and wide, gay marriage is more of a thing now than it was even just a few years ago, and we even have a black (more or less), president. So what’s left?

That’s what Slate asked earlier this week. With almost no effort on my part, I’ve come up with a list of ten things we on the left need to be working on. I’m sure it’s a fraction of what’s actually needed, but at least it’s a start.

1. Abolishing the death penalty nationwide. It’s useless, it’s expensive, and worse of all, there’s always the chance we might murder an innocent person. This almost certainly happened in Texas, and I’m willing to bet it’s a matter of when, rather than if, we have definitive proof someone innocent was murdered by the state. The more we learn about wrongful convictions, the more the idea of something as irrevocable as killing someone should be considered anathema.

2. Improving labor rights. Not just improving the lot of unions, though that, too, but the basic rights of the American worker. Do you know that in Australia, which has a standard of living very similar to our own, the minimum wage is nearly US $15 an hour? Imagine what it would be like in this country if we raised the minimum wage up to even just $12 an hour. Sure, businesses would scream and complain, and then they’d absorb the costs and move on. Meantime, the average worker would have more money to spend, thus helping to drive the economy.

It’s not just the minimum wage, of course. Most of the major industrialized nations have mandatory vacation time. We don’t. Most of them have mandatory sick time. We don’t. At the very least we should have mandatory sick days for any business that employees people who have to handle food. That’s just sense. Hell, it’s not even a matter of national law that employees receive break times, and oddly enough, in those states where breaks aren’t required, employees don’t usually get them. That’s not even going into the number of industries where people are specifically exempt from being paid overtime pay.

3. Gun control. Hard, heavy, gun control. It is absolutely fucking stupid that people in this country can have access to military-grade weapons. We don’t need them. As I’ve said before, I think everyone should be allowed to own one (1) each of the following: a shotgun, a pistol and a rifle. Exceptions can be made for people who work in certain fields, but for the most part, that should be all the guns you need, and that covers basically any use for a gun. I’d also want absolute mandatory background checks on all gun transfers.

4. Voting rights. Let’s secure them better than they are right now. The recent SCOTUS ruling on the Civil Rights Act was a tragedy. They said the states were basically ready to have the laws governing their behavior in elections removed, and several states instantly set out to prove them wrong. We need good, solid voting rights reform.

5. Education access and standards. Everyone should be entitled, merely by being a high school graduate, to have a full, post high school education paid for by the government, with living expenses included. This is something of a no-brainer except to those people who don’t want an educated populous. The left really needs to push this one hard.

6. Stronger separation between church and state. It’s very wrong, frankly, that any government document includes references to God. My money should not say “In God We Trust” and the Pledge of Allegiance, which shouldn’t even be a thing, shouldn’t say “…under God.” Nor should our money say, “In No God Do We Trust”, and the Pledge should not say, “…under no gods.” The state must and should be completely, 100%, neutral on all religious issues. Anything else is just stupid.

7. Put an end to the growing security state. The PATRIOT Act was a travesty and remains so. The government wields way too much power in the so-called “War on Terror” and that power needs to go away. 9/11 was an aberration that was caused, at least in part, by George W and company ignoring all the signs that an attack was about to happen. What has happened since has been just awful. We’ve damaged ourselves far more than the terrorists ever did, and that needs to stop. Speaking of…

8. Charges and trials for W, Cheney and others involved in war crimes. The use of torture violates both US and international law, didn’t get us any useful information and is completely immoral. We lost the moral high ground by using it, and those involved need to pay. If we can’t give them the trials they deserve, then at the very least we need some Truth and Reconciliation committees to force us, as a nation, to face up to what was done in our name.

9. Greater action on climate change. The GOP loves, loves, fighting this one. But we’ve seen time and again that the models are correct and that global climate change is a real thing. We need to stop it from getting worse and then push on improving things. That we aren’t already doing this is a major shame.

10. True universal health care. Everyone should have access to Medicare. There. Done. That fixes every problem with employer-based health care as well as the individual mandate. I’d even be happy to pay extra in taxes to make this happen. We remain the only major country that lacks universal health care and that needs to change.

So there we go. Ten wonderful, lovely things that we on the left need to get out there and fight for.

Oh, Texas. Tsk, Tsk.

Well, sounds like Texas may have executed an innocent man back in 1989. That’s the conclusion reached by a group of law students and their professor who spent five years looking into the case of a man named Carlos who was accused of murder. He said he didn’t do it, but had a crappy defense lawyer and was eventually executed on the basis of eye-witness testimony alone. Turns out that, “hilariously,” another man actually did the crime. It was a man, also named Carlos, who, up until the day he died in prison where he was being held on an unrelated offense, said that he was actually the one who did it.

So, yeah. Texas. Way to go, guys. It’s worth noting that the executed Carlos was 27 when he was murdered by the state. Were he alive now, on, say, a life prison sentence, he’d be 50. We’d be able to hold a new trial and, once he’s found not guilty, he’d be able to walk free. But since the state wanted him dead, he’s dead and there’s no way to make up for that.

I’m sure this case won’t get widespread attention and even if it does, it won’t likely change anything. People who love the revenge-driven death penalty will simply shrug and say something about making omelets. Cold comfort to the family of the dead man, I’m sure.

Alone Among the “Civilized”

In 2011, 20 countries carried out state-mandated murders against helpless people, something more euphemistically called “capital punishment”. And if you don’t categorize convicted criminals as “helpless”, ask yourself how helpless you’d be locked in a small cell with several large, armed men coming to put you in chains and haul you off to die.

Those countries are:

South Sudan
Saudi Arabia
North Korea

And in case you didn’t see this one coming…

The United States of America

Notice the company we keep on this list. States like North Korea, Iran and Syria, who are known sponsors of state sanctioned terrorism. Dictatorships like Belarus. Countries who were so rotten that we invaded them, like Afghanistan and Iraq. Notice also the countries that aren’t on that list. Mexico, Russia, Libya. And then there’s us. The land of the free, the home of the brave, etc. A nation not built on the concept of revenge, but one that’s fully embraced it.

Don’t pretend the death penalty is anything other than revenge and murder. It’s clearly not self-defense, since we’re quite capable of putting people in prison and keeping them from escaping. Don’t pretend it’s a deterrent, because we know it isn’t. Don’t pretend it’s anything other than revenge and murder. Revenge against someone for doing something we don’t like, and murder because they’re helpless and a threat to no one at the time they are killed (and if you do think they’re a threat, again, ask yourself how much of a threat you could be locked in a 6′ by 8′ cell with large armed guards available 24/7).

We continue with this bizarre, appalling, barbaric practice despite the fact that we like to claim we’re the best, most civilized country in the world. Many people also like to claim we’re uniquely virtuous and Christian. I guess if you think that your god was killed by capital punishment, than perhaps it isn’t too bad, but remember that as far as I know, Jesus never called for people to be murdered by the state.

We can and should be doing better. I don’t want us on the same list with these other countries.

Well Done, America. Well Done.

Despite appeals from around the world, the state of George has executed Troy Davis. For those of you unfamiliar with the case (as I was until fairly recently), he was a black man convicted of killing a white police officer in Georgia in 1989. There was almost no physical evidence and he was convicted largely on the basis of testimony from nine eyewitnesses (seven of which have since recanted). Despite these recantations and calls for clemency, the state went ahead with the execution.

It’s worth pointing out, once again, that the United States is one of the few civilized countries that still kills people in the name of justice. It’s basically us and a handful of Asian countries, including those with such highly-regarded human rights records as China and Iran. That’s the company we keep on this issue. Europe has gotten rid of the death penalty as has most of South and Central America, but we cling to it mightily.

I’m clearly against the death penalty, but even if you’re for it a case like the Troy Davis one must give you pause. If we are to have such a system of revenge (and make no mistake, it’s revenge and not punishment. Punishment is designed to correct a behavior. You can’t correct your behaviors if you’re dead), then we must make sure it’s held to the highest standard possible. In a case like this, where the vast majority of eyewitnesses have since recanted and eyewitness testimony, which is notoriously flimsy, is basically all you have, we cannot and should not go forward with killing someone in the name of justice.

At the very least we could have delayed carrying out the execution and scheduled a new trial. Sure, it would be hard on the victim’s family, but what’s more important; their personal feelings or justice? Failing that, his sentence should have been commuted to life in prison. Simply waiting a little longer to execute him, waiting until there was certainty beyond a reasonably doubt, would not have been that great of a burden. Certainly not as great as the burden of possibly killing an innnocent man and creating a whole new set of victims in the form of his family.

The time is coming, and soon, where we will have incontrovertible evidence that we’ve killed an innocent person. At that point most of the supporters of the death penalty will likely shrug and say that it’s the price of doing business (this in a country where we’re supposed to believe it’s better to let a thousand guilty people go free than to hold one innocent person in prison). They’ll say that, yes, it was bad this guy was killed, but come on; he probably did something wrong, and he had a fair trial and, well, it’s no one’s fault, really. Of course, not only does this dismiss any of the great moral concerns, it also ignores that fact that any time you punish someone who is innocent the guilty person is still out there doing things.

I titled this post “Well Done, America. Well Done,” rather than, “Well Done, Georgia. Well Done,” because as a nation we’re all responsible when horrible things are done in our names. Each of us bears the burden for the bad choices our government makes, especially when it’s something like the slow and methodical execution of a possibly innocent person.

Forget the Moral Arguments for a Moment…

The moral arguments against the death penalty are good and sound. They basically boil down to: We shouldn’t kill people, especially not when there’s perfectly effective non-lethal options to use instead. But let’s ignore that for a moment. Let’s also ignore the fact that we’ve almost certainly executed innocent people in the last couple decades, most notably Cameron Todd Willingham. Let’s ignore the inequality of the death penalty with regard to race, gender and class. Let’s instead focus on the cost.

Reason.com has a fascinating article breaking down the numbers for just how much it costs to murder people in the name of justice. It varies from state-to-state, of course, and not surprisingly death is pretty cheap in Texas, but even there it’s more than you might expect.

Even the Neiman Marcus Christmas catalog, which this year offers a charm bracelet for $248,000, has nothing to compare. Maryland has spent $186 million on capital cases over the past 30 years—which comes to $37 million per execution.

The typical Texas death case carries a price tag of $2.3 million. A 2005 study pointed out that “New Jersey taxpayers over the last 23 years have paid more than a quarter billion dollars on a capital punishment system that has executed no one.”

How much spare money does your state have to throw around? I know Arizona, which has a death penalty, is pretty deep in the red. So much so that we’ve actually had to sell various parts of the state capitol building, and we are, of course, cutting back on education despite the fact that a good education has been shown to be one of the best ways to avoid a life of crime. Given that most states are having budget problems, I have to believe this is a nationwide problem. If a state is cutting back on schools because it can’t afford them, how can it justify spending millions to prosecute a death penalty case?

I’m sure supporters of state-run murder would say, hey, let’s just cut back on the number of appeals! That’ll speed things up and make it cheaper! It would, true, but it would also nearly guarantee that we’d wind up killing innocent people. If you’re ok with that notion, then there’s just not much hope for you.

So all the moral arguments aside, I don’t see how we can continue to justify the death penalty purely on a financial basis. It’s bad, it’s wrong, and it’s just too damn expensive.