Why the death penalty is wrong

Try to picture this. You’re sitting on the jury for a criminal case. The man sitting in the dock is accused of the unspeakable – the planned kidnap and secret murder of an infant, the cover-up of that murder, and the subsequent extortion of ransom money from that infant’s unwitting parents. The mother is from one of the country’s foremost banking families. The father is, in all likelihood, the most famous person on the planet and is considered an exemplar of unimpeachable integrity. Picture these parents, the infant in his cot. The abduction, the murder, the deception. If any act can be said to deserve the death penalty, it is this one.

Who has said that this man is guilty? Everyone. The circumstantial evidence, which tells you that this man has no alibi for the night in question (beyond that provided by his ever-loyal wife), that this man’s profession made him ideally suited for the construction of the ladder used in the crime, that this man had (by his own admission) links with local criminals. The direct evidence, which tells you that this man was found in possession of money from the ransom, that he had attempted to hide this fact from police. The experts, who tell you that wood from this man’s attic matches that used in the construction of the ladder, that this man’s handwriting matches that found on the ransom notes. The police, who tell you that this man acted alone, that his shoes correspond to footprints found at the scene of the crime. The witnesses, who tell you that they can place this man at the scene on that night. The negotiator, who tells you that this man is the same whom he met during the ransom handover. And, above all others, the tragic father of the murdered infant, he whose words are carved in stone, and here he swears under oath that this man in the dock is that man.

Everyone has said that this man is guilty. The verdict isn’t difficult. The judge speaks, the man is led away, the crowds disperse.

Later, the truth emerges. Everyone has said that this man is guilty – everyone has lied. The experts lied. The wood experts lied when they claimed that the attic and the ladder matched. The handwriting experts lied when they claimed that the handwriting samples matched. The police lied. They knew that one man alone could not have committed the crime. They knew that the footprints didn’t match, and they lied anyway. The witnesses lied – not only did they lie but they did so in return for payment from the police. The dishonesty of one witness was so well-known that it was a lasting joke with friends and family, and he lied again here. The other witness could scarcely see, and he lied anyway. The negotiator lied, repeatedly. And the world’s most famous man, Charles Lindbergh, took the stand to send an innocent man, Richard Hauptmann, to the electric chair.

Skip forward 80 years. On 1st October 2015, the state of Oklahoma ordered an indefinite stay of execution for Richard Glossip, accused of arranging the murder of a motel owner – not to arrange a re-trial (Glossip is almost certainly innocent) but because of doubts about the efficacy of the drug intended to kill him. Glossip has now twice been reprieved at the last hour, twice been served his last meal. In 2016, Glossip will probably face the chair again, and Oklahoma will once again come close to making the worst kind of mistake the state is capable of – ending the life of an innocent person.

Any justice system is assessed by how it treats the innocent. If you support the death penalty then either you accept the possibility that you yourself could be executed for no good reason (in which case you are a liar), or you are willing for other innocent people to be executed instead (in which case you are a hypocrite). Liars and hypocrites. That’s all there is to it.