European Dignity, American Rights
Outlining a debate on capital punishment.


John O’Sullivan

This theory holds that the EU is both the embodiment and main advocate of a new system of “global governance,” under which the ultimate sovereign authority in the U.S. should be not the U.S. Constitution but a network of international treaties on human rights administered by international courts and transnational bodies like itself and the United Nations. And the same would go for all other nation-states — now sovereign, but destined soon to be subordinate to a new structure of transnational power that is rooted in the enforcement of human rights, beginning with the rights of murderers.

So, we should take the ambassadors seriously. They are the diplomatic vanguard of an ideological assault on democratic sovereignty. Why should not the administration, or the U.S. Congress, or a coalition of the major Washington think tanks, or all three jointly invite them to a major forum for a public debate on all these issues?

Start, first, with the issue that the EU Ambassadors have themselves raised, namely capital punishment. They threw down the gauntlet; we should pick it up. When we do so, we shall find the task surprisingly easy.

The European Union is so certain of its own virtue that it simply parades a set of moralistic precepts on the death penalty that the unobservant might confuse with arguments. Its statement of principles on the issue — here — is intellectually trivial and ignores strong points on the other side. For instance, the statement makes the usual self-confident claim that there is no evidence that the death penalty has a unique deterrent effect in combating crime. There is, in fact, quite a lot of statistical evidence to this effect. However, even if we let that go, there remains an irrefutable case that the death penalty prevents second murders by those who have been previously convicted of the crime. This is the so-called incapacitation effect. In a phrase: Dead men commit no murders.

How many lives might be saved by the incapacitation effect of the death penalty? Up-to-date U.S. figures are hard to find, but earlier statistics show that the gain in innocent lives would be substantial. Professor Paul G. Cassell pointed out in testimony to the House Judiciary Committee in 1993: “Of the roughly 52,000 state prison inmates serving time for murder in 1984, an estimated 810 had previously been convicted of murder and had killed 821 persons following those convictions. Executing each of these inmates following their initial murder conviction would have saved 821 innocent lives.” This effect goes unmentioned in the EU statement.

More recent figures from the British Home Office show that, between 1997 and 2007, no fewer than 30 murderers committed a second murder when they were either on parole or had served a custodial sentence and been released. That translates into about 150 innocent victims of second-time murderers in a population of U.S. size — and somewhat more in a population of the size of the entire EU.

These victims go unmourned by bien pensant opinion. In the British debate on capital punishment, we hear constantly — and rightly — about the two men executed in the 1950s for murders of which they are now considered wholly or partly innocent. But we do not even know the names of the 30 victims of our abolitionist penal policy over the last 15 years.

Well then, abolitionists usually respond at this stage of the debate, let us keep murderers in prison forever to protect the public. This sounds suitably hard-hearted, but it neglects the fact that some second murders occur in prison. Even if we were to impose life imprisonment without parole, we would not be able give absolute protection to prison guards and other inmates who form a small but important minority of the victims of second-time murderers. Life without parole is, therefore, no solution, unless we don’t mind if guards and common criminals are murdered. I do mind.