The Corner

Try Him, Then Kill Him

So they found the body of this eleven year old girl in Florida. They have Joseph Smith on video tape abducting her. He has a criminal record. They will probably wrap up the forensics in the next couple days. Let’s just assume they do. Let’s assume they’ll find her backpack and some blood and some other grim reminders of what this awful man did.

So what is the argument against executing him?

Oh, I don’t mean the arguments about the sanctity of life, state-sanctioned murder etc. I respect those arguments even as I disagree with them profoundly.

I’m referring to all of those esoteric arguments about statistical discrepancies, racial disparities etc. What do those arguments have to do with the case for or against executing Joseph Smith? What does it matter if we’ve sentence someone to death incorrectly elsewhere (though, apparently never executed anyone incorrectly) if Joseph Smith is clearly guilty? All of this high-flown rhetoric and statistical legerdemain tends to obscure the fact that certain people really deserve the death penalty. I think Smith — if proven guilty — would deserve it if we’d mistakenly executed 500 people this month alone. I think Smith would deserve it if he were black and we’d been executing blacks “disproportionately” for years. I think he’d deserve it if his execution didn’t deter any other crime, anywhere, ever. As Ernest Van den Haag noted in the pages of NR long ago, “If deserved, capital punishment should be imposed. If not, it should not be. Deterrence, however useful, cannot morally justify any punishment.”

Arguments based on error rates, deterrence and statistical analyses of ethnic breakdowns (or left-handedness for that matter) have absolutely nothing to do with whether or not Joesph Smith deserves the death penalty for what he’s done. Nothing. They do have relevance, obviously, to the various questions about how – and if—our justice system should be reformed or changed. But executing Joseph Smith – if proven guilty of this crime – would not be an argument for fixing the justice system, it would be exhibit A in the case that sometimes the justice system gets things right.

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