Spreadin’ Love

Blog networks seem to be pulling in the money.

Maureen Dowd's Sunday column is getting lots of good buzz.

The story of Castor Semenya is completely absorbing.

Did Texas execute an innocent man? Yes, they did. This is must reading.

Zappos.com is incredible. Huge fan.

Harry discusses the book, Crossing the Finish Line: Completing College at America's Public Universities (Princeton
University Press). Great op-ed by the authors in the Chronicle.

33 thoughts on “Spreadin’ Love

  1. That New Yorker article really blew my mind. They way the author sells you on the case at the beginning and then piece by piece rips it apart…very effective writing. I’ve always been anti death penalty but that really cemented it for me. So, so sad and disturbing.

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  2. The New Yorker piece killed me. I remember when I first moved to TX being astounded by the number of executions. Talk about ignorant, blind, foolish self-righteousness.

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  3. Agreed: the author pulls you in, gives you every reason to think he’s guilty, and then pulls the rug out completely.
    There is a problem, though, with framing the death penalty debate in terms of factual certainty. That is, it makes it OK so long as we are sure. I think its wrong even if we are sure, and I worry about the focus becoming entirely on the quality of the evidence. Won’t that encourage “death penalty if there is DNA” statutes?
    Scalia was an idiot to make the claim about there be NO such cases. And that was the only nice thing about this article: Scalia will have to eat those words. But I will go out on a limb and predict that it won’t change his view.

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  4. The author was brilliant to use that Scalia line.
    I don’t know, RC, about the usage of DNA to okay the death penalty. This example shows the errors of relying on science. Arson experts convicted this guy and relied on their scientific studies, which turned out to be crap. Scientists make mistakes. There are no certain facts. That’s why the death penalty is always wrong.

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  5. Laura, I don’t think the (non)-science of arson investigation had studies to back it up. That was the problem. They had folk beliefs. But there are lots of death penalty cases where there is no argument at all about innocence. Did anyone think that Timothy McVeigh might have been innocent? I don’t think so.
    It might help move death penalty supporters to point out cases like the Texas (non)-arson case. But I still think that is ceding the moral arguments and leaving too much room to allow capital punishment in cases where there is no question about guilt. And those cases definitely exist.

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  6. RC — I agree that, morally, the death penalty is sometimes justified. The problem is that there is no mechanism for ensuring that only the people about whose guilt there is no question will be executed. Even mechanisms that try to minimise the execution of the innocent are spectacularly expensive. And spectacularly flawed. I have no doubt that Timothy McVeigh was guilty. But I have known enough cases in which all the relevant people (cops judge jury press) had no doubt that an innocent person was guilty that I have no confidence in the death penalty as an institution.

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  7. I oppose the death penalty for a lot of reasons. There is no evidence that the death penalty reduces crime rates. Death row and the years leading up to the execution sound like cruel and unusual punishment. Morality. The cost. This article also showed how courts make mistakes.
    The prosecution brought in arson experts who used what they described as “scientific” evidence. Those experts had been used in hundreds of other cases. There were eye witnesses. Maybe the jury didn’t have McVeigh-level certainty, but they were very sure that they had the right guy. Witnesses and scientists convicted him. 99% of the time witnesses and scientists get it right. But we always have to leave open the possibility that witnesses and scientists will get it wrong. Put the criminals away for life. But if you kill them, then there is no chance to correct a mistake.
    This article points out how inadequate the public defender system is. Class (and race) determines who is on death row. Those inequities are another reason why the death penalty is always wrong.

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  8. Nothing done by humans can have a 0% error rate. Nothing at all. Therefore, the death penalty means that we will execute some innocent people. People who support the death penalty have to determine what that rate will be and then decide whether its worth it for whatever the other perceived benefits would be.
    I oppose the death penalty for all the reasons Laura mentions, but, fundamentally, I think my complicity in the death of an innocent person isn’t worth whatever benefits there might be to the death penalty in our society. Mind you current data doesn’t suggest there are any, but if they were, they would have to be more than marginal to justify the death of an innocent man, one that could have been avoided.

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  9. Harry, You have totally misunderstood me. I do not think that the death penalty is morally justified–ever. And I think we will lose that argument if it becomes a contest over how sure we are they are guilty. We are darn sure in lots of death penalty cases; that fact alone should never justify the death penalty. But framing the debate in terms of error can and will, I think, lead to that result.
    (And Timothy McVeigh is a fascinating example since nobody doubts his guilt; yet all of the evidence was circumstantial. Some defense lawyers take the extreme position that circumstantial evidence “alone” should never be enough to convict. I heartily disagree with that position to.)

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  10. What is a just punishment for a McVeigh? Is locking someone away for the rest of their natural life more humane than killing them outright? Is justice served by keeping old men (and of course a smaller number of old women) incarcerated? If a life term does not mean life, why should we call it such?

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  11. Doug,
    There is no punishment to fit a crime like Timothy McVeighs. So are you arguing that that fact justifies the state engaging in barbarism of its own? And are you saying that because the crime was horrendous, killing by the state is somehow “just”?
    Is it more humane to lock someone up than to kill them? In a word: yes. If you have an argument that makes killing more “humane” than not killing, I’d be interested in hearing it.
    Finally, you need to learn the difference between “life” and “life without parole.” Many are sentenced to life, few are sentenced to life without parole. A ten year sentence doesn’t mean ten years either, given parole. So, what’s your point?

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  12. Well, it’s only potentially more humane to kill someone rather than locking them up forever if they prefer it. And, if the person either is innocent or believes they are, locking them up forever is reversible, while death is not.
    I agree with RCinProv that there is no punishment that “fits” McVeigh’s crime (or any of the other ugly stories we hear). And, I personally agree that on moral grounds, that the death penalty is not justified in our society, on moral grounds, even if it were theoretically possible to have a 0% false positive rate.
    I disagree, however, that discussion of errors and error rates are unnecessary. That’s because we may end up disagreeing on the morality of the death penalty with groups of people who think that it’s OK for the state to kill people. We can try to convince them of the morality of our ways, but we may not succeed.
    But many supporters rely on the assumption of a 100% perfect system with a 0% error rate (that desire is apparent in AmyP’s comments — designed to keep open a minute possibility of possible guilt even in this particular egregious set of facts).
    People who support the death penalty need to figure out how many innocent people they are willing to kill in order to kill the criminals they think deserve it.

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  13. “But many supporters rely on the assumption of a 100% perfect system with a 0% error rate (that desire is apparent in AmyP’s comments — designed to keep open a minute possibility of possible guilt even in this particular egregious set of facts).”
    Not exactly. I pointed out that:
    1) False positives are possible (through tampering)
    and
    2) False negatives are possible (if the suspect is a chimera)
    That’s pretty darn even-handed if you ask me.
    My actual position (which you could have asked for) is that the death penalty should be used in cases where the imprisoned person is an ongoing menace to society (for instance a mafia don capable of ordering the murder of witnesses even while in prison, etc.).
    That said, I don’t think this stuff should be settled at the federal level.

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  14. I think you can make a case for the death penalty being justified in the past, but less so going forward based on the punishment fitting the crime, as fit is socially constructed. The far greater injustices found in an anarchial “self-help” system are a very real alternative if enough of the victim’s families don’t think that the system is fair. If the penalty for pre-meditated murder is too light, more people will take the chance of trying to kill who they think killed their friend, relative, etc. So, as social views of what makes a fair punishment shift, so does the punishment needed.

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  15. There is respectable academic opinion that the death penalty does in fact deter, that some people who would otherwise be murdered are not, in death penalty states, because potential killers fear the death penalty. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Capital_punishment_debate#Evidence_for_or_against_prevention_and_deterrence
    I’m not expressing an opinion on that controversy, but I think you need to take it into account as you think about what the death penalty does. To be part of an electorate which had done and innocent Willingham to death would make me very unhappy (here in VA, of course, we are very careful and only kill the guilty..) but if the academic’s estimate of five murders deterred per publicized execution were right, you would be way ahead even if some of the executions were of innocents.
    Certainly, if you do it, you should be a lot more careful than Texas was.

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  16. I have mixed feeling about the death penalty. On the one hand, it doesn’t seem to make the pope happy. On the other hand, there was a woman (who I never knew) who was kidnapped and murdered from campus back when I was an undergrad. Her murderers were arrested for something unrelated by police who had no idea that they’d done anything worse than burglary. One murderer confessed to avoid the death penalty. The state had only executed one person since they resumed after the SC ruling.

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  17. “but if the academic’s estimate of five murders deterred per publicized execution were right, you would be way ahead even if some of the executions were of innocents. ”
    Well, you’re the only one doing the math. I’m not willing to do this utilitarian calculation, because it requires me to be complicit in killing an innocent man in order to deter the other theoretical murders (and, as you say there’s certainly no consensus that the death penalty provides any deterrence). But, if a supporter of the death penalty wants to make it, I want to see the numbers, including rational estimates of the state putting to death innocent people.
    Virgina’s track record is not particularly good, Dave. It’s actually the case study undermining my confidence in the criminal justice system. I was shocked to see the number of cases that were re-visted on re-testing of the DNA evidence. In the first 34 cases they tested, 5/34 men were exonerated. That’s 14%, and is a scary rate of innocence among people serving life sentences, let alone being executed.
    http://www2.timesdispatch.com/rtd/news/local/crime/article/INNO12_20090111-220641/175311/

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  18. Amy — I wasn’t alleging any position on your part about the death penalty. My point is that it’s easier to support the death penalty if people avoid grappling with the hard fact that some innocent people will be executed by the state. One way to do that is to try to hold on to reasons to allege guilt even in strong cases, another is to assume that your state’s application of the death penalty is better than used by the mysterious others.
    You actually have highlighted my one theoretical exemption to my opposition to the death penalty: it may be justified if it were necessary to prevent the individual from doing harm in the future.
    I do not believe that situation exists in the united states, where we have the ability to imprison people in sufficiently isolated circumstances, and have a society which generally functions (i.e. government corruption, lawlessness have not undermined the fabric of our society).

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  19. RC, I’m asking what is justice in a case like McVeigh’s because I think that’s an important aspect of the discussion. I don’t really expect people to agree in real life, much less in a blog’s comments. On the other hand, as long as there are crimes like McVeigh’s both society and state will have to answer the question of what the punishment should be. Saying that there is no punishment that fits a crime like his is a bit of a cop-out.

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  20. “Saying that there is no punishment that fits a crime like his is a bit of a cop-out.”
    It isn’t, from my point of view. I justify punishment purely to protect society. There is no such balancing punishment and crime in my world view. Protection comes both from deterrence of others and preventing the perpetrator from committing future harm. People need to know that if they violate the rights of of others, in our society there will be consequences. The individual needs to be removed from society so that they cannot harm it going forward.
    Neither of these goals were served in our society by killing McVeigh (and, when executing Islamic terrorists may actually provide a counter-deterrence effect by feeding the cult of martyrdom). I think that stagnating in prison would have been the most effective deterrence against McVeigh-imitators and would have protected us from McVeigh, himself, certainly.

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  21. “Saying that there is no punishment that fits a crime like his is a bit of a cop-out.”
    No it’s not–it is the truth. DEATH does not fit the crime either — especailly since he wanted to be martyed. You need to face the fact that the worst possible crimes CANNOT be met by a “just” punishment. That does not, in my view, justify the state in becoming barbaric.
    And AmyP: if there is one thing the criminal justice system is worse at than assessing guilt — and I think the system is pretty good at that — it is assessing future likelihood of causing harm. Countries that recognize due process do not exact punishment based on what you might do in the future. Is it really necessary to point that out? Anyway, life without parole is pretty good at preventing future harm.

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  22. “Countries that recognize due process do not exact punishment based on what you might do in the future.”
    Are you asserting that at no point do the actors involved in criminal prosecution (prosecutor, judge, jury) mentally weigh the likelihood that this person will offend again (perhaps based on past convictions)? It seems to me that that would inevitably be one of the criteria in sentencing–how much of a danger to society is this person? The death penalty is a unique case (given the finality of the punishment), but it is false to say that we do not consider possible future harm during sentencing.

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  23. AnyP: sentences are based on the crime and, if anything, past record. We do NOT sentence based on predictions about the future. It certanily isn’t “one of the criteria.” Anyway, you have not answered why life without parole is sufficient for your conern. Are you worried that the unibomber will harm someone else now that he is serving life wihtout parole?
    Doug: lame way to avoid responding. Twice.

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  24. We do NOT sentence based on predictions about the future.
    That’s absurd, because past crimes (number and type) are, along with age, the best predictor of re-offending. And assessment of future dangerousness plays a huge role in the DA’s office in questions like whether somebody gets a plea and what sentence is asked for.
    Additionally, most states sentence for much longer periods of incarceration than are actually intended and leave parole boards to decide how long to keep somebody. Predictions about the future play a large, very explicit role in those proceedings.

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  25. Call it whatever you want, MH, you’re still wrong. The strength of the case plays a huge role in what the DA does, and, sadly, past record comes into play. But guess what past record is an excellent indicator of? Past record! There isn’t a sentencing statute or sentencing guideline in any jurisdiction in the country that includes any mention of prediction of future dangerousness. That would be unconstitutional. Yes, parole boards might think about this when deciding about release. But sentences are not about the future; they are about the crime at hand.

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  26. Have we swerved off the topic of the death penalty? Aw, guys. We were having such a great discussion on that article in the New Yorker. I can do a sentencing post sometime. Years ago, I worked on an evaluation of a reorganization of the NYC probation department and saw some excellent presentations on the research on crime prevention.
    I’m going to leave this thread open, but when you all depart too much from the original topic of discussion, things always get heated.

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  27. I was googling stats on recidivism rates, but I’ll stop. It’s late and I won’t be at a computer most of tomorrow.

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  28. Oh, boy. I really don’t want to get dragged into this one, but … They’re not allowed to sentence based on statistics of recidivism rates. Courts are only allowed to base a sentence on an actual crime. The crime statistics are very advanced. They know which groups are most at risk for committing crimes, not only for recidivism. There’s always someone who suggests keeping a closer surveillance of those groups before they actually commit a crime or turning racial profiling into a science, but, you know, that’s just wrong.
    re: sentencing fitting a crime. If Garrido had taken one of my kids, I would want to personally strangle the man. I understand the need to receive this kind of justice. However, I can’t think of any punishment that would be proportional to his crime. Lethal injection, life in prison — his crimes would still outweigh the punishment. Sometimes we just can’t get an eye for an eye. I like to think that his real punishment will happen elsewhere. In the meantime, the problems with achieving this ancient justice means that we have to take capital punishment off the table.

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  29. “Courts are only allowed to base a sentence on an actual crime.”
    Courts sentence on the actual crime and the number and type of crimes you have been convicted of before.

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