An Evolving Libertarian View of Capital Punishment
A friend just asked me my view on the death penalty. In answer to her question and to impart to her how my thinking on this topic has changed over the years, I forwarded her this review I wrote some time ago of the documentary film, The Thin Blue Line. In addition, I recently addressed the police state on my show, if you’re interested in more on this theme.
Randall Dale Adams (December 17, 1948 – October 30, 2010) was wrongly convicted of murdering police officer Robert W. Wood, and was subsequently sentenced to death. He served more than 12 years in prison, at one point coming within 72 hours of being put to death. His death sentence was reduced through appeal to the United States Supreme Court, and eight years later he was released when evidence was uncovered to prove his innocence.
I always argued in favor of capital punishment because it is so obvious to me that in murdering someone the murderer forfeits his rights totally. I couldn’t stand the arguments that every life is equally valid and who are we to take a life and judge a person, blah blah blah. I’ll tell you who we are–we are innocent people who have but one life to live and if some out-of-control sociopath kills us it’s over forever but for him, he may serve ten or twenty years, maybe even his whole life, but he gets to live and we don’t–it’s just not fair.
Over time, however, I have come to distrust the State to such an extent that I now believe it is dangerous to entrust it even with this, one of its few arguably legitimate functions, so I must withdraw my support for capital punishment.
I will never in a million years protest outside a prison on the night of the execution of a confessed murderer–if you have him dead to rights I’ll be glad he’s gone. But murder is not the only capital crime in this country: treason, espionage and drug trafficking are capital offenses in some states. This is very different from putting people to death for violent attacks on innocent people. These crimes are what they call mala prohibita rather than mala in se–that is, like gambling and prostitution, they are crimes because the government prohibits them not because they are inherently wrong. Granted, espionage and treason are inherently wrong, but only if your government is inherently right. Once the government can kill people for crimes defined by the government and one of those crimes is opposing the government, well, you better hope you like your government–and that it likes you!
Several years ago, when I saw The Thin Blue Line for the first time, it did not move me to change my pro-capital-punishment stance. I thought that the reason that the Adams case was such a big deal was that mistakes in the capital justice system are so rare they actually make a movie about them when they happen. What’s more, Adams did get out of jail eventually and was not executed, so no innocent man was killed in the end. Even now, I still have a hard time accepting the obvious but terrible truth that people in power are not more scrupulous about wielding power than the average joe would be, but are often less so by the very nature of what motivates people to seek and attain power. It still pains me to think that a district attorney or other public servant may have selfish motives for the decisions he makes and doesn’t stay up all night agonizing about doing the right thing the way so many of us ordinary folks would be.
I decided to rewatch this documentary when a controversial case caught my attention claiming that an innocent man, Cameron Todd Willingham, was executed in Texas on Rick Perry’s watch. I don’t know the merits of the Willingham case, but it made me interested in Adams’ clear-cut case of a wrongfully imposed death penalty. This time I was abjectly horrified by the miscarriage of justice suffered by Adams, falsely accused, tried, convicted and sentenced to death for killing a Dallas police officer in the Seventies, most likely to preserve the perfect record of the DA who tried the case. I have been haunted for days by the film’s interviews with the mild-mannered Adams and the obviously sociopathic David Harris, the real killer and main accuser of Adams.
I am always skeptical about documentaries because one simply cannot know what the filmmakers left out or stretched to make their case, but this documentary supports the irrefutable conclusion that Adams served 12 years in jail and came 72 hours away from death for a crime he didn’t commit. Eventually Adams was released and exonerated only to die at the age of 61 of a brain tumor. (Maybe cognitive dissonance causes brain tumors. I sure hope not!)
“The fact that it took 12 and a half years and a movie to prove my innocence should scare the hell out of everyone in this room and, if it doesn’t, then that scares the hell out of me.” –Randall Adams
Here’s a video of Michael Morton, another man wrongly convicted in Texas by the malfeasance of the authorities. He served 25 years for killing his wife and lost the love of his then-small son. He was ultimately exonerated, but his story is heartbreaking.