This November, California voters will face a literal life-or-death decision. Proposition 34, titled “Death Penalty. Initiative Statute,” proposes to repeal the death penalty and replace it with life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
At first glance, the initiative may appear as a referendum on whether our society should have the right to kill those who commit particularly heinous crimes. Some believe that certain criminals deserve the death penalty. And, few will disagree. A Gallup poll shows that around 60% of Americans support the death penalty for a murder conviction with the predominant justification being “an eye for an eye.”
However, the issue is more nuanced. While the death penalty does satiate our primal desire for retribution, we must decide whether we are willing to accept a degree of collateral damage in this pursuit of justice. Consider the dissent from In re Troy Anthony Davis, 557 U.S. ___ (2009), in which Justice Scalia stated:
This Court has never held that the Constitution forbids the execution of a convicted defendant who has had a full and fair trial but is later able to convince a habeas court that he is “actually” innocent. Quite to the contrary, we have repeatedly left that question unresolved, while expressing considerable doubt that any claim based on alleged “actual innocence” is constitutionally cognizable.
In just over a month, when we mail in our absentee ballots or vote at our local polling places, we can embrace or reject Justice Scalia’s vision. If a defendant is convicted and sentenced to death after a fair trial, should we still error on the side of caution and surrender capital punishment as a safeguard? We will have the opportunity to decide whether the benefit of punishing the guilty by way of the death penalty outweighs the cost of killing an innocent. For some, the potential chance of killing an innocent person may be a line that cannot be crossed. They may demand that the criminal justice system be perfect.
However, we can also view the death penalty within the context of our every day lives. For the past three decades, traffic accidents have claimed 30,000-40,000 victims each year in the United States. Certainly, a lot more innocent people die in traffic accidents than from wrongful executions, but we don’t halt traffic until we have an accident-free system in place. According to the Center for Justice & Democracy, the number of deaths from medical accidents each year range from 65,000 to 200,000. Again, we do not suspend the entire health care system until the practice of medicine is free of accidental deaths.
A lot of people die in accidents. It is for each of us to determine how we want justice administered in our system. Are the wrongfully convicted just collateral damage? Are mistakes just a fact of life? Are wrongful executions so far and few between that in the grand scheme of life, there are bigger priorities to tackle?