Category: Capital Punishment


The Department of Ill-Advised Job Titles

UC Berkeley’s Boalt Hall School of Law has just announced the creation of a Lethal Injection Fellowship. I applaud the institutional commitment to this work – the fellow will create and manage a clearinghouse of information regarding lethal injection challenges – but the title is a bit ghoulish.

Or perhaps the discomforting title was strategic. It will certainly create some unusual interview chat as fellows go off to find their first post-fellowship position.

UPDATE: A spelling error has been corrected.

Death Not So Different?

Hugo Bedau’s classic book Death is Different commented on the qualitative difference between capital punishment and other penalties. But there appears to be a growing trend to blur the distinctivenss of crimes provoking the death penalty. Consider the following examples:

1) At least five states now authorize the death penalty for child rape.

2) China has sentenced a former drug regulator to death for corruption and bribery charges.

3) Doug Berman has noted that the logic of the hard-core cost/benefit approach of Sunstein and Vermeule may well justify the death penalty for drunk driving.

Even death penalty advocate Robert Blecker concedes that the penalty may have grown too expansive given the way felony murder expands its scope.

What are the cultural trends driving an expanding scope for executions? I can think of a couple offhand. First, at least in America, there is a growing sense that prison is a living hell for just about anyone in it, and there must be some way of isolating out the “worst of the worst” with an even more gruesome penalty.

Second, and far more speculatively, I wonder if secularization of society has anything to do with it–not just in the sense that churches have been eloquent voices for mercy and redemption, but in a fading social conviction that there is some “ultimate justice” done after death. Without such reassurance, it may make perfect sense to seek an “eye for eye,” a settling of accounts in the only reality that matters.


Roman Law and the Virtual Death Penalty

SPQR.jpgCriminal law is not really my area of interest, but some reading in Roman law has got me thinking about the death penalty. I’ve always found Roman history — particularlly the Republican period — very interesting and were I better at languages I would love to have been a classicist. Roman politics, especially in the late Republic, was a full contact sport as it were. Bribery, organized violence, assination, and — most importantly — criminal prosecution were an ordinary part of political hard ball.

If you read the texts of various Roman laws, particularlly very early legal texts like the Twelve Tables, it is awfully bloody minded stuff. (My favorite provision is the one that allows a debtor’s creditors to divide shares, meaning literally that they could dismember his body for non-payment of debts, presumeably on a pro rata basis.) In practice, however, the Romans were remarkably fastidious about killing one another. There was no system of incarceration, and generally speaking citizens were never executed. On the other hand, numerous Roman laws did call for the death penalty. In practice, however, someone sentenced to death was given several days before the sentence was carried out in which they could either kill themselves (this was a way of preserving the family estate) or go into exile. Indeed, by the late Republic the assumption was that a death sentence, particularlly for a political crime such as treason, was a de facto sentence of exile.

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The High Cost of Criminal Litigation

Doug Berman has a good post here (and here and here as well) on the costs of prosecuting capital cases. It appears there’s been a big flap in Atlanta over expenditures for the defense of Brian Nichols, the fellow charged with killing several people in a rampage at the Fulton County Courthouse. Berman quotes an Atlanta Journal story suggesting that the cost of prosecuting Nichols will exceed the cost of the defense. I would expect as much. Notwithstanding complaints about the cost of indigent defense, prosecution of serious and complex cases costs a ton. The difference is that defense costs are fairly transparent: they are either funneled entirely through the court (in the case of court appointed counsel, and subsequent requests by counsel for costs related to litigation) or through a public defender’s office (and perhaps the court as well.) It’s easy to figure out how much it costs to defend a Brian Nichols. As Doug and the Journal suggest, costs of prosecution are much less transparent – but pop up everywhere…in police department budgets (and often across multiple different law enforcement authorities), prison budgets, state forensic lab budgets, court administration budgets, and potentially elsewhere as prosecutors seek assistance with their case.

At the end of the day, I’m not particularly troubled that very serious cases cost a lot. I worked for a couple of years at a large NY firm. Clients routinely spent over a million dollars in fees in a $10 million dispute. It’s always struck me that, on balance, the decision to execute a person – or to send that person to prison for life – is just as important as guarding cash in the corporate till. To put it another way, I absolutely believe that Brian Nichols is as entitled to excellent counsel as was Phillip Morris (cigarettes) or Johns Manville (asbestos) or Dow Corning (breast implants). When students ask how I could represent criminals as a public defender (or as the query is usually phrased at cocktail parties, ‘how can you defend those scum?”), one of the best explanations in terms of both accuracy and resonance with skeptics is equity: do rich people and corporations really “deserve” better counsel than poor people?

By the way, if you don’t recall the Nichols case, it’s the one where the defendant ended his siege by arriving at the home of one Ashley Smith. At first, it appeared that she subdued him with her newly discovered wisdom from The Purpose Driven Life. Much as Rick Warren loved this narrative, reality turned out to be somewhat more complicated. Here’s how Wikipedia captures what happened:

Smith was held hostage for several hours in her own apartment, during which time Nichols requested marijuana, but Smith told him she only had “ice” (methamphetamine). In her book “Unlikely Angel: The Untold Story of the Atlanta Hostage Hero” Smith revealed that she “had been struggling with a methamphetamine addiction when she was taken hostage” and the last time she used meth “was 36 hours before Nichols held a gun to her and entered her home. Nichols wanted her to use the drug with him, but she refused.” Instead, she chose to read to him from the Bible and The Purpose Driven Life. She tried to convince Nichols to turn himself in by sharing with him how her husband “had died in her arms four years earlier after being stabbed during a brawl.” Smith also writes that she asked Nichols “if he wanted to see the danger of drugs and lifted up her tank top several inches to reveal a five-inch scar down the center of her torso — the aftermath of a car wreck caused by drug-induced psychosis…. When news of his crimes was reported on television, Nichols looked to the ceiling and asked the Lord to forgive him. In the morning Smith cooked breakfast for Nichols.


Geographical Disparity And The Death Penalty

As Doug Berman noted, St. Louis University Law School, along with Washington University in St. Louis, put on a truly engaing conference on the issue of prosecutorial discretion and the Missouri death penalty. The conference was built around a study by Barnes, Sloss and Thaman that showed, among other things, a notable disparity in charging of first degree murder, seeking of death, and imposition of death, between different Missouri counties.

This leads to an interesting question: is there something problematic about intra-state geographic disparity in sentencing? Criminal law practitioners have long been aware of county-by-county disparities in sentencing. For example, when I was public defender in Philadelphia, it was routinely the case that a person who stole a car (for a first offense) would get probation in the city. Take that same car from the suburbs, however, and the defendant would go to jail. The same held true for shoplifting: suburban communities with big malls (and big mall revenues) were considerably tougher on retail theft.

The reality is that communities inevitably judge crime in context. As one panelist noted, a two kilo cocaine bust looks a lot different in Miami than in a small community in the middle of Virginia. And the sentence will likely reflect the uniqueness of the offense. One of the benefits of sentencing guidelines – if this is indeed a benefit – is the flattening of sentencing differences within a state. But perhaps local communities should exert substantial control over sentencing. After all, the citizens of Oakland and and those in Orange County probably don’t agree about the proper sanction for, say, marijuana sales. When you level the field, urban communities – often home to unusally large numbers of minority defendants – may see sentences leveled up, not down. This is one of the pernicious aspects of federal sentencing guidelines. Vermnot defendants receive South Carolina sized sentences.

So what about the death penalty? Is geographic disparity with respect to the death penalty particularly noxious? Should there at least be statewide consistency for this sanction? I’m not sure. There are strong reasons to oppose use of capital punishment – first of which, it seems to me, is that the death penalty does disparately affect people based on race, class and disability (all of which are illegitimate bases for disparate treatment, in my mind. ) For me, however, local differences are a not-entirely-unfriendly aspect of our governmental system. So the main question becomes: does geographical disparity mask the unaccpetable sorts of difference based on race, class, or disability? (And I am most worried when the difference is inheres to the detriment of minorities groups; disparity that harms majority groups is at least slightly more likely to be managed through majoritarian process.) The Missouri study suggests that geography masks race; that is the question we should probably be asking.


Good Intentions, Bad Outcomes For Capital Defendants

Back when he was Alabama’s Attorney General, Bill Pryor used to complain that big (Northern) firms only lined up to represent capital defendants at the point of collateral challenges. Why, he’d ask, don’t they step up at the trial stage? A certain suspicion is present in this question, a suggestion that this decision is strategically designed to frustrate use of the death penalty. But as anyone experienced in criminal practice will tell you, it is easiest to prevent a death sentence at the trial stage – either by squeezing out a plea deal, winning at trial (really, almost impossible in capital cases, unless you roll the dice and give up any hope of showing forgiveness in the sentencing phase, should it occur), or “winning” life at the punishment hearing. (One caveat here: in Alabama, where judges override jury verdicts of life in order to further their own political ambitions, all the good lawyering in the world can lead to nothing. As a result, an Alabama capital defendant may actually do better on appeal than at trial. The fact that this is true shows the perversity of the Alabama override system.)

So why don’t these excellent, well-funded counsel take cases at trial? There are presumably a few reasons. One is that trials are harder and more expensive to handle when your office is 1000 miles away. A second is that firms may actually prefer that their junior associates get the experience of working on what (probably incorrectly) appear to be more law-based collateral challenges. (They also aren’t interested in giving up the large chunk of attorney time required to handle a trial.) But a third reason, I suspect, is that the lawyers in these firms just don’t feel up to the task of trying a capital case. They don’t think they have the proper background; they may even think it would be malpractice. It’s easy to picture a partner at Simpson, Thacher saying “I’ve never tried a criminal case in my life…let alone one in Alabama.”

It is one of the curiosities of capital work that the leaders in the field have successfully convinced many other good lawyers (and not just Big Law lawyers from out of state) that you shouldn’t take a capital case without a commitment of serious time and a strong background in criminal and capital practice. They’re right, of course. The problem is that when these good lawyers pass on capital cases, defendants in many jurisdictions end up with a mediocre or downright terrible lawyer. The attorneys who ultimately handle the case may have tried dozens of criminal matters, but they aren’t necessarily sophisticated or talented practitioners. They may never gave given a thought to the difference between guilt/innocence and the penalty phase. They may accept mediocre attorney/client relations that make it impossible to sell a young client on a plea of life without parole. And they may dedicate what seems to them a reasonable 30 or 40 hours to prepping the case.

When I first considered starting a capital defense clinic at Alabama, a friend who’d formerly worked at a Death Penalty Resource Center counseled me against it. He correctly believed that I was too overtaxed to dedicate the time such a clinic truly required. But I created a model that worked – reasonably well, though not perfectly – because it struck me that, in Alabama, in the year 2002 (and still today), perfection really can be the enemy of the good. I’m not sure I was right in setting up that clinic, but I hope that if nothing else, we trained a few lawyers to worry about exactly these questions.


And So It Goes: Possible Reasons to Care About Saddam Hussein’s Execution

Dan’s post asks whether we should care. This morning I was reading arguments regarding whether the United States could or should hand Saddam Hussein over to the Iraqi government because of international law concerns. The New York Times reports that news agencies have been debating whether to show the event. Now CNN reports he is dead. As I watch CNN and write this brief post Anderson Cooper notes that the execution was videotaped and photographed and that CNN will review this media possibly to show it but with some warning regarding the contents before it runs the footage.

Perhaps the reason to care is precisely the sense that Dan offers: even when we might not care about the specific person and “the intentional killing of another human being [does] not generate deep discomfort” — maybe especially at that point — we should care and look to the questions of justice that we otherwise would consider. Isn’t this in part what Arendt is addressing in Eichmann in Jerusalem: The Banality of Evil?

In other words, maybe we should slow down and see how we treat even the most extreme criminals rather than rapidly move from debates about international law to whether we should show or not show the execution not to mention indulging in the voyeurisitc reports of each moment before, during, and after the execution.

Then again to borrow a phrase from Vonnegut, and so it goes.

PS For those wishing to read the 298 opinion it is available at the Case Western Law Web site.


Sadaam Executed. Should We Care?

I think a lot about capital punishment, but I still haven’t figured out what to think about the (apparently completed) execution of Sadaam Hussein. Although I am deeply troubled by the use of capital punishment in the United States, and have questions whether any system can consistently offer the assurances of fairness and accuracy commensurate with the sanction, I do not oppose the death penalty categorically. If the death penalty is appropriate, it seems to me that one must feel confident that the target is actually guilty, that he received a fair trial, and that he is culpable at the highest moral and practical level for the most serious crimes. When it comes to Sadaam, there is little doubt (as far as I can tell) that he is guilty of facilitiating mass killings. I don’t know whether he received a fair trial and I don’t know enough about him personally to know whether he is morally culpable on an individual level – although he doesn’t appear to have much claim to most of the mitigators surfacing in a typical U.S. capital sentencing. At the end of the day, I don’t have much sympathy for the guy.

So should I care if he is executed? Perhaps I should not only care, but be pleased. On some level, this sentence – which unlike most death sentences in the U.S., will actually be noticed both by the people we hope to reassure and those we hope to deter – communicates a fair amount about society’s view of his conduct. In that sense, this outcome is probably better than having troops kill him while he was huddled in a bunker. And it is surely better for the U.S. that he be executed after an Iraqi trial, and by Iraqis, rather than through a U.S. military tribunal.

Maybe I shouldn’t care, even if the penalty is wrong because these sanctions aren’t ours to distribute. But that can’t be quite right, since the current Iraqi regime is (at least partially) an American creation. And if the death penalty is unjustifiable murder, if I truly believed that to be true in all cases, I would have to be upset and angry, and probably feel compelled to take at least some small action in opposition.

I can’t quite get to the bottom of my own emotions. The process seems like slow motion, a bit, though it is far faster than any American death penalty. (Isn’t that oxymoronic? The American process is so slow that it doesn’t even look like motion. In the end, the execution feels little different from a premeditated killing precisely because it is not part of a continuing, visible, inevitable process that leads directly to execution. Here, however, the process is swift enough that we can watch it unfold slowly before our eyes.) I fear that it will have negative political repercussions. I fear that it will reopen wounds that should stay closed, or close wounds that demand further inspection and investigation. I fear that the comfortable use of death in this case will reassure some people that the death penalty is appropriate for more mundane crimes.

But I don’t feel much pity. And I don’t feel a sense of injustice. So in some awful sense, I don’t care much at all. And there’s the rub. I deeply dislike the idea that the intentional killing of another human being would not generate deep discomfort in me. I seem to have found out why I don’t oppose the death penalty categorically. But I’m not sure I’m proud of the insight.


Further Thoughts On Abortion, The Death Penalty, Mental Illness, and M’Naughten

In a recent post about mental illness and the death penalty, I attempted to raise the question of how some abortion opponents justify their support for executing people with mental illness. In particular, I wondered how such an inidividual would deal with some future research which allows us to predict whether a fetus will have an exceptionally high disposition to violence – and thus to murder. For the sake of this hypothetical, at least, imagine that this research actually tells us that a person with X genetic makeup will try to kill someone later in life. Could one oppose abortion of this fetus, while simultaneously approving execution of that person, in adulthood, when his overwhelming disposition ripens into an actual murder?

Rick Garnett offered comments which helped me recognize that my own language was imprecise. I asked whether such new research might logically provide a moral justification for “pre-emptive abortion” of a likely future killer. I now see that this sounds like I was making a utilitarian argument, which was not my intent. Rather, I meant to suggest a couple of things. First, we know that many people on death row have mental health issues – so many that one can now infer, and future research could conceivably establish, that many people on death row are there as a but-for result of their mental problems. Second, if one supports execution of individuals who would not be there but-for the mental problems, one essentially supports execution of people where free-will is not the sole, or even determinative, explanation for their acts. That is, one supports execution of individuals who are, in at least some sense of the word, innocents. Third, this argument suggests that the distinction between the “inncoent” fetus and the “guilty” murderer is far less clear cut. And it suggests that if the information we might need to know about a person to determine whether they will kill can be obtained pre-birth, any moral justification for execution at a later date might have at least some force at the earlier date as well. I am not claiming that one actually should abort for these reasons. I’m merely questioning how one can call the killing of the adult any more or less “retributive” than the abortion, if the factor that created culpability – say, a mental illness – existed both before birth and after. The only thing that changed was the actual fact of a killing, but a killing that was essentially beyond the offender’s free will.

The obvious retort to all of this is that the criminal law does not allow execution – or even conviction – of an individual whose crime is caused by a mental disease or defect. The problem is that the dominant test for insanity today, the M’Naughten rule, provides a defense only when a person is not aware of the nature and quality of his act (e.g., he thought he was cutting a melon, but it was really a head), or, if aware, did not know the act was wrong. Notably missing from this standard (but present in the old ALI version of the insanity defense, which became far less common after the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan) is a defense for individuals who cannot control their acts. Yet if support for the death penalty among abortion opponents hinges, as I suspect it must, on the idea of free will – the notion that the offender has transcended his early innocence and now makes decisions independently, and thus fully culpably – must not that abortion opponent exclude from execution any person who cannot control his act?


The Strategic Use Of The Death Penalty

A BBC Newshour report, this morning (autdio link) suggests that Indonesia’s decision to execute three Christians yesterday, for their role in a 1998 Christian-Muslim conflict, might have been strategic. For example, there are several Muslims on death row for the Bali bombing. And other Muslims are facing trial, and potentially the death penalty, for the same Sulewesian rioting that gave rise to yesterday’s executions. The commentators suggested that in order for the Muslim government to execute Muslims, it may have been strategically wise to execute the Christians first.

This may be a cynical use of death, but I wonder whether some states have run similar calculations. African-Americans are disparately represented on American death rows, vis a vis their percentage of the overall population. The race critique of capital punishment has had a fair degree of traction (compared, at least, to many other criticisms.) Do some jurisdictions attempt to protect their capital scheme from such attacks by executing whites at a faster rate than African-Americans, notwithstanding the overall demographic of death row? In Alabama, for example, from 1999-2005, across two gubernatorial administrations, 12 of 17 people executed were white. And from 2002-2005, all eleven people executed were white. This in a state where almost half of death row is populated by African-Americans. I recognize that each case proceeds at its own pace – to some degree – but I’m curious whether the goal of legitimizing capital punishment ever plays into the decisions of which individuals a state seeks to execute first. (And yes, I do think it’s worth noting that at this final stage, there might actually be an anti-white bias in imposition of the sanction, notwithstanding my suspicion that – at earlier stages – the bias seems to cut the opposite way.)

This is not an accusation. I don’t have any answers. I’m simply curious about the degree to which all decisions about the death penalty – from charging all the way to seeking a warrant – might be driven by the needs of external legitimacy, rather than by broader moral, or narrower individualized, concerns.