Debate over death penalty misses the real question
© Getty Images

On Tuesday evening, my home state of Georgia carried out its ninth execution of the year, putting it two ahead of Texas, seven ahead of Alabama (which carried out its second execution late Thursday) and eight ahead of Florida and Missouri.

We have now almost doubled the previous state record — set last year — of five.


It's hard to say what accounts for the recent uptick, but it's clear that a lack of meaningful discussion — one that focuses on the issues that actually matter — isn't helping things.

To see the problem, consider the question that for many lies at the heart of issue: Should murderers be put to death?

Now that's an interesting moral question, one over which thoughtful people can find honest disagreement. It is not, however, a question that moves this debate forward.

Instead, the question should be: Should people whom we say are murderers be put to death?

The advantage of this longer question is that it addresses what for many is the real issue — people decide who dies and people make mistakes. Putting someone to death involves more than simply injecting serum into an arm. It involves numerous judgments, judgments that the first question conveniently glosses over.

Think about it this way: Let's suppose that we all give the same answer to the first question; that is, we all agree that murderers should be strung up; they deserve it.

Great. Now what?

Well, the next step is to find murderers, and here of course we run into problems. Even with a top-notch justice system, we might make a few mistakes. Evidence might be tampered with; juries might be biased; eyewitnesses' memories may fail.

Still, let's say we get the right person 99 percent of the time. If that sounds good, then ask yourself whether it would be an acceptable cost of the death penalty if the state put to death one innocent person for every 99 bona fide murderers.

If not, what number is acceptable? 999? 9,999? A million? In short, when is the rate of error morally insignificant?

Unfortunately, the uncertainty does not end there.

Next, the state has to determine whether the convicted person is the sort of murderer we want to put to death. After all, he (as is usually the case, although Georgia did execute a woman last year) could be a number of things. He could be just plain evil — someone in full control of his faculties. Alternatively, he could be so delusional or cognitively impaired as to have no real grasp of reality. Or he could be somewhere in between, i.e., clearly mentally disturbed, but still with the ability to grasp the consequences of his actions.

Perhaps experts could come up with a reasonable determination here. What should concern us, however, is whether our confidence in that determination would be high enough to make us comfortable with a penalty — death — that admits of no doubt at all.

If we now return to our two questions, the difference between them should be clear. It would certainly be reasonable on the one hand to say "I want murderers put to death," while on the other, to worry that the task of identifying those murderers poses too many unsettling problems.

Indeed, many in this country — many who support the death penalty — display a good deal of skepticism when it comes to government's ability to do most anything. Where is that skepticism on this issue? Suddenly, when human life is threatened, people decide to trust government?

It can't run the post office, but it can decide who should live and who should die?

And let's be clear about that decision. While we say that murderers are "put to death," the truth is not so passive. We — you and I, the citizens of a democracy — put murderers to death.

At least we hope they're murderers.

Lindsay is an associate professor of political science and philosophy at Georgia State University and a member of the Scholars Strategy Network.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.