Thingish Things

Pondering the Death Penalty

Written By: William F. B. O'Reilly - Sep• 25•11


I used to be against the death penalty.  Then I read the transcript of the torture and murder of a teenage girl by two men in the 1980’s.  They audiotaped their barbarity for kicks, taking turns in the back of a van doing things so cruel that I had to stop reading about them.  It was as bad – or worse – as watching people jump from the burning World Trade Center towers. 

That transcript completely changed my opinion on capital punishment. I abandoned all Christian orthodoxy on the issue that day.  Arguments about deterrence or life-without-parole also became irrelevant. Practicality and vengeance were at issue. 

These two animals, and others like them, had to disappear from the face of the earth as quickly as possible. And society, I came to believe, had the right to express its outrage in dispatching them.  I would have personally flipped the switch  on both those men and have gone to hell willingly for it if necessary – because it would have been the right thing to do, just as Seal Team Six was justified in putting a couple of bullets in Osama bin Laden’s head.  

Syndicated columnist and National Review editor-at-large Jonah Goldberg has a brilliant piece out on the death penalty that got me thinking about this issue again, comparing two executions in the U.S. this week.

The first, the case of Georgia’s Troy Davis, got most of the media attention because anti-death penalty advocates trumpeted it. Davis, convicted of killing a police officer, maintained his innocence to the end.  The other person, Lawrence Russell Brewer, was a Texas white supremacist who dragged a black man to a gruesome death from the back of a pickup truck. Brewer readily admitted it. Indeed, he bragged about it, at one point testifying:  “As far as any regrets, no, I have no regrets. . . . I’d do it all over again, to tell you the truth.” His only defense was that the victim’s throat had been slit, ending his life, before the dragging began.  (That was proven to be false.)

Writes Goldberg:

There are many sincere and decent people – on both sides of the ideological spectrum – who are opposed to the death penalty. I consider it an honorable position, even though I disagree with it.

I am 100% in favor of lawfully executing people who deserve the death penalty and 100% opposed to killing people who do not deserve it. When I say that, many death penalty opponents angrily respond that I’m missing the point: You can never be certain! Troy Davis proves that! 

But he proves no such thing. At best, his case proves that you can’t be certain about Davis. You most certainly can be certain about other murderers. If we learn that Davis really was not guilty, that will be a heart-wrenching revelation. It will cast a negative light on the death penalty, on the Georgia criminal justice system and on America.

But you know what it won’t do? It won’t render Brewer one iota less guilty or less deserving of the death penalty. Opponents of capital punishment are extremely selective about the cases they make into public crusades.

Timothy McVeigh killed 168 people including 19 children. He admitted it. How does doubt in Troy Davis’ case make McVeigh less deserving of death?

I have a good friend and former client who was a star prosecutor in the Manhattan District Attorney’s office.  He is a leading national opponent of the death penalty because, he privately explained to me, “prosecutors f*@# up all the time. It happens a lot more than people think.”

I have to admit, he had me going on that one. Surely it is worse to put one innocent man to death than to give absolute justice to 10, including the two savages I have never been able to get out of my head. But, as Goldberg argues, what happens when you have them cold, like the two men now on trial for raping and burning alive a mother and her two children in a Connecticut home invasion last year?  What should happen when there is zero doubt about their guilt? 

What to do, what to do?


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One Comment

  1. Me says:

    That’s precisely the point: We don’t get to pick and choose to put to death only those people who are guilty of committing crimes deserving of death. We have a system in which some of the above are put to death (while others go free or get lesser terms), but so are people who don’t have the money/education/clout/luck/skin color to get them the very best defense and an environment free of institutional corruption/ineptitude. Some people are willing to impose death sentences upon the innocent in order to ensure the guilty are condemned, too. I’m not. And I don’t think you should be either.

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