In the current crusade against the death penalty, one bad argument seems to be just as good as another. Having convinced various conservatives to doubt or actually oppose capital punishment because DNA testing shows some convicts to be innocent, the crusaders are now trying to work on the liberals with the argument that the death penalty discriminates against minorities. The simple response to the DNA argument is that (a) no one has yet proved that any innocent person has really been executed; what has been proved is that some persons under sentence of death were really innocent because their DNA was shown to be different from that of the real but unknown criminal found at the scene of the crime; and (b) if DNA in some cases proves innocence, in others it proves guilt. There’s no question that people proved innocent by DNA testing should not be executed. Why shouldn’t those proved guilty of capital crimes by the same tests be executed?
The response to the argument that the death penalty discriminates against minorities is even more simple: So what if it does? A valid argument against capital punishment must show either that innocent people are being executed — which, as mentioned, no one has shown — or that even guilty people don’t deserve to be executed. So-called “humanitarians” have generally relied on the latter argument, which most people, at least in this country, have never found very convincing. To refute it, all you have to do is drop a few names: Charles Manson, Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, Jeffrey Dahmer, etc., etc.
In the case of discrimination against minorities, no one has shown that the blacks and Hispanics condemned to death are innocent or that more innocent blacks and Hispanics are condemned than innocent whites. All that has been shown is that more blacks and Hispanics are condemned to death than whites. As mentioned above, so what?
Last week The New York Times, which seems to be on something of a tear on the death penalty, carried a front-page story about a Hispanic gentleman under sentence of death in Texas. Juan Raul Garcia is actually a federal prisoner and, if he dies on Aug. 5 as scheduled, will have the dubious honor of being the first convict executed by the federal government since 1963.
But the point about Garcia is that he and his lawyers claim it’s unfair for him to get his dose of the hot juice at all because there haven’t been enough white people juiced as well. No one seems to claim that Garcia is innocent of the three murders and drug smuggling of which he was convicted, and no one seems to be arguing that the death penalty is too harsh.
What they do argue is that of the 27 defendants against whom the Justice Department (under President Bush’s administration) sought the death penalty for drug-related killings during the “drug war,” 23 were black or Hispanic. Since 1988, they also claim, the Justice Department has sought the death penalty against 199 defendants in all; 76 percent of them are minorities and 52 percent are black. Of 21 federal prisoners now under sentence of death, 62 percent are black. And, once again, after being deluged with this statistical flood, we are led to ask: So what?
It is well-known that in the United States, for whatever reasons, there is a higher crime rate among blacks and Hispanics than among whites, and simply on the face of the evidence about crime rates, there is every reason to expect that more blacks and Hispanics commit capital crimes than whites. Therefore, it’s not surprising that there would be more blacks and Hispanics arrested for, tried for and convicted of capital crimes, or that more blacks and Hispanics would be sentenced to death.
It makes no sense to argue that convicts whose guilt of capital crimes is not in question should not be executed because more of their race are sentenced to death than of other races. The obvious next step in the argument is to claim that blacks and Hispanics shouldn’t be imprisoned either because not enough whites are being imprisoned. Most of the arguments against capital punishment that are being lobbed up and down these days also apply to just about any kind of punishment.
And that’s really what’s going on here, isn’t it? Governing, among other duties, involves punishing and sometimes killing criminals, and it is that duty that the governing authorities of this country are beginning to find so difficult to carry out and almost impossible to defend philosophically. The problem with capital — and eventually with any kind of — punishment is not who’s guilty and who’s innocent, but that those who are supposed to punish the guilty and protect the innocent from them no longer have the will to do so.