Capital Punishment: Can State Sponsored Murder Ever be Justifiable Homicide?

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In recent years it has become rather unfashionable, but recently I’ve got into revisiting some Orwell, both his novels and biographies about him. The acerbic author and journalist Will Self has recently described Orwell’s work as “Supreme Mediocrity”, for which I believe he makes quite a compelling case. However, It isn’t for the prose that Orwell’s work still captures the imagination, it’s for his ability to represent the most down trodden elements of a society, and it was whilst reading his essay A Hanging that he prompted me to vent my spleen about capital punishment.

In Orwell’s essay A Hanging he recounts the events that led to him observing an execution while serving in the Imperial Police Force. As the condemned man was being walked to the gallows he side steps a puddle to avoid getting his feet wet. To Orwell this was a profound moment and inspired him to write:

It is curious, but till that moment I had never realized what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man. When I saw the prisoner step aside to avoid the puddle, I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide. This man was not dying, he was alive just as we were alive. All the organs of his body were working–bowels digesting food, skin renewing itself, nails growing, tissues forming–all toiling away in solemn foolery. His nails would still be growing when he stood on the drop, when he was falling through the air with a tenth of a second to live. His eyes saw the yellow gravel and the grey walls, and his brain still remembered, foresaw, reasoned–reasoned even about puddles. He and we were a party of men walking together, seeing, hearing, feeling, understanding the same world; and in two minutes, with a sudden snap, one of us would be gone–one mind less, one world less.

Despite what Will Self might think, for me this is an outstanding piece of writing expressing the barbarism and ultimate finality of the act about to take place. Many criticize Orwell’s essay as being overtly biased, for one thing he never goes on to inform the reader of the crime the condemned man was found guilty of perpetrating. I believe that there is a very easy answer to this observation, and that is in Orwell’s opinion the crime committed can never justify capital punishment.

I’ve a very general philosophy in that death is bad, for everyone. That said I am pro-euthanasia and pro-choice, so on reflection, I support the death of those who are in suffering and I support the death of a fetus in its early stages of development, but I absolutely draw the line at the death of those convicted of serious crimes. (Damn I’ve just gone and compromised my own argument).

For me the death penalty is perverse. Societies universally agree that murder is bad. It then seems duplicitous for a society that believes murder to be bad to then murder someone. Imagine if you will, you catch your child fighting, you grab his hand and lead him away. You shout at him that violence never solves anything, and to make sure he learns his lesson you smack him a few times. This should cause cognitive dissonance as your actions directly contradict your message. And so it is with capital punishment.

Surely it is the goal of any custodial institution to reform its detainees to a point beyond the possibility of recidivism. Sentencing someone to death clearly demonstrates that the judge feels rehabilitation is far beyond the powers of the state, which seems ironic as all through the trial the state requires witnesses swear on a book  whose central tenants are compassion and forgiveness and in which miracles happen.

So far I have just considered the death sentence in the same context as Orwell in that it is an unjustifiable sentence, too great a power for any state to wieldd. Another far more practical argument  is that no legal system is impervious to making mistakes. In the U.S since 1973 150 death row inmates have been exonerated due to the fallibility of the legal system. In the U.K the Review Commission exonerated three people who were executed between 1950 and 1953, it should be kept in mind that the U.K executed on average 17 people a year at this time. Owing to the age of these cases it is impossible for the Review Commission to determine how many more wrongful executions there might have been.

A table showing the 150 people sentenced to death and later exonerated  

NR* NAME ST RACE CONVICTED EXONERATED YEARS BETWEEN REASON DNA **
1 David Keaton FL B 1971 1973 2 Charges Dismissed
2 Samuel A. Poole NC B 1973 1974 1 Charges Dismissed
3 Wilbert Lee FL B 1963 1975 12 Pardoned
4 Freddie Pitts FL B 1963 1975 12 Pardoned
5 James Creamer GA W 1973 1975 2 Charges Dismissed
6 Christopher Spicer NC B 1973 1975 2 Acquitted
7 Thomas Gladish NM W 1974 1976 2 Charges Dismissed
8 Richard Greer NM W 1974 1976 2 Charges Dismissed
9 Ronald Keine NM W 1974 1976 2 Charges Dismissed
10 Clarence Smith NM W 1974 1976 2 Charges Dismissed
11 Delbert Tibbs FL B 1974 1977 3 Charges Dismissed
12 Earl Charles GA B 1975 1978 3 Charges Dismissed
13 Jonathan Treadway AZ W 1975 1978 3 Acquitted
14 Gary Beeman OH W 1976 1979 3 Acquitted
15 Jerry Banks GA B 1975 1980 5 Charges Dismissed
16 Larry Hicks IN B 1978 1980 2 Acquitted
17 Charles Ray Giddens OK B 1978 1981 3 Charges Dismissed
18 Michael Linder SC W 1979 1981 2 Acquitted
19 Johnny Ross LA B 1975 1981 6 Charges Dismissed
20 Ernest (Shujaa) Graham CA B 1976 1981 5 Acquitted
21 Annibal Jaramillo FL L 1981 1982 1 Charges Dismissed
22 Lawyer Johnson MA B 1971 1982 11 Charges Dismissed
23 Larry Fisher MS W 1984 1985 1 Acquitted
24 Anthony Brown FL B 1983 1986 3 Acquitted
25 Neil Ferber PA W 1982 1986 4 Charges Dismissed
26 Clifford Henry Bowen OK W 1981 1986 5 Charges Dismissed
27 Joseph Green Brown FL B 1974 1987 13 Charges Dismissed
28 Perry Cobb IL B 1979 1987 8 Acquitted
29 Darby (Jesse) Tillis IL B 1979 1987 8 Acquitted
30 Vernon McManus TX W 1977 1987 10 Charges Dismissed
31 Anthony Ray Peek FL B 1978 1987 9 Acquitted
32 Juan Ramos FL L 1983 1987 4 Acquitted
33 Robert Wallace GA B 1980 1987 7 Acquitted
34 Richard Neal Jones OK W 1983 1987 4 Acquitted
35 Willie Brown FL B 1983 1988 5 Charges Dismissed
36 Larry Troy FL B 1983 1988 5 Charges Dismissed
37 Randall Dale Adams TX W 1977 1989 12 Charges Dismissed
38 Robert Cox FL W 1988 1989 1 Charges Dismissed
39 James Richardson FL B 1968 1989 21 Charges Dismissed
40 Clarence Brandley TX B 1981 1990 9 Charges Dismissed
41 John C. Skelton TX W 1983 1990 7 Acquitted
42 Dale Johnston OH W 1984 1990 6 Charges Dismissed
43 Jimmy Lee Mathers AZ W 1987 1990 3 Acquitted
44 Gary Nelson GA B 1980 1991 11 Charges Dismissed
45 Bradley P. Scott FL W 1988 1991 3 Acquitted
46 Charles Smith IN B 1983 1991 8 Acquitted
47 Jay C. Smith PA W 1986 1992 6 Acquitted
48 Kirk Bloodsworth MD W 1984 1993 9 Charges Dismissed Yes
49 Federico M. Macias TX L 1984 1993 9 Charges Dismissed
50 Walter McMillian AL B 1988 1993 5 Charges Dismissed
51 Gregory R. Wilhoit OK W 1987 1993 6 Acquitted
52 James Robison AZ W 1977 1993 16 Acquitted
53 Muneer Deeb TX O 1985 1993 8 Acquitted
54 Andrew Golden FL W 1991 1994 3 Charges Dismissed
55 Adolph Munson OK B 1985 1995 10 Acquitted
56 Robert Charles Cruz AZ L 1981 1995 14 Acquitted
57 Rolando Cruz IL L 1985 1995 10 Acquitted Yes
58 Alejandro Hernandez IL L 1985 1995 10 Charges Dismissed Yes
59 Sabrina Butler MS B 1990 1995 5 Acquitted
60 Joseph Burrows IL W 1989 1996 7 Charges Dismissed
61 Verneal Jimerson IL B 1985 1996 11 Charges Dismissed Yes
62 Dennis Williams IL B 1979 1996 17 Charges Dismissed Yes
63 Roberto Miranda NV L 1982 1996 14 Charges Dismissed
64 Gary Gauger IL W 1993 1996 3 Charges Dismissed
65 Troy Lee Jones CA B 1982 1996 14 Charges Dismissed
66 Carl Lawson IL B 1990 1996 6 Acquitted
67 David Wayne Grannis AZ W 1991 1996 5 Charges Dismissed
68 Ricardo Aldape Guerra TX L 1982 1997 15 Charges Dismissed
69 Benjamin Harris WA B 1985 1997 12 Charges Dismissed
70 Robert Hayes FL B 1991 1997 6 Acquitted
71 Christopher McCrimmon AZ B 1993 1997 4 Acquitted
72 Randal Padgett AL W 1992 1997 5 Acquitted
73 Robert Lee Miller, Jr. OK B 1988 1998 10 Charges Dismissed Yes
74 Curtis Kyles LA B 1984 1998 14 Charges Dismissed
75 Shareef Cousin LA B 1996 1999 3 Charges Dismissed
76 Anthony Porter IL B 1983 1999 16 Charges Dismissed
77 Steven Smith IL B 1985 1999 14 Acquitted
78 Ronald Williamson OK W 1988 1999 11 Charges Dismissed Yes
79 Ronald Jones IL B 1989 1999 10 Charges Dismissed Yes
80 Clarence Dexter, Jr. MO W 1991 1999 8 Charges Dismissed
81 Warren Douglas Manning SC B 1989 1999 10 Acquitted
82 Alfred Rivera NC L 1997 1999 2 Charges Dismissed
83 Steve Manning IL W 1993 2000 7 Charges Dismissed
84 Eric Clemmons MO B 1987 2000 13 Acquitted
85 Joseph Nahume Green FL B 1993 2000 7 Charges Dismissed
86 Earl Washington VA B 1984 2000 16 Pardoned Yes
87 William Nieves PA L 1994 2000 6 Acquitted
88 Frank Lee Smithdied prior to exoneration FL B 1986 2000 ** 14 Charges Dismissed Yes
89 Michael Graham LA W 1987 2000 13 Charges Dismissed
90 Albert Burrell LA W 1987 2000 13 Charges Dismissed
91 Oscar Lee Morris CA B 1983 2000 17 Charges Dismissed
92 Peter Limone MA W 1968 2001 33 Charges Dismissed
93 Gary Drinkard AL W 1995 2001 6 Charges Dismissed
94 Joaquin Jose Martinez FL L 1997 2001 4 Acquitted
95 Jeremy Sheets NE W 1997 2001 4 Charges Dismissed
96 Charles Fain ID W 1983 2001 18 Charges Dismissed Yes
97 Juan Roberto Melendez FL L 1984 2002 18 Charges Dismissed
98 Ray Krone AZ W 1992 2002 10 Charges Dismissed Yes
99 Thomas Kimbell, Jr. PA W 1998 2002 4 Acquitted
100 Larry Osborne KY W 1999 2002 3 Charges Dismissed
101 Aaron Patterson IL B 1986 2003 17 Pardoned
102 Madison Hobley IL B 1987 2003 16 Pardoned
103 Leroy Orange IL B 1984 2003 19 Pardoned
104 Stanley Howard IL B 1987 2003 16 Pardoned
105 Rudolph Holton FL B 1986 2003 16 Charges Dismissed
106 Lemuel Prion AZ W 1999 2003 4 Charges Dismissed
107 Wesley Quick AL W 1997 2003 6 Acquitted
108 John Thompson LA B 1985 2003 18 Acquitted
109 Timothy Howard OH B 1976 2003 26 Charges Dismissed
110 Gary Lamar James OH B 1976 2003 26 Charges Dismissed
111 Joseph Amrine MO B 1986 2003 17 Charges Dismissed
112 Nicholas Yarris PA W 1982 2003 21 Charges Dismissed Yes
113 Alan Gell NC W 1998 2004 6 Acquitted
114 Gordon Steidl IL W 1987 2004 17 Charges Dismissed
115 Laurence Adams MA B 1974 2004 30 Charges Dismissed
116 Dan L. Bright LA B 1996 2004 8 Charges Dismissed
117 Ryan Matthews LA B 1999 2004 5 Charges Dismissed Yes
118 Ernest Ray Willis TX W 1987 2004 17 Charges Dismissed
119 Derrick Jamison OH B 1985 2005 20 Charges Dismissed
120 Harold Wilson PA B 1989 2005 16 Acquitted
121 John Ballard FL W 2003 2006 3 Acquitted
122 Curtis McCarty OK W 1986 2007 21 Charges Dismissed Yes
123 Michael McCormick TN W 1987 2007 20 Acquitted
124 Jonathon Hoffman NC B 1995 2007 12 Charges Dismissed
125 Kennedy Brewer MS B 1995 2008 13 Charges Dismissed Yes
126 Glen Chapman NC B 1994 2008 14 Charges Dismissed
127 Levon Jones NC B 1993 2008 15 Charges Dismissed
128 Michael Blair TX O 1994 2008 14 Charges Dismissed Yes
129 Nathson Fields IL B 1986 2009 23 Acquitted
130 Paul House TN W 1986 2009 23 Charges Dismissed
131 Daniel Wade Moore AL W 2002 2009 7 Acquitted
132 Ronald Kitchen IL B 1988 2009 21 Charges Dismissed
133 Herman Lindsey FL B 2006 2009 3 Acquitted
134 Michael Toney TX W 1999 2009 10 Charges Dismissed
135 Yancy Douglas OK B 1995 2009 14 Charges Dismissed
136 Paris Powell OK B 1997 2009 12 Charges Dismissed
137 Robert Springsteen TX W 2001 2009 8 Charges Dismissed
138 Anthony Graves TX B 1994 2010 16 Charges Dismissed
139 Gussie Vann TN W 1994 2011 17 Charges Dismissed
140 Joe D’Ambrosio OH W 1989 2012 23 Charges Dismissed
141 Damon Thibodeaux LA W 1997 2012 15 Charges Dismissed Yes
142 Seth Penalver FL W 1999 2012 13 Acquitted
143 Reginald Griffin MO B 1983 2013 30 Charges Dismissed
144 Glenn Ford LA B 1984 2014 30 Charges Dismissed
145 Carl Dausch FL W 2011 2014 3 Acquitted
146 Henry McCollum NC B 1984 2014 30 Charges Dismissed Yes
147 Leon Brown NC B 1984 2014 30 Charges Dismissed Yes
148 Ricky Jackson OH B 1975 2014 39 Charges Dismissed
149 Wiley Bridgeman OH B 1975 2014 39 Charges Dismissed
150 Kwame Ajamu OH B 1975 2014 39 Charges Dismissed

On Average, each of these 150 people spent 11.2 years in jail before their exoneration. Simply there is no legal system with the infallibility to be able to use the death sentence. Any execution of an innocent person has to be a murder by the state with people being held responsible for such a murder. Some may argue that the 150 exonerated is proof of the legal  system working, but this is a ridiculous argument, given the liberty that has been denied to an  innocent person as well as the stress of being on death row for all that time.

Another famous author who was present at an execution was Truman Capote, the result of his research into his non-fiction novel In Cold Blood. Despite the fact that he knew both Perry Smith and Richard Hickock were guilty of an absolutely gruesome murder, Capote could never see the legitimacy of a just and moral society using the death penalty, and believed that it was only being used to address the fears and anger of the citizens of Kansas. To be honest and realistic can the death penalty ever represent anything other than the states efforts to address the public’s anger and fear.

So is it state sponsored murder or justifiable homicide? (a definition of which you can read below) To be honest I don’t know, all I do know is that the taking of life is wrong, you’ll have to make your up your own mind. In the meantime I’m off to open up my clinic offering cut price abortions to Thai prostitutes using nothing more than a pair of chopsticks, and then I have to euthanize my gran.

Justifiable homicide: n. a killing without evil or criminal intent, for which there can be no blame, such as self-defense toprotect oneself or to protect another, or the shooting by a law enforcement officer in fulfilling his/herduties. This is not to be confused with a crime of passion or claim of diminished capacity whichrefer to defenses aimed at reducing the penalty or degree of crime. (

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