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Fast food justice

June 19, 2010

The Rational Skepticism boards can get pretty lively, especially about current events and politics. Over the last day or so I got to explore the varied arguments regarding capital punishment in one such thread there. This in turn was sparked off by the recent execution of Ronnie Lee Gardner in Utah.

There’s no evident consensus among skeptics on this issue. I suppose that makes sense. There’s no particular reason for atheism to result in being for or against capital punishment. I’m against it, but somewhat iffy on the subject. Not because of the act itself, but more to do with the justice system. And as it relates to my post title, we get what we pay for.

Commonly cited against capital punishment, The Innocence Project came up during the discussion. On the other side, of course, there are the apparent poster boys like…well, like Ronnie Gardner. (what is it with the middle name thing? so I dropped it.) I found it interesting that even among the families of the people he’d murdered, some were for the execution and others were against. OT vs. NT I suppose. Justice vs. mercy. It interests me how often our society goes for ‘justice’ — revenge.

While the evidence against someone like Gardner seems absolute, and is often portrayed that way by advocates of execution, it’s not. Someone had to make the call. Some judge(s), some jury or juries, had to look at what the authorities offered and decide this man should be killed. It might seem like an easy decision. It’s the sort of case that makes death penalty opponents squirm.

I also found this interesting: some of the advocates squirmed at this notion. Killing. He wasn’t murdered, no. Wasn’t killed. He was executed. Well, at the end of the day it’s a dead body, what’s the difference? But they felt the need for one, however manufactured.

Back to the judgment call. They’re not always so clear. Cameron Willingham is one of those sorts of cases that I mentioned and pointedly got little to no answer for. You see, in this case the fellow was convicted not by bloody hands, not by DNA, fingerprints, or video footage, but by a fire that experts decided was arson. There are also some eyewitness statements of varying credibility, but no clear shot-in-plain-sight. And at this point, the experts’ decree of arson has been somewhat debunked.

Enter the politicians; in this case, the Texas governor who sent the man off to die, the one who may really have red hands.

According to an August 2009 investigative report by an expert hired by the Texas Forensic Science Commission, the original claims of arson were not sustainable[2]; the Corsicana Fire Department disputes the findings, stating that the expert’s report overlooked several key points in the record. The case has been further complicated by allegations that Governor of Texas Rick Perry has impeded the investigation by replacing four of the nine Commission members in an attempt to change the Commission’s findings; Perry denies the charges.

The last thing Rick Perry wants is for this to be resolved while it can affect him politically. And he’s in charge of the justice system; so it probably won’t.

On the other hand, we have popular media’s version of forensics. Glamorous depictions of hotties in lab coats, twisted, driven geniuses, high technology to the point of sci-fi, abundant resources; above all, fast, certain, absolute justice. Is it any wonder that we can still have capital punishment advocates around? It’s entertainment, sure, but how many people scrape beneath this surface? What did 24 teach us about how people can be molded to view torture favorably?

On a board full of skeptics, it surprised me to find the reality so elusive. But I know what it is. I remember the struggle to find enough money to fund a police department. I have a friend who works as a bonafide CSI and I know it’s not all mirrorshades, chrome and supercomputers. I remember my mom working to build a prison and getting her walking papers for that act of political suicide.

We want CSI, Law & Order justice; we might even imagine that to be the reality; but it’s not what we pay for. And since it’s most strongly supported by conservatives, these same folks seem to find it difficult to adequately fund the systems that give us the revenge they so fervently desire.

I did find a skeptic advocating capital punishment who, when pressed, agreed that incompetent justice systems needed an overhaul, that we needed to be clear about the evidence when someone’s life is on the line. And while I am still somewhat against the idea, a better resourced justice system can help to identify criminals with greater clarity and confidence, and better exonerate the innocent. It would serve both sides, even as we argue over whether any criminal should be executed at all.

It does make me question the principles by which our society is said to operate, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, when our society so clearly does not live up to these principles. It pays lip service to them. It puts them on TV and we sit back and pretend it’s the reality. Yet I base much of my ethics and politics upon this set of principles that we supposedly live by, but really don’t. Why do I do that?

Skepticism, it’s unpleasant business. Ok…I’ll make up for it with a semi-relevant funny video. Really!

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