Capital Punishment Only Makes Sense To People Who Don't Get Speeding Tickets
The O Pine

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© 2003 Brian F. Schreurs
Even we have a disclaimer.

Fight tickets even if you deserve them -- it keeps the cops off the street.
Let's face it: criminals suck. It's good when they get caught, better when they get themselves killed. But to take these obvious truths and extend them to capital punishment -- allowing our government to kill criminals for us -- may be extending them too far. Doing so places complete faith in the rightness of a single critical assumption: that the justice system never makes mistakes.

Most of the time we all play along with the belief that our justice system is effective and honest, even as we complain out of the other side of our mouth about celebrity trials, big-money buyoffs, and white-collar prisons. We, for the most part, accept that a criminal verdict is correct: that a person found guilty of murder is a murderer, that a person found guilty of DUI is a drunk driver. So it causes us no great heartburn that criminals convicted of capital offenses receive the capital punishment they so rightly deserve.

Well, that is, unless you've got a few speeding tickets under your belt. Then, if you really think about it, you might find some nagging doubts.

Time spent in municipal court is an exercise in judiciary madness: a neverending stream of riffraff inventing the most madcap excuses imaginable to avoid paying a generally minor fine for an insignificant infraction of the law. People show up dressed for a beach party, incriminate themselves seconds after pleading not guilty, tell bald-faced lies in the face of overwhelming evidence, ridicule the judge and the officer, beg, cry, and -- a personal favorite -- threaten to sue. If judges believe in hell, their hell probably looks like traffic court with an infinite docket of stop-sign runners.

Yet, despite what must be the experience of thousands of cases, traffic court returns the wrong verdict with astonishing frequency. Perhaps it's the cynicism on the bench that makes it so difficult to find exoneration in the face of wrongful charges, perhaps it's just a symptom of an overburdened system. Whatever the cause, for every two or three correct verdicts there seems to also be one incorrect.

Oddsmakers may applaud the 3-to-1 or 4-to-1 ratio of correct versus incorrect verdicts, but one can be sure the odd man out isn't going to be pleased by his new situation. Three years of increased insurance costs for something he didn't do? Multiply that disgruntled citizen by the dozens that must be churned out every day in each courtroom around the country, and it's understandable why so many people opt to pay the fine by mail rather than bother going to court, where they'll likely just be convicted anyway.

Collect a couple of these wrongful convictions for essentially minor violations of the law, and it's easy to see the seeds of doubt planted in the minds of the citizens. If the government can't even manage to sort out a speeding ticket correctly, what hope is there that they're any better with far more complex crimes?

The conclusion is obvious: our justice system is flawed, eager to mete out punishment to those they suspect are guilty even if, you know, they're not completely sure about it. Those who favor hyperbole might, at this point, shout out: "Well why don't you just shut down the courts and throw open the jails!" But such an assertion is not the intent here. Some sort of justice system is necessary for the continued functioning of society, and though our system is not perfect, we seem to not have a better solution at the ready. Ours does do a reasonable job most of the time, and so long as we recognize its weaknesses and strive to improve it, that is all we can ask.

But is that enough to entrust the justice system with the life of a person who we cannot ever know beyond a doubt to be guilty? This same system that cannot seem to get a speeding ticket right? With capital punishment, we ask the government to kill a person for us, a person that we don't really know for sure ought to be killed, someone who could be as innocent of wrongdoing as the poor slob who got zapped with a miscalibrated radar gun.

Now, the person could be guilty as hell, but the point is that we don't know most of the time. Most of the time, we have nothing but a really good guess. Sometimes it's not even all that good of a guess.

When one starts thinking about a government having carte blanche permission to kill citizens on the basis of a really good guess, it ought to make one at least as irritated as having to pay increased insurance premiums for three years.

People who have spent little time at the hands of our justice system may be quick to challenge the notion that wrongful convictions could be any significant percentage of inmates, but those who have fought speeding tickets know better. Surely, there are a few cases out there where the evidence is so overwhelming that it can be safely said there is no chance of a wrongful conviction. But to use them as support for capital punishment is to answer the wrong question: not how many criminals can we kill, but how many citizens can we avoid killing. How many wrongfully convicted citizens must make that final march before the price is too high for killing any convicted criminal?

Unfortunately, the very nature of the question makes it difficult to answer what price has been paid already. It is very difficult to overturn the conviction of a dead man. Perhaps it would be better to shorten the lead we've given our government, to demand a higher standard from our justice system before allowing the government to kill those it guesses are probably criminals.

If you won't think about it now, then think about it next time you find yourself ticketed for running a red light that you know for certain was yellow.