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Opening Arguments

Frontier justice

On the occasion of the impending execution of murderer Eric Wrinkles, the Roman Catholic bishop for the Diocese of Evansville, where the crime took place, offers his thoughts on capital punishment and the protection of society:

Capital punishment demands the life of the criminal to protect the members of society. On the "frontier" many years ago, execution provided quick and final justice. That may have been necessary then, as there were no means to separate the criminal from society for a lifetime.

Frontier justice employs various means for killing criminals including hanging, firing squad, gas chamber or lethal injection. Death was inevitable. Society was protected.

It seems that we are still invoking frontier justice. Indiana is no longer the frontier. The state is able to protect its citizens from murderous criminals by separating them from society by sentencing them to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

However, one cannot ignore the reality that deep within the human being there is somehow a "blood lust" as ancient as human kind. Executions were made a public spectacle so as to teach a lesson, or worse were to satisfy base instincts for vengeance and retribution. They somehow gave approval, even applauded, the base instinct of hatred arising from ignorance and fear.

Ironically, executions are sanitized and are accomplished virtually in secret.

It's an undeniable point, I think, that capital punishment as it is carried out today is not a deterrent (except for the deterring of the particular individual subjected to the execution). "Frontier justice" did deter, because it was brutal, swift, sure and public. Today, capital punishment is slow, uncertain and, as the bishop points out, sanitized and virtually secret. Given my age, I'd die in prison before execution if I decided to commit murder.

So, do we want to make it a deterrent again? William F. Buckley once said something to the effect that we could easily end marijuana use (or maybe it was drug use in general) in this country -- just take every 10th user and execute them publically. However, he added, would we really want to live in a country like that?

In the absence of deterrence, can capital punishment still be justified? Anyone who has read this blog over the years knows I've been hot and cold on that issue. For the record, I think Indiana handles it pretty well, reserving it for the worst of the worst among murderers; there have to be additional circumstances beyond mere murder for someone to qualify. But should anyone qualify, given that life without parole is available? If we remove the ultimate punishment from the equation, is that the same as saying there is no ultimate crime, and does society want to say that?


Bob G.
Mon, 11/30/2009 - 1:04pm

I think the real answer, although more severe is a lot more palatable, socially-speaking.

Remove the criminal from the public...fine, OK.

Life time sentence = overcrowding and ever-rising costs.
Execution = cost-effectiveness all around.

Both solutions DO remove the criminal quite well, but one finalizes the equation, while the other defers it.

You also have to figure in plea bargains, appeals out the wazoo and other parameters that all go to ignore the aspect of a "swift" trial and sentencing.

Society might not "want" to say that, but they sure must be thinking it.

Interesting post...lots to ponder here.

Mon, 11/30/2009 - 1:08pm

" If we remove the ultimate punishment from the equation, is that the same as saying there is no ultimate crime..."
I have to take issue with your premise. Obviously, it isn't hard to think of punishments more severe than execution by lethal injection. Torture leaps to mind.
And regardless of the punishment, how does it follow that there is no ultimate crime (I assume you are using "ultimate" in a non-literal sense or "worst").
I can only speak for myself, but the reason I don't rape and murder is that those things are wrong. The threat of punishment doesn't enter my mind.
Apparently there are people who feel compelled to do those things, and I assume something is wrong with them. Until whatever that is can be fixed (maybe never), I simply want them quarantined someplace where they can't do those things to people like you and me.
Furthermore (again, speaking only for myself), if forced to chose between life in a penitentiary and a humane execution, I would choose the latter.
Capital punishment enthusiasts seem suspiciously bloodthirsty to me. I wonder how many of them would honestly be willing to insert the needle and pull the switch. I know they all *say* they would, but have they really thought about it? And how would that make them fundamentally different from the murderer they're murdering?
I couldn't do it. But as Bob has pointed out, I'm a little sissy.

Mon, 11/30/2009 - 1:14pm

Sorry Bob. Apparently we were posting at the same time. I didn't see your post until I had finished mine.
I have no argument with you except your assertion that executions are cheaper than life sentences. This has been studied a thousand times. The life sentence is cheaper.

Bob G.
Mon, 11/30/2009 - 2:36pm

Gee...$32K+ a YEAR per criminal (serving a life sentence)...as opposed to a few small vials of drugs (or a hangman's noose...or the electric chair...or a firing squad)...

Not seeing all that much SAVINGS with lifetime incarceration here...what say you, Tim?

Mon, 11/30/2009 - 4:50pm

Well, I should explain, although you could easily Google this for yourself.
Yes, the execution itself is inexpensive, but, unfortunately for you execution enthusiasts, the states require a trial, and in the case of capital punishment, at least one mandatory appeal. More appeals invariably follow. It runs into the millions.
At any rate, if cheapness is your criterion for dealing with social problems, then people appying for food stamps could simply be shot. Problem solved for the price of a bullet.
In fact, if we follow that line of thinking all the way, Obama's alleged "death panels" start to make sense. Imagine what we could save in Social Security and Medicare. I understand the Inuits simply use ice floes. That even saves the 75-cent bullet.
I've talked myself into it! Kill em all and cut taxes!

tim zank
Mon, 11/30/2009 - 7:32pm

What Littlejohn is saying is, political correctness, the shift in "victims rights" to "criminals rights" and of course the everpresent grandstanding of trial lawyers has produced a system that requires 20 years and eight gazillion dollars to carry out an execution.

Mon, 11/30/2009 - 9:33pm

I can't really argue with you, Tim. No doubt lawyers will argue a case to death, even when the defendant is very obviously guilty.
I know "empathy" is out of favor on the right, but what if you were wrongly convicted? Wouldn't you want a crusading lawyer who never gave up?
It does happen, you know. A few years ago, Texas executed a man wrongly convicted of killing his children by deliberately torching his own home. Everyone now concedes the prosecution's expert arson witness was wrong, and his erroneous testimony convinced the jurors.
If that doesn't strike you as horrible, you have no soul. Just one more appeal might have saved him.
In fact, the possibility of executing an innocent man is the principal reason I oppose capital punishment. It may be rare, but we know it has happened.

Lewis Allen
Tue, 12/01/2009 - 5:16am

" What Littlejohn is saying is, political correctness, the shift in