Today, I digress from my usual topic of sex offender registry reform and talk about another issue dogging criminal justice reform: the question of whether we, as an ostensibly “civilized” nation, should continue to kill people to teach them that killing people is wrong. 

For thousands of years, in various cultures around the world, human beings have sacrificed their fellow human beings to their gods hoping to curry favor, improve crop yields, or keep their religious elites in power. Today, we like to think that we’ve progressed beyond that sort of thinking and now enjoy a certain level of enlightenment, but have we really?

We live in a painfully imperfect world and our sometimes-incoherent judicial system magnifies every flaw in ways that can be incomprehensible to those who have not experienced it first-hand. One example: Some studies have shown that 8-12% of the people convicted of felonies in the United States may, in fact, be innocent. It is disturbing to think that this includes people who’ve been sentenced to die as punishment for their crimes. The Innocence Project has noted that for every ten people currently on death row, one has already been exonerated of their crime. How many more will turn out to be innocent? And more to the point, will their vindications come before or after their executions?

There are those who believe that because we live in an imperfect world, we should simply accept the notion that, in order to punish the guilty, some innocent people will have to die. I have personally spoken to individuals who feel that a ten-percent failure rate in our judicial system is an acceptable risk, if not an ideal one. It is, as some might say, the unavoidable collateral damage that one encounters in any war.  I, on the other hand, would submit that it is only unavoidable if you start with the premise that we must kill someone, leaving only the unenviable tasks of having to decide whom, why, and how.

If ten-percent is acceptable, how would you feel about twenty-percent? Or even fifty-percent? Where should we draw that line, if we draw one at all? What level of human sacrifice is acceptable to you in order to adequately appease the gods of vengeance?

While we’re asking tough questions, let’s take care that we don’t allow trendy euphemisms to cloud our reasoning ability. Whatever the actual number of executed innocents turns out to be, the truth of the matter is, it isn’t a “failure” rate at all. Let’s call it what it is:  It is a murder rate.  Murder is what we call it when you kill an innocent person.

Freddie Lee Pitts, a death row survivor, once said, “You can release an innocent man from prison, but you can’t release him from the grave.”  Executing a person is a “final solution” in search of a problem, deserving of all the sinister overtones the Nazis gave that phrase in the 1940s.

Once you decide that killing any number of innocent people is acceptable, then the central question becomes: What lesson are we teaching people by doing so?