The old joke has the man who murdered both of his parents beg the court for mercy because he’s an orphan.
Clarence Ray Allen’s legal pleas remind me of that black junior high school humor. Allen is asking courts to declare that executing an old, sick man is cruel and unusual punishment. Of course, he’s only old and able to be sick because he’s worked the justice system for 20-some-odd years. He’s aged to a normal life expectancy since being convicted of murdering a witness to a previous murder he committed. That he is infirm is a function of his long life and not a mitigating factor in his crime.
Unfortunately, death penalty opponents have leapt on the infirmities sophistry. By grasping at a plausible-sounding argument, applying it inappropriately, and twisting logic into nonsense, they destroy their moral stand.
Make no mistake: opposition to the death penalty can be a principled, ethical stance. It is not the majority opinion in California, but it most certainly deserves respect and repeated consideration.
However, the one-off, personal appeal-based “just spare this death-row inmate” show we see in the Allen case is both ineffective and makes legitimate reconsideration of the death penalty more unlikely. Coupled with the Stanley Williams Hollywood media bonanza, death penalty opponents suddenly have given up the high ground. They’re joining in a circus trying to play tricks on public opinion.They’re using disingenuous heart-string-tugging stories in order to make the public like some men who are basically evil, ugly, and not fit for society.
What a stupid thing to do! It won’t work. It shouldn’t work.
I have long thought that death penalty opponents have a strong case. There are the issues of residual doubt, unequal application of the penalty on minorities, and, ultimately, the moral authority to take another human’s life. These are important issues — when I think about them, it is difficult for me to support capital punishment. I have repeatedly voted against extending the death penalty to more crimes, and have been comfortable opposing execution in general.
Doubt, fairness, and morality are the important arguments. They’re the ones to go to the mat for. They’re the ones to stand at the gates of San Quetin for. They are valid arguments against injecting Allen. In fact, they are the only arguments against execution of any of these unsavory convicted killers.
The loser “old and sick” pleas defocus the ethical debate. It lets the pro-death penalty side seem reasonable.