Life Without Parole

So. Dzokhar Tsarnaev has been convicted on all thirty counts in the Boston Marathon Bombing and (closer still to home), the murder of MIT police officer Sean Collier.


Now for sentencing, in which the grotesquely termed “Death Qualified Jury”™ will decide between execution and life without parole.

Like an overwhelming majority of my Boston neighbors, I am opposed to the death penalty for Tsarnaev, as I am in all cases.  Three reasons:

1.  Error or malice.  It is hardly news to anyone reading this that police and prosecutors f**k up.  Death at the hands of the state not only renders those errors permanently uncorrectable.  As a citizen in whose name the state kills, I can’t accept that moral burden.


That some cases, like Tsarnaev’s, are open and shut doesn’t alter the moral and practical force of the argument above, I think. The moment you introduce discretion into death penalty jurisprudence, you re-open the opportunity for error or malice to kick in..  If the standard is overwhelming obviousness, then who decides; who processes the evidence in support of that definition, and so on.  The only way to be certain you’re not killing innocents is not to kill anyone under the cover of state-imposed penalties.

If that makes me soft, so be it.

2.  Soft or not, I’m vengeful, too.   To my mind, LWOP is a fate worse than death.  Because I do not believe in an afterlife, the only punishments that matter, like the only rewards, are those we receive in this life.  Fifty years in a maximum or super-max prison is, to me, a much more thorough and exemplary penalty than oblivion.

3.  I’m practical.  See reason one.  Cops and government lawyers f**k up.  We kill their errors and the urgency of addressing particular patterns of incompetence, indifference, and outright viciousness diminishes.  Patterns of bad behavior and unjust outcomes become much harder to discern.  Any hope, slim as it may be, of creating a better, more justice-driven law-enforcement system, evaporates when the living reasons to address current injustices disappear.  If we want to make things better, we need not to kill the people whom the system failed.  Simple as that.

One more thing:  I’m not non-violent.  But I’m anti-violence.  The fact that we (in theory) surrender to the state a monopoly on violence means that we need to hedge that power around with a mighty wall.  Not killing those in our power, even the most evil, is part of that wall.  Whether the more pragmatic arguments above carry greater weight some days than others, at bottom there is a moral imperative that I can’t find a way to avoid:  when we, or I, don’t need to kill, choosing to do so anyway is wrong.

Me being me, I could go on, but that there’s the gist.

What do y’all think?

Image:  Caravaggio, Salome with the head of John the Baptist, before 1610.

Explore posts in the same categories: Crime, Things that actually matter

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3 Comments on “Life Without Parole”

  1. mihipte Says:

    First of all, I’m a utilitarian. This has little effect at a small scale, because my highest ideal is the survival of humanity and very few things threaten that. At a large scale, I end up sounding really callous. I believe in optimizing systems such that we don’t kill each other off or exhaust our resources.

    Killing our fellows has a psychic cost of eroding the conscience, so not doing it is preferable. The primary reason I generally agree with the death penalty is that I don’t want to spend resources on dead weight. We’ve removed these people from productive society to protect ourselves, and now they eat on everyone else’s tab. At a system level, the collateral damage of innocents executed isn’t compelling, unless there are other problems (like a police state or an overzealous court system).

    However, this argument would mean less to me if we shrunk the prison population by other means. We convict too many people, and the system encourages ex-convicts to get convicted again. Given a small enough death-worthy population, I would only care whether they were more afraid of living (like you) or of dying. I tend to think death is more fearsome to most people, and therefore a more effective deterrent against crime.

  2. mihipte Says:

    I had another thought:

    If life in prison is more frightening, why is it also more merciful to those wrongly convicted? Do you expect their exoneration to occur quickly enough that the time after prison will be more significant than the time in prison?

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