Thursday, 24 August 2006

Rex Haig conviction: what does it say about capital punishment?

The release of Rex Haig might cause some of you advocates of capital punishment to have a rethink. Let Nick Kim's cartoon make my point:

At least, it should cause you to rethink. Shouldn't it? No argument that murders forfeit any rights to their own life, of course they do, but the nature of our criminal justice system is that mistakes will happen, and even the best criminal justice systems have a history of such mistakes, and innocent people are convicted.

"The problem involved," suggested Nathaniel Branden some years back, "is that of establishing criteria of proof so rationally stringent as to forbid the possibility of convicting an innocent man." And the problem is that no criminal justice system, however good, can provide such a guarantee. It is not epistemologically possible -- that is, the nature of knowledge makes such a guarantee impossible.

In a nutshell: It's hard to give an innocent man his life back when you've already taken it in error. And it's impossible not to make errors.

(I participated in a valuable online debate on this matter a year or so back. Have a peek if you want more of the argument.)

Oh, and let me just give my best wishes to Mr Haig. I hope you can now get on with getting your life back.

LINKS: Rex Haig conviction quashed by Court of Appeal - NZ Herald
Capital punishment - online debate at SOLOHQ

RELATED: Law, Cartoons, Politics-NZ


  1. Anybody who argues for capital punishment argues from the point of view that it acts as a deterrent to murder.

    That is if you are caught you could be facing a death penalty.

  2. You may argue it how you like, but the fact remains that every regime of capital punishment kills innnocent people, and you can't wish that fact away.

  3. That has always been the strongest argument against the death penalty.

    I've always thought a true life sentence was a far worse punishment than a quick death. Also the US experience shows it's actually a lot cheaper to lock a person up than it is to run a death penalty case to its ultimate conclusion.

  4. Peter - if saving innocent lives is the object, and it should be, would you support the death penalty if it could be shown to save them? Recent research in the US (where the differences between juristictions allow such comparisons) shows that this is indeed the case. And, hold on to your seat, the numbers are absolutely amazing - the estimate is that around 14 innocents are saved per execution! If that is true then opposition to the death penalty is misguided.

  5. Anonymous - not entirely true. You could argue for it on the grounds of 'incapacitation' too! That is, a dead killer is not going to kill again.

  6. We can of course restrict capital punishment to cases where there's no arguing about the facts.

    Caught in the act for example with witnesses other than the police.

  7. We can of course restrict capital punishment to cases where there's no arguing about the facts.

    Caught in the act for example with witnesses other than the police.

    No such thing, of course.

    I'm of the opinion that the state should not be killing any citizen for any reason. Even if the cost of imprisonment is higher, the state must always maintain a basic moral baseline. Killing someone, regardless of the crime or certainty of their guilt shouldn't be a factor.

    Just my view though.. :)

  8. Berend - to qualify what I said about your post. What if the criminal was insane at the time, or someone threathened to kill his/her family unless they did this horrible thing, etc etc.

    My point is you're going to have to decide what facts are actually known, which isn't much better.

  9. Sean, you pose an interesting challenge - and I note that Gary Becker discussed this point last year on his blog, and he was in favour.

    After some overnight thought, for mine there is still an enormous difference between what we might call a 'sin of omission' of the state in failing to deter a murder by not treating other murders harshly, and the state committing a specific 'sin of commission': namely, blithely and in cold blood killing all those who have been convicted of murder knowing that some proportion of those killed are entirely innocent.

    I don't know of any state I would trust with that power.

    Assuming for the sake of argument that the studies you cite are one-hundred percent true (as they may be for all I know), I guess here I come to those further objections I cite in that argument to which I linked in my post, specifically, the idea that the state should set itself up as a killer in cold blood, and in this case as a killer based on some sort of 'calculus of corpses.'

    Given, as we all know, the tendency for the state to grow its powers beyond what it is originally allowed, I can see such a setup based on such a calculus being awfully dangerous.

    For instance, on another list that I frequent, a contributor has been (correctly) criticising religionists and George Bush for holding up stem cell treatments that should save lives, but then (incorrectly) calling the religionists 'murderers,' since people are dying while stem cell researchers are forced by the religionists' legal challenges to sit around and twiddle their thumbs.

    But using such a calculus as you propose would have all religionists (and George Bush) executed for holding up the research. After all, they're murderers too, right?

    Would you agree with that?

    And if you do, how about this: Similar arguments would exist for saying, for example, that those who had DDT banned -- which as you'll recall has led to the deaths of several million people due to malaria, which DDT had helped wipe out -- should also be in the gun (quite literally) for murdering all those people.

    If we use your 'calculus of corpses' method then surely Rachel Carson, Friends of the Earth, the World Wildlife Fund and the members of the United Nations Environment Programme should also be facing the chair?

    So then, knowing that the chances of restricting the use of capital punishment once instituted would be enormously difficult, are you still happy to propose capital punishment on those terms?

  10. Sean, another comment on that Becker thread is very relevant here. Again, let's assume for the sake of argument the validity of those studies

    Said commenter Justin:
    "Add to the hypothetical equations a very real number. For each innocent person convicted for a murder, a real murderer or murderers are free to kill or harm others again. Once the penalty has been carried out the search for the perpetrators will likely never begin again. This is rarely addressed by police, prosecutors or judges that are proponents of the death penalty.

    "However, an innocent man sentenced to life in prison may shout loud enough and long enough that someone will take notice and the investigation in to what really happened may take place. If this occurs, there is a chance that the real criminal may then be brought to justice at some point in the future. This chance seems to be virtually non-existent in the current system."

  11. Peter - I understand your objection about giving the state the power of life and death but isn't that power a basic feature of any state? Laws have to be enforced - sometimes using deadly force. Why else do we arm the police?

    To me, your argument smacks of "the perfect being the enemy of the good".

    I'm also a little suspicious of rhetoric like your "blithely and in cold blood killing all those who have been convicted of murder" - especially when I'm not proposing anything of the sort.

    It would not be done "blithely" - it would be done after "due process". It would not be done in "cold blood" - it would be done "humanely". And it would not be done to "all those convicted of murder" - it would only be done to those convicted of "premeditated murder".

    Surely, if individuals have a right to use deadly force to protect life and limb, then the state has that right too?

    As for your point about Bush etc. Sorry, but I don't see the connection between a discussion of state powers and responsibilities and the in/activism of individuals - however misguided.

    Besides, I don't see the funding of research as a fundamental responsibility of the state - do you? If the Human Genome Project is anything to go by (and it is)- we're be better off with private industry doing the job anyway.

    Finally, might I suggest that this is a subject best left to the will of the people? We should have a vote on it. I'm pretty sure how it would turn out - as do our 'rulers' - which is why it'll never happen!

  12. I'm appalled - NO COMPENSATION for 10 years of being wrongfully convicted!

    This is currently on the news, with the "official" announcement not expected until 3 pm today.

    What does this say about the rights of someone who is wrongfully convicted in this country??!!


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