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Philosophical question of the day


 

Colby Cosh, writing a few weeks ago about the government’s shift on clemency policy.

The Conservative policy, in a nutshell, is that Canada no longer executes people, or participates in executions by means of extradition, but that the right of other countries to punish serious crimes on their soil in such a manner will be respected, if the punishment is imposed according to the rule of law and norms of due process. This respect is no more than we ask for ourselves when we try a foreign national here … it is plain that a trial can be substantially fair and still result in an execution; that it is better for a country to kill a few murderers fairly than it is to imprison people unjustly, or permit lynching; and that the U.S. justice system is, on the whole, vastly superior to those of Turkmenistan or Nepal — where capital punishment has been abolished — and closer in spirit to our own. Note that even though DNA has been sequenceable for decades now, capital punishment opponents in the U.S. still have not found their smoking gun: the name of a single American individual who, in modern times, is certain to have been wrongly executed.

On that count, then, what bearing should the case of Cameron Todd Willingham have on the government’s position?


 

Philosophical question of the day

  1. "…capital punishment opponents in the U.S. still have not found their smoking gun: the name of a single American individual who, in modern times, is certain to have been wrongly executed."

    That statement is simply moronic. DNA tests can't be performed after a person is executed because once the person is dead there is no one with legal standing to seek a court order to release the blood samples needed to do such testing.

    The point is that so many people–who would have otherwise been executed–have been innocent by DNA testing that it's nearly impossible to believe that people weren't wrongfully executed before such tests existed.

  2. Oops, should have included the full quote…

    "Note that even though DNA has been sequenceable for decades now, capital punishment opponents in the U.S. still have not found their smoking gun: the name of a single American individual who, in modern times, is certain to have been wrongly executed."

  3. it is plain that

    1) "a trial can be substantially fair and still result in an execution" – true

    2) "that it is better for a country to kill a few murderers fairly than it is to imprison people unjustly or permit lynching"

    wtf???, where does this tradeoff emerge from exactly?

    3) "and that the U.S. justice system is, on the whole, vastly superior to those of Turkmenistan or Nepal"

    so… killing the guilty ill no longer be judged on the moral grounds but just the technical merits of the legal system????

    • Colby cheese is a cow's milk cheese. It was originally called Colby "Swiss" Cheddar.
      A cosh is a blunt metal stick used as a weapon, also known as a blackjack.

      — Wikipedia

      So could it be that Colby Cosh is a cheesy writer whose logic is full of holes and whose style is bluntly malevolent ?

    • I don't see that it's difficult to understand where the "tradeoff" comes from. The premise of the Liberal case against Conservative clemency policy is that the presence of the death penalty in a legal system is a consideration that blots out any procedural merits that system might have or any other rights guarantees it might offer. But almost no one would really prefer a thoroughly corrupt or authoritarian country to a free one with an independent judiciary that executed some murderers after giving them fair trials and multiple avenues of appeal.

      The answer to the question posed in the main entry is: "the number of fatal mistakes a country with an otherwise strong, fair-minded judiciary might be prone to is definitely very relevant." The defenders of the Willingham prosecution and verdict have certainly done a poor enough job so far to call my untimely boast into question. That Willingham might have been innocent is of concern to me. But, ironically, if you believe a priori that no murderer deserves to die at the hands of the state, it doesn't make any difference at all whether he was "innocent" or "guilty"; the sin of capital punishment is equally grievous in either case.

    • 1) Obviously.

      2) There is no "tradeoff". Of course it's better to serve the death penalty to the guilty than to imprison the innocent.

      3) Some of the "moral grounds" upon which "killing the guilty" are to be judged will necessarily include the "technical merits of the legal system". That is to say, when considering the morality of the death penalty, the law and the legal process are fundamental.

      • 2) the trade off was not my suggestion Justin, it was how Colby seemed to represent our choices on this matter.

        3) I have to disagree. as per Colby's own reply to my comment, with few exceptions those that stand against the death penalty do not care if the system is technically sound. they care that it kills people.

      • 2) the trade off was not my suggestion Justin, it was how Colby seemed to represent our choices on this matter.

        3) I have to disagree. as per Colby's own reply to my comment, with few exceptions those that stand against the death penalty do not care if the system is technically sound. they care that it kills people.

  4. it is plain that

    1) "a trial can be substantially fair and still result in an execution" – true

    2) "that it is better for a country to kill a few murderers fairly than it is to imprison people unjustly or permit lynching"

    wtf???, where does this tradeoff emerge from exactly?

    3) "and that the U.S. justice system is, on the whole, vastly superior to those of Turkmenistan or Nepal"

    so… filling the guilty ill no longer be judged on the moral grounds but just the technical merits of the legal system????

  5. With some exceptions, I've always believed the onus to lie on individual Canadians abroad to obey foreign laws, and to face the consequences should they violate them. Including the death penalty, in the case of a nation where a fair trail is assured.

    But the problem is, Harper has been using that same line of logic to explain his government's inaction in many cases where corruption or questionable legal systems are reasonably a factor.

    While I have no qualms about a trial in the United States, I'm not about to extend the same faith to the military prosecutions since 9/11, for example. Same goes for anyone charged in Mexico. And that Harper tried to defend their handling of Muhamud's case with similar logic is appalling.

    So while I have no problem with the central thesis of Cosh's piece, I think there's a broader context to these things that cannot be ignored.

  6. With some exceptions, I've always believed the onus to lie on individual Canadians abroad to obey foreign laws, and to face the consequences should they violate them. Including the death penalty, in the case of a nation where a fair trail is assured.

    But the problem is, Harper has been using that same line of logic to explain his government's inaction in many cases where corruption or questionable legal systems are reasonably a factor.

    While I have no qualms about a trial in the United States, I'm not about to extend the same faith to the military prosecutions since 9/11, for example. Same goes for anyone charged in Mexico. And that Harper tried to defend their handling of Mohamud's case with similar logic is appalling.

    So while I have no problem with the central thesis of Cosh's piece, I think there's a broader context to these things that cannot be ignored.

    • I haven't read the Willingham story yet — not time for 17 pages until later — but did his defense lawyer manage to stay awake through the whole trial? That was the first question that occurred to me when I heard "death penalty", and that's even before Texas was confirmed to me…

      And I'm not (just) being cynical, it's a real question, unfortunately.

  7. But it doesn't "respect" them. The policy is specifically to demand clemency (to ask that our law, not yours, be applied) whether you're the United States or just a country that handles these things through the ol' "killed trying to escape" method.

    • respectfully, I disagree Colby.

      it is possible to disaggregate those systems we respect (e.g., the US) and those we don't (e.g., Mexico) based on how we treat the rulings. For example, Brenda Martin was sentenced to 5 years in Mexican prison plus a fine. While I am not sure on the fine, she was released upon extradition on parole. I think we would all agree that the Mexican system is not without problems, and hence we did not enforce a penalty consistent with the Mexican judgment.

      This is easily distinguished from the more traditional cases in the US and other countries where we simply ask that Canadians not be executed or be allowed to serve their sentences here or both. in the death penalty cases the sentence is commuted to the seemingly world-wide (among countries with a non-corrupt system) non-death-inducing equivalent: life (however technically specified) in prison. given that this occurs in the same context of prisoner transfers, which are guided by the International Transfer of Offenders Act based on agreements signed with the countries and includes us transferring prisoners to their 'home countries' as well. given the above, it is difficult, to accept this as a sign of 'disrespect' for the US or other countries' judicial system writ large in traditional transfer cases. it is easy, however, to accept it as a sign of both a collaborative approach to difficult legal issues/questions and as an indication that we do not support one aspect of other legal systems: capital punishment as proscribed in law as retribution.

  8. "Note that even though DNA has been sequenceable for decades now, capital punishment opponents in the U.S. still have not found their smoking gun: the name of a single American individual who, in modern times, is certain to have been wrongly executed."

    Colby, ever heard of the Illinois' moratorium on death penalties imposed by Governor Ryan? The Governor put a stop to executions when it was discovered that 13 inmates who were on death row were, in fact, innocent. Read up on the Anthony Porter case.

    How anyone can make such a statement when we in Canada have first hand experience with wrongful convictions is beyond me. The fact of the matter is that however fair the US justice system may be, it is NOT infallible. The possibility of executing innocents is a reality that cannot be ignored. That's why Canada has a duty to intercede on behalf of its citizens against such a barbaric custom.

    No civilized nation should allow its government to kill its citizens. That we would still be debating this is just plain ridiculous…

    • No civilized nation should IMPRISON the innocent, either. How many innocent people are currently incarcerated? Are you trying to tell me that it only becomes an issue because the state kills a few of them? Nope. One could argue (maybe successfully, maybe not) that all the hurdles that the American justice system throws up against ITSELF before a capital case makes it to the executioner means that a wrongly convicted innocent person may enjoy a greater likelihood of going free if it were a capital case.

  9. People make choices. I know, I did, to emigrate from Britain which does not have the death penalty to Kentucky USA which does. However I can also choose not to murder. I do not say that facetiously – we could all kill, but the sort of murder(s) that could lead to the death penalty are those where I would have to make a choice, i.e. really bad ones.
    As a Kentucky resident I have to accept the laws of this state and cannot expect the British government to "bail me out" if I break them. Murder is wrong, wherever it is committed and everyone knows it is.

    It is right that every country should look out for the rights of its citizens both at home and abroad, particularly if they are facing the most serious charges that could lead to a sentence of death or life in prison. But surely the right to a fair trial is what we are talking about here rather than the right to be excused a just punishment, simply because the Canadian (or European) government is anti death penalty. Every country should take steps to ensure that its nationals are not tortured into false confessions and are properly represented by suitably qualified attorneys at every stage of the process.

    In reality very few people get sentenced to death in the US – just 115 in 2007. Even fewer get executed – it may get to 50 or 55 this year. Everyone sentenced to death is permitted proper appeals. There is certainly no rush to judgment and execution. But if one commits the worst of crimes there is not a choice of being executed or set free in any country in the world. Rather it is a choice between being executed or serving up to the rest of one's life in prison.

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