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Sunday, June 20th, 2010

Time Event
2:07p
The demand for perfection
Opponents of the death penalty say that the worst thing that could happen is that an innocent person might be put to death for a crime he did not commit. I agree. That would be terrible. This is why it is so difficult -- and ought to be -- to find someone guilty of a capital crime and to see the penalty enforced.

But this demand for perfection has two flaws to it. First, to hear some death penalty opponents say it, hordes of innocents are being put to death right and left. This is simply not true. In fact, I know of only one case in modern times where a significant number of reviewers thought that might be the case, and I know of no case in modern times where that has been proven conclusively. Of those exonerated by the Innocence Project through DNA evidence there have been, I think, five freed from death row. Total. So the chance of someone being put to death who is not guilty of the capital crime he was convicted of is very, very small. It's not at all like the loose bandying-about of slogans by the opponents of capital punishment would have you believe.

The other flaw in this argument is that we do not demand perfection in any other life and death situation. Consider the case of death by friendly fire in military operations. This, too, is terrible. But it happens. When we can assign blame for it happening, there are consequences for those whose error made it happen: careers are ended; courts martial are possible. But sometimes you can do everything right and still make tragic mistakes. That doesn't bring back the dead -- and it doesn't make those who mistakenly took life feel any better -- but it happens.

Or take the day to day actions of police. How many people have lost their lives because they presented an object that looked like a gun to a policeman in a tense situation? Too many. And sometimes, consequences come here, too: careers are ended; disciplinary actions are possible; wrongful death lawsuits are a possibility; politicians lose elections. Yet sometimes you can do everything right and still the unthinkable happens. None of this brings back the dead -- and it doesn't make those who mistakenly took life feel any better -- but it happens.

Or take a less violent encounter. Take surgery. People die in surgery, and sometimes it's because the surgeon made an error. Insurance companies investigate; if complaints are made, hospitals and medical associations inquire about it. Surgeons can be sued, can lose their licenses, can even be sent to jail for wrongful actions. Still, sometimes you do everything right, and still the wrong thing happens. None of this brings back the dead -- and it doesn't make those who mistakenly took life feel any better -- but it happens.

The opponents of capital punishment insist upon absolute perfection in death penalty cases. But nowhere else in life is there such a guarantee, even in other circumstances where we seek results as close to perfection as we possibly can. Somehow, we have developed ways to deal with the consequences of tragic error, and we accept both the errors and the means of redress for the errors without ceasing all military actions, all police use of weapons, all high-risk surgeries.

When the opponents of capital punishment say that we should never enforce the death penalty because of the possibility of making a mistake, they misstate the risk of that happening and they erect a standard they themselves do not expect in any other, similar situation. They are asking us to make social policy decisions based upon hyperbole, rather than reason.

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