The Nation: 7th May 2006
While The Nation is to be praised in raising the issue of capital punishment, which has great relevance to the Thai justice system, there are questions to be asked from a Thai perspective about opinions based on another culture. Capital punishment is rightly strongly debated within the US, but elements of that debate tend to dominate discussion elsewhere.
Gary Becker is a well known contributor to the debate and his usual stand is to discuss the economics of capital punishment. Well and good, for he is an economist. However, while retaining the core of his earlier arguments, he now writes under the banner of ‘morality’, and while economics is as remote from morality as physics or chemistry, we are still reminded that he is a Nobel Laureate in economics. Well, every man is entitled to his opinion, but it has little to do with morality. While rightly excluding ‘revenge and other possible motives’ he supports capital punishment only because he believes that it deters other murders. To contest this argument we would have to enter into the context of the US crime scene. Those more familiar with the practical aspects of crime in the US assert that, even in premeditated murder,
motivation does not depend on a balancing of the severity of capital punishment against the urge to kill. The belief of Becker is also contested by the results of a US research poll in 1995 which showed that the majority of police chiefs do not believe that the death penalty is an effective deterrent.
The views of Becker are opposed by other academics in the US who have access to related crime and judicial data. However, even at this distance from the scene, one can reject the non sequitur of Becker’s arguments: “Opponents of capital punishment frequently proclaim that the state has no moral right to take anyone’s life…. Yet that is absolutely the wrong conclusion for anyone who believes that capital punishment deters”.
“Absolutely”! And as far as moral argument goes, this is a mere repetition of the inadmissible principle that the end justifies the means.
But the most serious fault in Becker’s article follows his admission of worry about the risk of executing the innocent and his highly ingenuous statement that “there are very few, if any, documented cases of innocent people being killed”. If he cared to look he would have found documented cases. But it is true that there is little effort or resource to prove the innocence of those already executed. Instead, there is the declared innocence of 122 people waiting execution on death row. Becker excludes these people from his conclusion arguing that their exoneration mostly on DNA related evidence is a proof that the innocent escape execution. But how many others were not exonerated when the majority on death row do not have effective legal representation and when normal legal procedure leads inexorably to execution. And what of cases of conviction where there is no available DNA evidence? Of greater authority than Becker are the actions of Governor G. H. Ryan of Illinois who declared a moratorium on execution when he found that 13 of those on death row in his state were innocent; or the declaration of US District Judge Rakoff of New York that the federal death penalty is unconstitutional and violative of due process because it creates “an undue risk of executing innocent people”
Reflecting on the application of Becker’s ideas to Thailand we might propose that the danger of wrongful execution is certainly greater where confessions under torture are prevalent and where access to DNA evidence to exonerate the innocent is certainly extremely limited. Nevertheless, his affirmation that capital punishment should be limited to cases of murder is a worthy reminder that execution for drug crimes is not justifiable. Confident in the ‘enormous protection’ of the appeals process in the US he would also be appalled by the practice of extrajudicial execution. For the rest, the debate is best left to those who can and do counter Becker’s arguments on their local relevance.
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