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Conservatives should oppose death penalty

Terry Garlock's picture

Now that Troy Anthony Davis is executed and debates over his case are moot, perhaps my fellow conservatives will listen to reasons we should oppose the death penalty.

As conservatives we strongly believe each individual should bear the consequences of their actions, including severe punishment for crimes. For decades I supported the death penalty and came to my reversal slowly, and reluctantly, so I hope you will hear me out.

While I have doubts about deterrence, I do believe the death penalty serves a useful purpose of just retribution for egregious crimes. Victims deserve that retribution, and the death penalty would rid us of criminals who have earned the ultimate punishment were it not for eternal delays.

I’ll go even further. As a conservative meany, I even like the radical idea that people who commit heinous murder deserve to be put to death the very same way they killed their victims. I might even volunteer to pull the trigger, swing the blade, throw the switch or plunge the needle to carry out the sentence if only we knew guilt with absolute certainty.

But we don’t.

Like many of you, in my youth I naively believed our judicial system searched for and found the truth. I used to believe if you were innocent, you had nothing to worry about, but even though I’m not an attorney, my work has brought me in close contact with the criminal and civil judicial system and I now know better.

Our judicial system is set up as an adversarial contest with each side pulling every trick they can get away with to win. If you are charged with a capital crime, you would be very fortunate to afford the best defense counsel in her thousand dollar shoes, million dollar smile and legions of associates researching every possible move on your behalf. If you have a public defender you may be screwed, never mind whether you are innocent or guilty.

We don’t get justice from our system, we get procedure and a fighting chance to win. If the truth is found along the way that’s nice but hardly necessary.

If you are like me, you are usually cheerleading prosecutors to nail dirtbag criminals to get them off the streets, especially since for every conviction a hundred others get away with their crimes.

And conviction is precisely what drives prosecution, not a noble quest to uncover the truth. A prosecutor doesn’t want to hear new snippets of evidence that suggest a defendant might not be guilty, he wants to know whether he can sell conviction to the jury, can he put a “win” on the scoreboard? A high win ratio may be a prosecutor’s ticket to higher office. Besides, protests of innocence are every defendant’s daily refrain, noise that prosecutors soon learn to ignore.

Wealthy defendants can hire pricey consultants to advise on jury selection to swing viewpoints to their side, design a defense style to appeal to certain jurors and transform the image of a thug defendant with a haircut, a well-cut suit and training on courtroom decorum. Image is everything to persuade the jury.

The prosecutor might prefer to push the jury’s emotional buttons with grisly photos of the victim rather than argue the finer points of forensic evidence; tedious facts can get so boring and emotions are a big part of juror decisions.

I remember a civil case long ago in which our decision not to sue was predicated on the highly technical nature of our facts, the low education level of the jury pool in that remote jurisdiction, and we would have been the smart-alecks in suits from the big city going after a local defendant, a losing proposition.

The truth is sometimes tedious, not always enough to overcome appealing appearances. In a criminal case, incriminating technical details are nice but a prosecutor wants hot-button issues that capture juror feelings.

In the battle for favor with the jury, attorneys on both sides might make straight-faced arguments they cannot possibly believe, and if they somehow had to switch roles I’m sure they could pick up the other side’s arguments without missing a lick because their role is to advocate for their client, whoever that client may be.

If all this sounds too much like selling soap instead of a dispassionate search for truth, you’re getting the point.

In fact, while law professors might explain a dozen reasons I am wrong, in some ways our system works against finding the truth.

Arresting officers are required to advise suspects to keep silent. Confessions are kept from the jury if someone did not follow the rules to have attorneys help the defendant devise a cover story before spilling the beans. In some circumstances if a defendant blurts out the truth a judge might stop proceedings to direct counsel to advise his client not to do something so drastic.

If you are thinking those are some of the reasons we should even more swiftly carry out a death penalty, please consider the same type of truth-twisting games are played on the prosecution side.

They can induce testimony favorable to “the people” by offering leniency to suspects or convicts. They can pressure a defendant to flip on a superior with implied threats to prosecute others the defendant cares about or fears. Sometimes prosecutors fudge on disclosing to the defense exculpatory facts or witnesses, as required by the Brady rule, named after a 1963 Supreme Court case.

And while we all know the phrase “presumed innocent,” the reality is most citizens – like jurors – presume just the opposite, quietly thinking, “Why would the police arrest and the prosecutor bring a case against an innocent man?”

The battle in a courtroom is not really over the truth, it is a struggle of each side trying their best to win, and there is no assurance that truth will prevail. Maybe a more sober and honest prelude to a trial would be, “Let the games begin!”

Don’t get me wrong, I think our system gets it mostly right, but the word “mostly” and “death penalty” should never be in close proximity.

What America introduced to the world a couple hundred years ago was the sanctity of the individual and mistrust of the state. As conservatives we are vigilant for government mistreatment of individuals, and we should not endorse the state killing a convict unless a conviction is airtight, absolutely certain. How can we know that from a competitive contest in which the skill of your attorney depends on the depth of your pocket?

Even though far too many cretins get away with their crimes, a few defendants are wrongly convicted. Scores of convicts have been exonerated in recent years when proven not guilty by DNA or other new evidence, some of them from death row. Surely there are more.

If you observed that on death row most can fairly be called human debris deserving the ultimate punishment that awaits them, I would agree with you, but there’s that troubling word “most” again and I suspect there may be a few who actually were wrongly convicted.

Since we cannot know with certainty, we should let all convicts rot in prison and take no chance of giving the state our approval to kill just one innocent person.

That doesn’t mean I think Troy Anthony Davis was innocent. I assume he was guilty, but I don’t know with certainty and neither does the state that killed him.

[Terry Garlock lives in Peachtree City and occasionally contributes a column to The Citizen. His email is]


Dondol's picture

With the cost well over 70,000.00 a year to keep these people incarcerated
(in prison) I think it is a travesty for someone to set on Death row for 20
years while the Victims are long ago dead and forgotten about. Bring back
Public Hangings and no more than 2 years on Death row.
Now, let the whining begin.

Dondol - I think you missed the point of the essay. How would speeding up the time to execution help make sure we only executed people who were guilty?

Busy Bee's picture

I'm all for executing the Ted Bundys and Jeffrey Dahmers of the world(although Dahmer never lived long enough to be executed - his guards turned their back for a minute and another prisoner took care of him). But I do think it's important to MAKE SURE WE HAVE THE RIGHT GUY! And we should reserve the ultimate punishment for the most heinous of criminals.

As Terry so eloquently says, our justice system, while very good, is not always perfect. We should demand that the system work perfectly for the times that we impose an irrevocable punishment. If we execute the wrong man, we aren't just screwing him over, we also aren't providing justice to the victim of the crime.

Thank you for the thoughtful essay. I agree completely.

BHH's picture

they don't convict, much less execute.

So how much of an attorney does it take to produce a shadow of doubt for someone who is not guilty?


I'd say the answer is "Not much, provided all the facts are known and presented clearly so jurors understand. Unless one wants to indict our entire justice system and impugn the intelligence and integrity of jurors, we should have faith that the right decisions are made in the majority of cases. Once convicted, sentencing is a different issue, with maybe both Judge and Jury having some input. It's surely a thorny issue, with plenty for all sides to get worked up about. I don't think I'll do that just yet.

reasonable doubt is. If you dont want to convict unless you are "certain" tens of thousands of people would be getting away with crimes every year. Certainty is impossible, which is why that is not the standard, being convinced of guilt "beyond a reasonable doubt" is. and its not up to just one person, its up to 12, who must unanimously agree. How exactly is sending someone to prison for life without the possibility for parole somehow morally okay in your book but a death sentance isint. Injustice is injustice. plain and simple, so your "convict them if you're not sure but dont kill them" stance really isint much more than conveniently riding the fence to make it sound like you have some moral objection, but in truth you dont care, you just want to feel good about yourself and feel superior to others by saying you oppose the death penalty. If you REALLY objected on sincere moral grounds then you would oppose all conviction that werent "certain," not just the ones that had death on the line. Somethings either wrong or its not. You cant say "well its wrong to convict an innocent person but since they wont get put to death i can still sleep at night" and then tout your high moral standards to strangers.
Yes, some people in the Troy Davis case recanted. But why is a recantation, not under oath, suddenly more reliable than the sworn testimony that they gave? Why is a recantation, years and decades after the event, suddenly more reliable than statements made at the time of the murder? Why is a recanters current statements, suddenly reliable when they are basically admitting they lied the first time, or made it up, when a mans life was on the line? If they lied then or made it up, whats to prove they arent lying or making it up now? Where is your "certainly" then Garlock? I gurantee that if the D.A. decided to charge those recanters with purgery (spelling?) they would remember their origional testimony PDQ.

I know the arguments for and against capital punishment ranging from cost of incarceration versus cost of appeals all the way to avenging a crime versus the sanctity of life.

My argument against the death penalty is for universal prison reform to make the prison system a highly controlled for profit work for ammenities system.

Bring back the chain gangs, do away with migrant agricultural workers. Have prison systems PROVIDE for the community. Prisoners can do all sorts of manual labor and other services outside as well as inside the prisons. Even in their own cell. The most hardened serial killer can still fold underwear. Prisoners who don't want to work don't have to. They can sit in their 8'x4' cell for 22 hours a day with 2 hours of spartan yard time and access to library books.

What it comes down to is with 2 million people in prison, why are tax payers paying for it? Can't we create jobs inside of controlled environments for the majority of those people who can turn a profit which will be used to offset our taxes and pay off the national debt?

Why waste the resources by killing members of this free workforce?

Oh. But it would be unconstitutional to withhold "rights" like T.V. and being lazy from prisoners, and it would be too much work upfront to set anything like this up. So never mind.

tgarlock's picture

. . . and other methods of getting useful work out of convicts. I like the idea of picking crops. I confess to not knowing the practical limits of this, but prisoner rights or other progressive sensitivities would not get my vote.

Some of you read my column as being soft on convicts. I don't think so. My point is the legal system can be ugly and I don't trust the state with something so serious and irrevocable as execution. But if there is a practical way to get work out of convicts, I would vote to chain-em-up and load the shotguns!

Terry Garlock, PTC

that retired military personnel should be put to work to earn their lifetime pensions and medical benefits! But, I think putting them on the chain gang goes too far! Given their patriotism and love of country, most retired military personnel should be willing to do odd jobs around this great nation to help pay for the great mass of unfunded lifetime handouts from the taxpayers! But chain gangs, that's beyond the pale!

Turns out the Braves aren't so Brave after all--total collapse! I'm surprise the stadium didn't cave in!

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