…because it is too easy to convict an innocent man, never mind that the amount of killing a society voluntarily undertakes is perhaps the best measure of its barbarism. If even one person were mistakenly killed by the judicial system, that’s enough for me to say it ought to be banned.
As Convicting the Innocent by Brandon L Garrett, a University of Virginia law professor, (reviewed by Jeffrey Rosen in the Sunday NYT’s Book Review) makes clear, there have been a great many more than only one person wrongly convicted and sentenced to die, and that’s of the relatively recent cases. There’s no telling how many more in the past have been executed by the judicial system for crimes they didn’t commit. As the accumulating DNA exonerations reveal, there are a great many wrongly-convicted souls in the criminal justice system.
It’s been proved time and again that intense interrogation can produce a confession of guilt, even by a suspect that is completely innocent of the crime. The ancient Hebrews got it about right in the Talmud when they barred from evidence any admission of guilt by the accused. They believed that ordinary, sane people would not testify against their self-interest, so considered a confession of guilt by the accused to lack probative value.
Yet these coerced confessions are often all that the judicial system in the US relies upon in sending a man to jail, or even death row. This is barbaric in the extreme, even ignoring the reality that minorities, particularly blacks, comprise a far larger percent of those wrongly accused and convicted than their representation in the population at large would indicate should be the case.
The reality of how easy it is to coerce a confession out of an innocent man ought also give the lie to the usefulness of torture in extracting information from enemy combatants. Torture a man (or for that matter, statistics) long enough and intensely enough, and pretty much anything you wish to hear or see will come tumbling out. If an innocent man will admit his guilt under the relatively gentle pressure of police interrogation, a tortured terrorist would likely tell the interrogator whatever he thinks will make the pain, and the interrogator, go away. The thin reed upon which the torture of terrorist suspects is justified is the expeditious manner with which information can be gathered, but if the information thereby gained is worthless, the justification disappears. Because the only way to know whether information gained from torture is valuable or worthless is by the self-serving reports of those doing the torturing, the better practice would be to abandon it altogether.
If it is true that a man is innately endowed with the right to his life, to his liberty, and to the pursuit of happiness as he sees fit, his killing without justification, is an abomination, and is patently immoral. The only viably-defensible individual justification for killing is self-defense, and what is morally improper for the individual should not become morally acceptable just because a group of individuals conspire to it. So government killing, except in self-defense, is morally indefensible, and especially so when done on the basis of a system that produces mistakes and outright frauds at the rate that obtains within the criminal justice system.
It occurred to me that Mr. Garrett’s book would provide a good foundation for a cop show on television, only this time the cops aren’t cast as heroes toeing the thin blue line between anarchy and civilization, but are as barbaric and anti-social as the criminals they chase, and as lazy about discovering truth as is the average couch potato watching the show. It could be billed as reality TV.