Angels and America: The Inherent Immorality of Capital Punishment

The United States of America murdered an innocent man. But this is not the main reason we should be against capital punishment.


Carlos DeLuna was put to death in 1989 for a murder in Corpus Christi, Texas. The victim, Wanda Lopez, was stabbed once through her left breast with a lock-blade buck knife, on February 4, 1983. Severing an artery, Ms Lopez bled to death. DeLuna, found nearby hiding under a pickup truck, seemed the obvious perpetrator: He had been arrested numerous times for everything from burglary to attempted rape and had a wad of rolled up money in his pocket. DeLuna maintained not only his innocence, but also his conviction that he knew the real killer’s identity: another Carlos, who was often mistaken for him. Carlos Hernandez: a man with the same build, similar facial features, same height, who owned the type of knife that killed Ms Lopez. Hernandez was convicted for violent crimes after DeLuna’s arrest and bragged about the murder. The relevant parties in DeLuna’s case knew most of these details, but it did nothing to stop the quick decision to send DeLuna to death. The evidence presented in a thorough, exhaustive investigation by Professor James Lieberman and students, from Columbia Law School, presents a compelling case supporting Mr DeLuna.

But this is one man. One innocent man, in a process which we’d like to think, more often than not, executes the right people. We don’t stop wars because one or two innocent people die, when many more lives are saved. Why should it matter that DeLuna was wrongfully executed? Unlike some who are against the death penalty, my antagonism toward it is not based on innocent people’s State-sanctioned murder. I might be willing to accept the death penalty if it could be shown to actually work, even if there were a few DeLuna cases. I might accept it if evidence showed that this was a successful preventative measure, if it deterred and lowered crime.

But even if these were so, the death penalty is inherently immoral, not even because of its incapability but because of ours. For a successful system of capital punishment to work would require beings of semi-godlike abilities, as Jason Brennan puts it:

For a state to have the right to kill criminals, it must make decisions about guilt and hear appeals in a fair, competent, and reliable manner. It must have rules that reliably let the innocent–or those whose guilt is reasonably in doubt–go free. The American criminal justice system fails to meet these standards. Perhaps a government of smart angels should be granted the right to kill. We could debate that. But no state in America deserves any such right.

No justice system we know is capable of such success with capital punishment, since the beings that make the necessary decisions are prone to biases and blunders, stupidity and ignorance. This doesn’t stop us from still making decisions that greatly impact lives, of course. But the problem with capital punishment is that it leaps across a great divide, where alternative options are open and, more importantly, work, to pass through a final door that allows for no redress of possible mistakes made along the way. This interpretation doesn’t take the dubious view that human life is infinitely precious or sacred, since I see no reason to accept such a tawdry metaphysical assertion. Instead, my opposition rests in a fundamental premise of what should constitute good action: the ability to rectify past mistakes, to be able to correct what we now realise doesn’t work. We have done this for capital punishment as a whole, in most democracies, but this also must count in individual cases.

Punishment should not be a mechanism for vengeance. We must recognise that using such a system as a conduit for personal retribution for wrongs is itself a wrong. This is because punishment is not meant to cater to our individual emotions, since this is selfish and undermines the purpose of punishment within a society. Justice is brought about to iron out the kinks of a society, with its myriad opinions and clashing beliefs. We punish and reward, not because we individually want it, but, more importantly, because it allows for a functioning society that doesn’t kill based on whims and wishes of whoever yells the loudest, whoever can light the biggest torches and gather the most pitchforks. We punish because of the necessity of a better society, based on what truly is best for all.

 “We punish to deter,” says fellow Big Think blogger, Will Wilkinson.

We punish to acknowledge the harm brought to the victim, to their loved ones, to their community. We punish to shame and to publicly dishonor the criminal. But the way we do it should embody ideals of humanity, magnanimity, and improvement. Punishment thus should be as light as is consistent with the requirements of security and harmonious society.

(I disagree that shame ought to be something society does, but that’s not the issue here.) The inherently immoral part then is the inability to redress mistakes that could come to light, given our fallibility, and which impact the lives of innocents. This means not just the DeLunas of the world, but their families and loved ones – and, equally important, the lack of justice for victims’ families. After all, killing the wrong person does not mean justice was ‘done badly’ but not done at all. This means that it has failed the victims of the crime, too. It means the real murderers are still out there, capable of harming more, as seen with Hernandez.

Killing as punishment then cannot, for now, be an option. Killing is a full stop to an ongoing conversation with ourselves, about examining our decisions. It operates against the autonomy of an individual, which is why this doesn’t undermine arguments for voluntary euthanasia and voluntary capital punishment. I’m not absolutely against saying certain people, even against their will, deserve to die. I haven’t, though, come across a successful argument that shows this to be moral in anything other than just wars (and even here, I’m not set on an answer). Furthermore, punishing is more effective using alternate methods to capital punishment which achieve the same and often better results, without closing a final door that undermines redressing our views on particular cases. (One need only consult the stats showing States in America without the death penalty have consistently lower crime rates than those with.)

We shouldn’t oppose the death penalty because we are against killing or against punishment. We should oppose the death penalty because killing is an ineffective form of punishment, and one that undermines our ability to examine and redress mistakes. The only ones who we could feel secure about making such decisions would be, as we noted, beings who are angels or gods, infallible and perfect. Thus, to preside on capital punishment decisions would be to say that one is more than a fallible human. Yet, as John Keane notes, in his The Life and Death of Democracy “democracy recognises that although people are not angels or gods or goddesses, they are at least good enough to prevent some humans from thinking they are.”

So, by Keane’s logic, by definition democracies should be against capital punishment, since capital punishment requires people to be precisely what democracy stands against.

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Further Reading on the DeLuna case:

1. A good summary at The Atlantic and the Week.

2. The actual study ‘Los Tocayos Carlos’ available online (only the title is in Spanish, don’t worry).

3. 'The wrong Carlos: how Texas sent an innocent man to his death' in The Guardian

Image Credit: CACorrections/WikiPedia

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