LP03: Libertarians Should Oppose Death Penalty, Wilson Argues

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LP03: Libertarians Should Oppose Death Penalty, Wilson Argues

by Ari Armstrong, May 7, 2003

Over 100 people have been released from death row because of prosecutorial misconduct, law enforcement misconduct, inept defense lawyers, or errors by the court. Doug Wilson, a public defender in Colorado Springs, argued on April 6 that libertarians should oppose the death penalty.

The death penalty is racially and socio-economically biased, Wilson contended. The application is unfair.

The history of the death penalty should make us suspicious of it, he continued. England used to kill people for over 200 offenses, including stealing and cutting down a tree. Death was administered mainly to "control the masses," Wilson said. In the U.S., the death penalty was used to keep slaves under control.

"Can the state teach that killing is wrong by killing?" wondered Wilson. The death penalty constitutes "cruel and unusual punishment," he believes. He also disapproves of the practice of dismissing jurors solely on the grounds that they disfavor the death penalty. Libertarians, who typically argue in favor of a randomly selected jury, have to acknowledge such a system in today's world would probably mean the end of the death penalty.

Though Wilson claimed it's "absolutely 100% false" that the death penalty deters murder, I wasn't entirely convinced by his case. He claimed states without the death penalty suffer lower rates of violent crime, but that says nothing about what would happen to murder rates in particular regions with changes in the law. He claimed "people do not think" when committing acts of murder, but that doesn't square with the common view of economists. But I can live without the death penalty, even if it has a slight deterrent effect.

Ultimately, though, "the problem is not so much the death penalty itself, but the application of the death penalty... It is not applied... fairly [and is] arbitrary and capricious."

I am reluctantly opposed to the death penalty. However, in the most heinous of cases in which guilt is obvious, I just can't bring myself to feel bad for the guy on death row. At the same time, I'm not convinced giving such awesome power to the state is a good idea, and I am convinced that power has been and can be abused.

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