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Christopher "Tanoro" Gray is a web programmer and science advocate especially concerned with resource management technologies, biology, and artificial intelligence. He is a student of epistemology and philosophy as well as an Atheist competent in Christian theology.
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The Death Penalty and Aurora Shooting
Posted by: Tanoro - Jul 21, 2012 3:53PM

This week, a young man by the name of James Holmes attended a showing of the new Batman movie with the purpose of igniting a smoke bomb in the theater and opening fire on the crowd. Many people were injured and a few were killed. A memorial service is already being planned for those killed in this tragedy and, of course, the Westboro Baptist Church will be there to represent American bigotry.

Youtube Atheist, DarkMatter2525 (otherwise known as DarkAntics) has taken a moment to anticipate lots of finger-pointing and the blame game in the upcoming days, resparking the debate on the issue of gun control. What has also already been rekindled is the debate on the death penalty.

Late this week, following the tragedy, I engaged in a discussion with a person (who shall remain nameless) on Facebook over the issue of whether James Holmes deserves the death penalty. To put it bluntly, I don't believe anybody deserves the death penalty. The death penalty is inherently a revenge-based pursuit and there is no justifiable reason to have it if your intention is to promote justice. This proponent of the death penalty presented a handful of arguments in favor of his position and failed miserably to support them. I'm going to present some of them here and highlight my objections. A link to the whole conversation is below.

Chris, I am totally keen to wrongful conviction and I think the only time it should be used is in cases which are so slam dunk that there is no possibility of being wrong. Like guilty pleas, or like this where there are over 100 witnesses, police arrest on scene with weapons in hand, explosives in his home, an more guns in his car.

First of all, there is no means of eliminating the possibility of being wrong. Absolute certainty is a red herring always and for everybody. Therefore, let's talk reasonable certainty. Do juries who propose the death penalty do so only under grounds of reasonable certainty? Not only do they, but they don't convict someone without reasonable certainty! And guess what, they get it wrong anyway.

"If you support the death penalty and only one single innocent person is killed and killing an innocent person is murder, then you become murderers. So, you also deserve to be killed. This is the paradox of the death penalty and you cannot avoid this paradox." ~Agnes Heller, Holocaust Survivor, Professor of Philosophy, New School for Social Research

Secondly, even if reasonable certainty is established and we did get the right man, the question then becomes: "What is the cause of his actions?" People rarely just open fire in public for the fun of it. Aggressive behavior often has a biological cause behind it which may effect one's ability to restrain their actions. Phineas Gage is a very famous case which demonstrates this point. Gage was a railroad worker back in the late 1800s who suffered an industrial accident resulting in a large iron rod piercing his head, severely damaging his frontal lobe. He survived, but became incapable of restraining his aggression afterwards. He got into fights, assaulted women sexually, and became genuinely insufferable as a worker.

Daniel McNaughten was a guy who, in 1843, attempted to assassinate the prime minister of England. He was most probably a paranoid schizophrenic and visibly incapable of distinguishing right from wrong. The jury was convinced that he was too sick to hold responsible in the same way a common criminal would be, leading to the McNaughten Rule. How the McNaughten Rule works is that you can detect whether or not someone is capable of distinguishing right from wrong by observing their post-crime actions. If, after committing the act in question, they tried to cover their tracks, then it becomes clear they knew their actions were unacceptable.

The interesting bit is that you also have cases of organic impairment, like frontal cortical damage, where someone can distinguish right from wrong. You can sit down with them, play a small game of Action and Reward where taking the biggest reward breaks the rules. They can articulate the rules you lay down. They understand what they are not suppose to do, but they cannot restrain themselves from exhibiting the most rewarding action even if it breaks the rules. They are completely incapable of restraining their actions. Most other primates are also incapable of doing this, depending on what the reward is. Up until the 1980s, courts in America had the McNaughten Rule and provisions for people with detectable organic impairments.

Now, here is where I get frustrated. In 1981, John Hinckley attempted to assassinate President Reagan. No one was killed, but several people severely injured. Psychiatric reports from the defense side showed that Hinckley failed the McNaughten tests and diagnosed him with severe schizophrenia. These findings were confirmed during his incarceration at St. Elizabeths Hospital. The stupid media led a public outcry that Hinckley had "gotten away with it" and this led to congressional changes in state and federal laws to get rid of the McNaughten Rule in court. This is an area of the judicial system that is in severe need of reform. Robert Sapolsky, professor at Stanford University, has a wonderful lecture on this topic and I recommend anyone who is considering this issue to watch it.

What I find interesting here are the parallels that one could draw between James Holmes and Charles Whitman.

James Eagan Holmes was a Phi Beta Kappa graduate student in neuroscience who started buying his four weapons legally in May, about the time his grades fell and he began the process of dropping out of school. A law enforcement official confirmed that Holmes had two handguns, a shotgun and a semi-automatic rifle, had his hair brightly colored red or orange, and told police that he was the Joker, the fictional villain in earlier Batman comics and films. Holmes is not cooperating with authorities, other than to divulge that his apartment was rigged with explosives.

I find it interesting that he is a neuroscience student. Maybe he was studying the frontal cortex and accidentally poked himself with a medical tool. In all seriousness, I think this is merely a coincidence.

Chris, I don't agree that just because someone has a psychotic break we should feed house and treat them for 60 years at enormous expense.

But you'll pay even more to see them dead? Do you realize that execution is more expensive than housing them? A criminal serving a life sentence can at least be put to productive use where a dead one cannot. You could say, "let's just chisel away at the time and expense of the execution process to make it cheaper," but you would necessarily also chisel away what certainty you have in justifying that the convict is guilty. For example, anyone facing the death sentence must be convicted twice by two juries, just to be as certain as possible. This is expensive and take years. Would you prefer to save cost by cutting them down to one trial and give up some of that certainty?


Make no mistake. I have a moral objection to killing a person unnecessarily. Even if you could make a case for execution being cheaper, that doesn't make it right. Morality is still morality, even if it is expensive and anyone who uses this argument clearly doesn't have morality or justice in mind.

When this guy gets released or escapes and kills someone you love? Still more compassion?

If some criminal did kill someone I love, I would almost certainly be disinclined to have any compassion for that person. However, the degree of hatred I may feel for any person who has wronged me should not and will not be permitted to influence the judicial process that effects us all, so the question is moot. If you give a damn at all about justice, it doesn't matter even one tiny bit how I feel and, as harsh as this may sound, it also doesn't matter how the victims or family of victims feel. Emotionally-charged reaction has no place in a courtroom or in any social system that makes decisions on the public's behalf.

Secondly, I suggest you read up a little on a man named James Gilligan. He is a psychiatrist, author, and expert on violent behavior. He has repeatedly found, through scientific studies, that certain social and biological characteristics strongly emerge among individuals who exhibit violent behavior (i.e. child abuse, certain treatable neurological disorders, etc.). Good news, right? This is data we can use to better deal with violence. You seem to be convinced that it doesn't matter what we know about violence. It just has to go and by your preferred method.

Chris, I feel like you are arguing from the standpoint of all life is sacred.

If I were in that theater when James Holmes started shooting and I happen to be armed, I'd shoot to kill. I believe the elderly man in this clip deserves endless praise. The difference is that it is necessary to take a life if myself and/or other lives are in immediate danger and doing so resolves that danger. I said earlier that I am against taking life unnecessarily. Immediate danger is one of the indicators of necessity. Once the danger is over, the necessity goes away. So while I may be willing to agree that life is sacred, I must also admit that there are certainly times when one must be taken down. To say otherwise is unrealistic.

Face it. The death penalty is not something that can be defended without an unjust, "good riddance" attitude rooted in revenge. This is inherently anti-justice. If you want revenge, fine. Society grants you some reasonable opportunity for revenge if you can catch the perpetrator in the act and inflict vengence before the cops catch him. After arrest, it is society's turn to decide what happens and revenge plays no role in that process.

After failing to defend his position, the nameless proponent of the death penalty did what any dishonest person does. He blocked me. Fortunately, based on the way he carried this conversation, I anticipated that happening and saved the conversation here. Since this conversation wasn't quite public, I am compelled to censor the names. I want to ask everyone to offer their comments below on the death penalty and, if you agree with me, the actions of this individual who saw fit to block me rather than hold an honest conversation.

This blog is an editorial and contains only the opinions of the author. The author claims no expertise on most topics of discussion and this blog is not to be cited as an alternative for properly vetted journalism or scientific sources.

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