Why Execute the Reformed? A Moral Case against the Death Penalty


EspañolOklahoma’s botched execution of Clayton Lockett last Tuesday has reignited a national debate about the death penalty. In the days hence, capital punishment opponents have repeated many of the same tried-and-true arguments against state-induced death. To name a few, the death penalty costs states multiple times more money than life imprisonment, is disproportionately sentenced to minorities, and does not deter crime.

Besides the abundance of empirical evidence pointing to the capital punishment’s woes, there’s another case to be made against it that is rarely heard — one of philosophy rather than policy. Namely, the death penalty is an unjust form of punishment, because inmates can genuinely reform and feel remorse after years in prison.

Take the case of Stanley Tookie Williams III, for example. A notorious gangster, Tookie co-founded the Crips in 1971 as a high school student in Los Angeles. For years, Tookie lived a life of crime, climaxing in four 1979 murders. Tookie was sentenced to death that same year and executed nearly three decades later in 2005.

Stanley Tookie Williams III
Stanley Tookie Williams III, co-founder of the Crips. Source: PeacePower.

However, what happened in between Tookie’s conviction and execution weakens the case for capital punishment. The vicious inmate, who spent more than six years in solitary confinement for assaulting multiple guards and inmates, suddenly had a change of heart. He denounced his life of crime and wrote no less than twelve books detailing the horrors of gang life and discouraging children from following his footsteps.

One may question Tookie’s intentions in becoming an anti-gang advocate while his appeals were ongoing, but it is not farfetched to think that he had a change of heart given his prolific writing. But even if he wasn’t genuine, Tookie was just one of thousands of death row inmates who endured decades in prison contemplating their crime.

There are over 3,000 inmates on death row today in the United States, and the average length of time between conviction and execution is 14.8 years, as of 2010. Given the sheer quantity of prisoners, some have undoubtedly felt genuine remorse about their crime and sought to reform themselves.

So, why should the justice system punish effectively a different person than the one who committed the crime?

This problem beckons comparison to what is called the Persistence Question in philosophy — in plain English, the fact that people grow and their attitudes evolve throughout their lifetime. Reflecting on the past, most of us will shudder at painful and embarrassing memories of the past; we often regret improper behavior and toxic personal relationships. What makes death row inmates different from any other human being?

Indeed, other countries have wised up to the Persistence Question by abolishing the death penalty … and sometimes even life in prison. In Norway, for example, the maximum term of civilian imprisonment is 21 years, even for mass murderers like Anders Breivik. Death penalty proponents may object to the danger of releasing a convicted killer to the public again. But, does it really seem likely that a middle-aged or elderly former prisoner would be likely to recommit the same heinous crimes of his or her youth?

Of course, such a lenient imprisonment policy as Norway’s would never fly in the United States. Nevertheless, the country sets a precedent for recognizing the philosophical fact that convicts do not stop growing as humans simply because they’re in prison. Instead of treating homicide as a freeze frame of a killer’s life where they are eternally regarded as evil, the US states should see such inmates for who they really are — mere humans navigating the world like us all. In that sense, a life in prison reflecting on past evils is punishment enough.

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