03 February 2009

Why Must You Must Be Competent for the Government to Kill You?

A defense team in Kentucky is challenging whether a man should be put to death because he is not sane enough to be executed. They're actually challenging Kentucky's law because Ralph Stevens Baze, the man sentenced to die, understands he is about to be executed and why he is being executed (thereby establishing his competence per Kentucky statute), but has become depressed and irrationally paranoid.

This set me to thinking. The first thought in many capital cases is whether the offender is someone who should be found NGRI. However, if you have determined that the person knows the difference between right and wrong and does not have an irresistible impulse to do wrong, should other mental defects be a reason to stop the execution?

If you believe the death penalty is valid I think your answer must be "no." In fact, a true believer in the death penalty would probably believe that if the offender was (a) legally insane, thus NGRI, and (b) non-restorable, she should be executed. Most every theory which justifies the death penalty is about the act, the result, or possible future results. None of these are particularly affected by the mental condition of the offender. About the only thing which could require that an offender be clear of mind would be a theory of redemptive punishment, because perhaps a person could not be redeemed of her evil act if she does not comprehend the punishment meant to redeem her. However, it does not seem that redemption of the offender's soul is a goal of our society's judicial system.

Therefore, we are left with the question of why an offender must even be competent to be executed. I understand why legal counsel argues that it should be so; counsel is trying to best represent the presumptive desire of the offender to stay alive. But why do the courts buy into it? Sure, some of it has come from those few judges who are so opposed to the death penalty personally that they are willing to latch onto any reason to halt its use. Yet, in the modern era judges have become less reticent about the deathy penalty and less likely to sign off on any technicality in order to stop it. What then is the reason they continue to follow this standard? Surely, it is not because they want to insure the added cruelty of forcing the defendant to know of his impending demise. That serves no true purpose other than sadism.

The best I can figure, this is one of those things which has gotten into the law without any reflection upon its purpopse as specifically applied to death penalty cases. In most cases it makes sense not to punish someone if they do not understand the punishment. After all, how is the offender to learn not to do the same thing in the future if she doesn't even realize she is being punished for doing it? However, this reasoning does not apply in death penalty cases. There is no "lesson learned" by the defendant after she has been executed.

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