I’ve been working on some pieces about the American criminal justice system, and I came across this:
“A person who has chosen to commit armed robbery, rape or kidnapping has chosen to do something with a strong possibility of causing the death of an innocent person,” Mr. Scheidegger said. “That choice makes it morally justified to convict the person of murder when that possibility happens.”— Serving Life for Providing Car to Killers, Adam Liptak
The article is part of an interesting series in the NYT, American Exception, which deals with the often pathological ways American criminal justice differs from criminal justice systems in the rest of the world.
(A particularly jarring example: the rest of the world has abandoned life sentences without parole for juveniles. When the United Nations adopted a resolution calling for the abolution of the practice, the U.S. was the only dissenting nation.)
But let’s go back to the quote. Kent Scheidegger is a victims’ rights advocate. Perhaps I should rephrase—he’s an advocate for somehow helping the people designated as victims by the criminal justice system by throwing people behind bars, or in the chair. More people, in fact, than we currently are.
Here’s what he wrote in his 2006 testimony before the New Jersey Death Penalty Study Comission:
The primary question before this commission and the Legislature and people of New Jersey is whether you are going to value the lives of the innocent above the lives of the guilty and do what it takes to actually have an effective death penalty in this state. Several measures suggest themselves.
First, get rid of proportionality review. It is not constitutionally required,4 and it is not needed as a practical matter.…
Second, enact some strong limits on collateral review. Every capital defendant should be entitled to a direct appeal and one post-conviction proceeding, and there should be no further reviews of any issue that does not raise a substantial doubt of the identity of the perpetrator.…— Statement of Kent Scheidegger, page 2
And just because sometimes the point needs to be hit with a two-by-four, here’s part of the judge Arthur Cooperman’s statement on the Sean Bell case:
Also, carelessness and incompetence are not standards to be applied here, unless the conduct rises to the level of criminal acts, as defined by the law relating to each count charged.
In short: we can hold individuals responsible for their actions. We can also hold individuals responsible for the forseeable consequences of their actions. In fact, we can hold individuals responsible for potential consequences that we think they should have forseen but didn’t.
However, when you’re talking about state actors, please, be reasonable! You can’t expect police officers not to shoot someone fifty times when they feel a bit uneasy about the situation—you just have to trust that they knew what they were doing. And please, don’t lecture us about the dangerous environment set up by targeted policing programmes, nor about the strong likelihood that such programs will lead to someone, say, getting shot. See, when individual actions lead to people getting shot, it’s a chrime. When states or corporations enact policies that are not simply likely to lead to innocent deaths, but in fact practically guaranteed to do so, then it is a regrettable consequence of a necessary moral calculus.