What would it take to shift public opinion on the death penalty?
Steve Kornacki asks if the Troy Davis case—Davis is set to be executed in (where else?) Georgia tonight for a crime there's a good chance he didn't commit—will reinvigorate the arguments against the death penalty. I think if anything has a chance, it's this case, plus the New Yorker expose of the Cameron Todd Willingham case, where Rick Perry surppressed an investigation that might have proven a man innocent of murdering his children so that Perry got another dead body to add to his list of death penalty cases.
Unfortunately, I'm skeptical that any movement to eradicate the death penalty will ever be effective. On many issues, liberals are ineffective and scattershot, but nowhere is this more true than when it comes to the death penalty. A lot of people who oppose the death penalty haven't really figured out why they oppose it, and they certainly have no ability when it comes to arguing against it. People who do try to argue against it are really bad about understanding why others support it and crafting their objections with that in mind. I was shocked after I wrote a piece for the Guardian about the death penalty and Rick Perry how many liberals who responded complained that I tried to make it an argument about the workings of the justice system, instead of just baldly stating that murder was wrong and leaving it at that. When I tried to present arguments such as, "Well, no, you really have to explain your arguments," I was told this is a moral issue and anything short of bald moralizing on it would be ineffective. Since then, I've really paid attention to liberal statements about the death penalty, and while a lot of them are well-reasoned, a shocking number buy right into this "moralizing is the only way" mentality. I've seen a lot of people basically saying that murder is wrong no matter what, and trying to leave it at that, as if it should be self-evident that the state executing people is wrong.
That's why we won't win. If you make this about just bald moralizing about murder, you leave yourself open to the most damning argument the other side has against you, which is that they do take murder seriously, which is why death is the ultimate price you pay for it. Bleating at death penalty supporters that they don't understand the evil that is taking life will never, ever work. They believe their support for the death penalty is about upholding the value that one cannot take another's life. After all, the people that are getting executed are believed to be cold-blooded murderers.
The more you harp on executions as an inherent evil, the more focus you put on the people actually being executed and whether or not they "deserve" it. I think a lot of liberals really do think that all you need to do is baldly state that no one deserves the death penalty, and lay back on the laurels of your moral superiority. That's not going to work. Doing that puts the focus on the people sitting on death row and what most of them actually did. Which basically kills your argument that no one deservese to be put to death. Good people can look at someone who viciously ax murders a family and think, "They don't deserve to live. You know who deserved to live? The family that did nothing and then got viciously ax murdered."
I do blame, as with many things, religion for this lack of inspiration for backing up your moral arguments. The notion that killing is always wrong is rooted in "turn the other cheek" Christianity. And while I suppose I'm glad that many liberal Christians actually pay attention to their god's teachings, I think it shows how foolish it is to state a moral idea and then leave it to a made-up god to rationalize it. After all, religion is an empty set. I would argue that right wing Christians are just as justified in calling their support for the death penalty "Christian" and liberal Christians are with their opposition. They simply define forgiveness differently and leave it at that. Since religion is taken on faith, no one can really be wrong in these discussions. Everyone's just making it up as they go along.
This is why I prefer to address the death penalty as a procedural issue. It's simply too easy to convict an innocent person. Emotions are higher in capital cases, which makes the pressure to get a conviction that much stronger. Once you have the death penalty in place, politicians and prosecutors start getting competitive, seeing the number of successful executions achieved as a number they can use to prove that they're "tough on crime". This lowers the standard of evidence to get someone executed even more. There's a ton of evidence to back this up, but you can also summarize the argument into a soundbite by saying, "The death penalty is too final to be left to fallible humans who make mistakes all the time." We should constantly be pointing out this case or that where an innocent person was convicted or a mistrial should have been called, to drive home the fact that the death penalty corrupts the system, encouraging the railroading of people charged with crimes. Get the discussion away from whether or not ax murderers deserve to be executed by the state, and move towards whether or not we want to have a judicial system that's measured and fair. I think that constantly hammering at it could work to shift public opinion, but right now I'm not really seeing the enthusiasm for that. I'll leave it to you to guess why, but I suspect that it's because there are so many other looming issues like the war and the economy, and people don't have energy for it.