Taking Responsibility for Crime
Willie Smith III was executed today in Alabama for the brutal and capricious murder of a woman he had kidnapped from an ATM. The usual critics of the death penalty have not been silent in their opposition to Smith’s execution.
There is no doubt about Smith’s guilt, and the evidence allows of no plea of extenuating circumstances: After robbing her bank account he killed the victim “execution style.” The best argument they can muster is Smith’s low IQ (in the low 70’s), which is evidence of diminished responsibility. How rational an argument is this?
I put little faith in any social statistics, but a conventional percentage assigned to Americans with an IQ below 80 is roughly 10, but subsaharan African and African American IQ levels have been analyzed by scholars, some of whom put the subsaharan mean at about 70. Setting aside for the moment all questions of race and IQ and the dubious methods by which statistics are gathered and analyzed, one might be on safe ground in estimating that the more than 10% of the black male population in the US has an IQ below 80, and that those who are convicted of major felonies tend to be at the lower rather than higher end of the scale. (The connection between crime and lower IQ scores is widely accepted.)
The argument would seem to be, then, that Americans of low intelligence should not pay the same penalties for their crimes, and that dangerous criminals, if they are sufficiently unintelligent, should be put in prisons where they will be able to kill guards and other prisoners. The alternative—solitary confinement—is too expensive and would constitute cruel and unusual punishment.
Let us say that for the sake of argument we agree with the not entirely novel proposition. The lunatic who tried to assassinate Queen Elizabeth I was not put to death even by her despotic regime, and both British and American law, for well over a century, have recognized various types and degrees of insanity or diminished mental capacity as justification for not executing those who are guilty of capital crimes.
A pragmatist might dismiss the Liberal argument as impractical. The cost for keeping an average prisoner in Illinois’ correctional system is over $37,000 per annum, and the cost goes up for dangerous felons. In other words, to provide for the needs of a convicted murderer, we are paying, every four years for a college student’s degree or for better health care for the poorer classes or for better maintenance of the environment. A country that is on the verge of bankruptcy, as the USofA most certainly is, has to choose how to allocate its diminishing resources, and it is patently unfair to expect working taxpayers to continue to contribute more and more of their earnings to the support of those who prey upon them.
One way out of this trap would be to hold a referendum with an unsecret ballot and all those who opposed the death penalty would be taxed for the support of murderers. They would also have to be made liable for any crimes or damages committed by their protégés in custody.
There is an even simpler solution I once saw proposed, as a joke, in a newspaper comic strip. One of the main human characters in Bloom County—a popular strip in the 1980s—is Steve Dallas, a criminal lawyer. In one long sequence Steve is called upon to defend a little lady who is an ax murderer. The lawyer naturally asks the judge for all sorts of indulgence, which the judge grants—by remanding her to the lawyer’s custody. As he makes his ruling, the old lady splits the attorney’s bench with her ax.
This principle of liability could and should be extended to judges and parole boards who turn loose killers, child molestors, and violent illegal aliens, such as the Congolese who raped a woman on a Pennsylvania train. We’d also want to include school boards and superintendents whose policies and programs result in lower test scores and violent schoolrooms. And what about presidents and their cabinet members who invent pretexts for immoral wars that cost trillions of dollars and thousands, even millions of lives? Under such a system, General Powell would have spent his golden years trying to pay off his debt to the American people.