Tuesday, October 12, 2010

A New Equation for Capital Punishment

I am no student of criminal justice or the law, although I sometimes find ethical and legal arguments to be pretty interesting. While have an on-going internal monologue this morning, I found myself chewing on the application of capital punishment to what are currently considered non-capital offenses. More specifically, it occurred to me that it seems entirely reasonable to consider the use of capital punishment in cases of major fraud or financial impropriety. If a banker or an investment professional, a Bernie Madoff or someone with similar reach and influence, commits fraud and wipes out the financial stability and life savings of hundreds of families, the cumulative impact of those actions should be grounds for capital punishment.

Again, no legal scholar here, but if capital punishment - the death penalty - is only applied in cases of truly heinous crimes, that is far too narrow a view. In truth, we think of the death penalty only really in relation to horrendous murder cases, but it can and has been used in other cases, like treason and espionage. So, if one can be killed for crimes against the state, wouldn't the destruction of people's livelihoods, savings, and "way of life" be on par? Is it not a crime against the state, a crime against society at large, to undermine the people's trust in our financial system, let alone to cause the partial or total evaporation of retirement savings for family upon family? What price must be paid if the fraudulent acts lead some victims to commit suicide? Is that not involuntary manslaughter?

I think the application of capital punishment should be based on a different equation - a combination of the horror of the crime, the clear inhumanity and immorality of the acts, and the overall damage and impact of those crimes. A gruesome, premeditated murder is an obvious choice - heinous, horrible crime with clear impact on the victim(s) and family members. Insurance fraud, financial scandals, or embezzlement on a grand scale may not seem heinous, but they are most certainly a horrible violation of people's trust and an offense against society. And, unlike a murder, the impact of these acts can reach hundreds or even thousands of people. We should be calculating that impact and weighing it in the decision as to whether to apply capital punishment or not.

Teresa Lewis, a woman diagnosed with borderline mental retardation, was executed recently in Virginia for her role in killing her husband and stepson. She did not fire the gun, the guys who did were sentenced to life in prison, but she was considered the mastermind. And, she sat next to her husband for 45 minutes, watching him bleed to death, before calling 911 to "report" the incident as being caused by an unknown intruder. The judge on the case said her act "fits the definition of the outrageous or wantonly vile, horrible act". Premeditated, inhumane, heinous...all for insurance money.

Now, consider the case of Jerome Kerviel, the rogue trader who blew 4.9BIL euros while working for Societe Generale SA. He has been hit with a fine that he can never repay and sentenced to "at least" 3 years in prison. What is the impact of his trading? How many people lost money or employment? What about Nick Leeson, the guy who lost 1BIL and destroyed his employer, Barings Bank, in the process? How many people lost everything because of his actions? How many people need to lose everything before it adds up to a crime so terrible and massive that capital punishment might be acceptable? Is it not sociopathic to bet massive amounts of other people's money without any concern for the risks that you are taking on their behalf? How about when you do it and lie to people about the risks or the returns on those investments in an attempt to attract more money? What kind of monsters are Bernie Madoff or Robert Allen Stanford, guys who ripped off billions from their investors? Wouldn't society be best served by executing these individuals and redistributing all of their remaining assets to the victims instead of simply fining them and throwing them in jail for a few years?

Here is where the argument gets really serious. If someone made a decision that resulted in the death of thousands of men and women and that decision was made knowing that the information the decision was based on was inconclusive or likely incorrect, should the individual making that decision have to pay for it with his or her own life? Should a president who knowingly uses bad information to justify a war be convicted of any crimes, like treason, and should capital punishment be considered?

This last one is hard to answer. I think the nature of the business of being president means working with incomplete information all the time. And, when dealing with security and military intelligence, murky details and high pressure situations, I think it is extremely hard to not make mistakes. But, the president is not above the law and should be held accountable. War is heinous, but is not a crime unto itself. Unjustified war is, but the crime is in the lack of justification. The death of soldiers and civilians is horrendous, but linking the lack of justification, the decision to go to war, and the end results which are generally understood while being impossible to quantify all together in a way that provides for the application of capital punishment seems impossible and the ramifications of making such legal remedy possible may be costlier than we can imagine.

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