Evolving Standards of Decency

Crossposted from the FnCCollege Blog

New Jersey passed a law today banning the death penalty and, at the same time, commuting the sentence of 8 individuals on death row (who will now serve life sentences in prison), including Jesse Timmendequas. His name might be unfamiliar to you, but you may have heard of Megan’s Law, inspired by Timmendequas’s rape, beating, and murder of seven year old Megan Kanka in New Jersey.

I’ve written and talked about capital punishment in a variety of settings, and usually the conclusion is this: we are in favour of the death penalty in response to certain crimes or in certain circumstances, but we feel that the current justice system and/or society is flawed and therefore is incapable of applying the death penalty honourably, equitably, and justly. The argument that it is better to have 100 guilty men escape than to sentence 1 innocent man to death is a powerful one. However, Jon Corzine, the governor of New Jersey, does not exactly make this argument (though he references it elsewhere in his comments). Instead, he states that we must ban execution because it is “inconsistent with evolving standards of decency.”

I don’t even know what that means. I have no idea what to do with the statement. Especially coming from a state like New Jersey, so renowned for its political corruption… but even setting that aside, I don’t know what he means by “evolving standards of decency.” What is it that has changed recently that would demand the end of the death penalty? What standard do we have now that we did not before? Personally, I feel that the death penalty, though it fails completely as a deterrent, is extremely effective at preventing an individual from committing crimes that they have proven they will repeat yet again, as was the case with Jesse Timmendequas who had twice been convicted of sex crimes — on 5- and 7-year-olds — before he murdered Megan. Govenor Corzine feels that the death penalty is not an appropriate moral or practical response to crime, even the crime of murder, and I’m OK with him having that opinion. I just don’t understand his reasoning.

I don’t have a conclusion to this issue, but I want to present it for thought. My mind is going to continue turning this phrase over and over, that execution is “inconsistent with evolving standards of decency,” and try to 1) figure out exactly what he means and 2) decide if I agree or not.

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