Death Not So Different?
posted by Frank Pasquale
Hugo Bedau’s classic book Death is Different commented on the qualitative difference between capital punishment and other penalties. But there appears to be a growing trend to blur the distinctivenss of crimes provoking the death penalty. Consider the following examples:
1) At least five states now authorize the death penalty for child rape.
2) China has sentenced a former drug regulator to death for corruption and bribery charges.
3) Doug Berman has noted that the logic of the hard-core cost/benefit approach of Sunstein and Vermeule may well justify the death penalty for drunk driving.
Even death penalty advocate Robert Blecker concedes that the penalty may have grown too expansive given the way felony murder expands its scope.
What are the cultural trends driving an expanding scope for executions? I can think of a couple offhand. First, at least in America, there is a growing sense that prison is a living hell for just about anyone in it, and there must be some way of isolating out the “worst of the worst” with an even more gruesome penalty.
Second, and far more speculatively, I wonder if secularization of society has anything to do with it–not just in the sense that churches have been eloquent voices for mercy and redemption, but in a fading social conviction that there is some “ultimate justice” done after death. Without such reassurance, it may make perfect sense to seek an “eye for eye,” a settling of accounts in the only reality that matters.