The death penalty promotes our sense of order–it offers assurance that those who savagely violate our most cherished morals will be harshly penalized. The question, for me, is what will we tolerate to preserve that assurance? What I hope will come out of this case is a more honest debate about the death penalty. I strongly suspect that Rick Perry–at this point–knows that something went badly wrong in Willingham’s execution, and yet still believes in the death penalty. What I hope will emerge is death penalty advocates honest enough to admit that no system of state-sponsored execution can be infallible, because people are fallible. I want them to come out and say what’s clear–innocent people will be executed. I want them to stop treating us like children, and make the argument.
Unfortunately, this is not what will happen. Death penalty advocates will simply argue that we can’t say for sure that Willingham was innocent and so on. The burden of proof will shift, or has already shifted: it now must be proved, beyond reasonable doubt, that an innocent man has been executed.
Americans’ support for the death penalty is not isolated. It is of a piece with Americans’ (negative) attitudes about evolution, just to cite one example (I’m sure I could find others but I find the topic depressing); that is to say, it has more to do with superstitions and conceptions of good and evil than with reason. Probably the most we could ask for right now is to have the people administering the lethal injections dress as pimps so that in the event of another wrongful execution the New York Times and Washington Post treat it as an important story.
I think it’s important to highlight what happened in Texas, both with the conviction and with the cover-up. Because — not but — when it comes to reversing attitudes about the death penalty, it’s a long, long road.