Monday night’s debate may not have escalated into violence, but that didn’t stop death from being a major topic of discussion.
Two law specialists presented arguments for and against the death penalty Monday night as part of the series, “Executing Justice: America and the Death Penalty.”
Gerry Spence, renowned trial attorney and best-selling author, and Alex Kozinski, a judge in the United States Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals – appointed during the Reagan administration – debated the death penalty Monday night at 7 p.m. in Corwin Pavilion. Stuart Banner, a UCLA Law School professor and author of The Death Penalty and American History, moderated the debate.
The debate, presented by the UCSB Interdisciplinary Humanities Center and the Law and Society Program with support from the Critical Issues in America Program, is part of a series of lectures, films and classes offered Winter and Spring Quarters at UCSB.
“There are strong feelings about the death penalty and we expect people to want to hear about it,” Banner said prior to the event.
Spence, a prominent opponent of the death penalty, touched on issues such as inequalities in the justice system and the importance of education at all levels of society. He argued that the moral implications of the death penalty were unjust and irreversible.
“As long as there are people who are free, there will always be crime,” Spence said. “The question isn’t how do we prevent murder by punishment, but rather how do we make ourselves a better nation, through helping the poor and uneducated.”
On the other hand, Judge Kozinski, a supporter of capital punishment, brought up issues such as deterrence against crime and the importance of a sense of comfort for victim’s families. He warned against the problems associated with revoking the death penalty and the need to fit the punishment with the crime.
“That’s putting the value of a human life on the same level as speeding, shoplifting, or robbery,” Kozinski said. “It’s not the right message to send to society when someone takes the life of another man in a heinous crime.”
As the debate progressed, the speakers took increasingly personal shots at each other. At an intense moment in the debate, during Spence’s final speech, Kozinski began mockingly bobbing and weaving like a boxer, motioning for Spence to take a punch at him, causing the audience great amusement. Spence immediately restored the seriousness of the debate with his response.
“I’m glad to see some levity brought to this debate, and I knew that it would come from his honor,” Spence said. “Because this matter is simply not funny.”
Spence continued to take jabs at Kozinski, mockingly calling him “your honor.”
Capital punishment has a controversial history in the United States, generally involving human rights activists pitted against conservatives. When exactly the first execution on American soil took place is not certain, but since 1608 about 17,000 people have been legally executed in the U.S., according to a study done by M. Watt Espy. The U.S. Supreme Court suspended the use of the death penalty in 1967 and in 1972 declared it unconstitutional because its use as a punishment for rape and murder violated the prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. Many states revised their statutes, and the Supreme Court later found the new statutes constitutional. However, in 1977, the Supreme Court again ruled that the use of the death penalty as a punishment for rape was excessive, and since then only perpetrators of first degree murder are eligible for the death penalty.
The United States’ use of capital punishment came into the international spotlight recently due to former Illinois Governor George Ryan’s recent decision to clear Illinois’ death row. On Jan. 10, Ryan commuted the sentences of 167 inmates to life in prison, most without the chance of parole. He also pardoned four inmates who had been convicted based on confessions extracted through torture. His decision was especially surprising considering his pro-capital punishment past. As a legislator, Ryan voted to reinstate the death penalty in Illinois in 1977. Ryan said his change of heart came after discovering faults in the system.
“Our capital system is haunted by the demon of error – error in determining guilt and error in determining who among the guilty deserves to die. What effect was race having? What effect was poverty having?” Ryan said Jan. 11, when he publicly announced his decision. “Because of all these reasons, today I am commuting the sentences of all death row inmates.”