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Duncan gets Death August 27, 2008

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Criminal Justice, Current Events, Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts.
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I have been out of town and have not been able to post updates, but for the past few weeks the Duncan trial has been moving through excruciating testimony and video of the torture of young Dylan to its predictable end: The jurors’ verdict is death on three counts: kidnapping resulting in death, sexual exploitation of a child resulting in death, and using a firearm during or in relation to a crime of violence. No mitigating factors. In his closing statement Duncan said,

“You people really don’t have any clue yet of the true heinousness of what I’ve done. … My intention was to kidnap and rape and kill until I was killed, preferring death, easily, over capture.”

There is speculation now that he may be on his way to Southern California for a trial, confronting him with the murder of a young boy in Beaumont, Riverside, Tony Martinez. Shasta’s and Dylan’s father, Steve Groene, said he considered it a waste of money, considering the circumstances. But would justice require that Duncan face all charges? Would that bring “closure” to the families?

As you know, I’ve followed this case since its beginning, and have attempted to share with you some of the reasons why I think it deserves our attention—not only because it confronts us with the concept of evil, in its narrowest sense, but also because it has brought up issues of sanity, of victims’ rights, of media ethics (I didn’t even get into that part!), and perhaps even of what it might take for a community to start a healing process after having gone through this kind of ordeal. Will Duncan’s death (after all the appeals, of course) give the community, and Shasta, some form of peace? The verdict gives us an opportunity to talk about the whole purpose of the trial: the concept of punishment. When someone like Duncan—who is indisputably guilty; no risk of executing an innocent person here—is sentenced to death, what is your reaction? Do you deplore the primitive reaction of a young society, feeling the need to put a person to death for what he or she has done? Do you consider it a shame that the community has given up on the possibility of rehabilitating Duncan? Or do you consider it a measure of justice, the only one truly appropriate for (1) the severity of the crime, and/or (2) deterring similar crimes, and/or (3) protecting other children from other acts by that same man? Here we have some of the key arguments in the death penalty debate, the abolitionist vs. the retentionist arguments, and the retributivist vs. the consequentialist arguments. I’d like to hear what you think.

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1. Dudley Sharp - August 28, 2008

I know of no victim survivor who believes that the execution of the guilty murderer(s) brings closure to the emotional and/or psychological suffering  of that victim survivor for the loss of their innocent, murdered loved one(s). How could it?
 
I have never encountered such a person, in the many years I have been involved with murder victim survivors. Has anyone?
 
There are many victims survivors who claim they did find closure with the execution, although without important clarification.
 
Further inquiry would reveal the obvious: it is closure the the legal process, whereby execution is the most just sanction available for the crime and they are relieved that the murderer is dead  and can no longer harm another innocent – a very big deal.
 
Those are the real meanings of any closure expression.

Murder victim “Mary Bounds’ daughter, Jena Watson, who watched the execution, said Berry’s action deprived the family of a mother, a grandmother and a friend, and that pain will never go away.”

“We feel that we have received justice,” she said Wednesday after the execution. “There’s never an end to the hurt from a violent crime. There can never fully be closure. You have to learn to do the best you can. Tonight brings finality to a lot of emotional issues.” ”

Ina Prechtl, who lost her daughter  Felecia Prechtl. to a rape /murder said,  after watching Karl Chamberlain executed: “One question I ask myself every day, why does it take so long for justice to be served?”  It took 17 years for the execution. (“Texas executes 1st inmate since injection lull”, Jun 11, 2008, MICHAEL GRACZYK, Associated Press Writer, HUNTSVILLE, Texas)

The primary function of any sanction is to be a just and appropriate sanction for the crime committed. All other reasons, however important, must remain secondary. For example, I find the death penalty does save innocent lives. But, that too, is secondary to sanction being deserved.

2. Charlette Lin - August 28, 2008

I think that we are missing the point here.

Duncan was obviously guilty and death is not a punishment to him. Heck, I think death is a good thing. There may be no more experience of happiness and whatever, but death is also the absence of misery and the peace of mind some people may long for. (This of course is taking the assumption that there is nothing after death.)

Does it not bother people that Duncan wanted to die and that the death sentence was not really punishment to him? Ideally, wouldn’t people want Duncan to suffer as much as he caused others to suffer? Forcing him to stay alive in captivity would probably be worse for him than death.

Personally, I would rather give him the more merciful sentence of death than make him suffer through life in prison, but I have developed my own views as a hard determinist that many would not agree to. People cannot ultimately decide what they are going to do in life (they just do what they are lead to want to do), and therefore they are not responsible for their actions. This implies that they do not deserve punishment for their bad deeds nor rewards for their good deeds. I’m pretty sure that most people do not like this idea, but just because we don’t like it, doesn’t mean it isn’t true…

So if punishment, revenge, and justice is not the point, then what is? Well, if we want to avoid future crimes like this, shouldn’t we try to figure out what kind of environment develops people like Duncan? Was it abuse as a child? Was it the values that were taught to him? What leads some people to such ends where they ignore the screams of young children and continue to torture them? What can we do to stop people from developing these sorts of murderous mind sets?

3. Moriae - August 29, 2008

Death a good thing? I thought I’ve heard some of our more extreme Islamic friends offer us the same point, together with its benefits. It would seem its appeal stems a bit from a desire to be one of those who gets to choose who is dead and who is not. It’s an interesting proposition. Murder might gain more publicly expressed apeal, if we had a choice to whom it might apply. The downside of murder always seems to be its myopic motives, together with a blatant realization that no one else’s interests were really served other than those of the perpetrator. Soliticiting and garnering suggestions prior to the deed very well might broaden the appeal of murder, and have the added benefit of prehaps swaying juries in advance.

Since it also seems to disperse ‘peace of mind’ and serve to mitigate misery on a personal level (we might also consider its appeal within the family itself, if only we could get wives to be honest about their husbands), I think we can instantly see how easy it would be to make lists of people who would benefit greatly from a timely demise. We could have a website to expedite the process, together with a snail-mail backup when the website is overloaded. Heck, who can’t think of family members where a timely demise wouldn’t raise at least a smirk in us? I think we can favor women’s choices over men, at least inititially. Men kill their wives for cheap gains, or for the company of other women (that most men don’t envy in the least); the emnity of women for their husbands seems more empirically justified. Can’t you think of an uncle whose demise is to be wished? And if it is also a benefit to him, who couldn’t enjoy a bit of the satisfaction it brings to us with some deserved equanimity? But murder on the retail level, though, would be time consuming and rather inefficient business. Why pass out pleasure on an individual level when the chance to go wholesale is always an option. When we think of Africa, India, or many parts of South America, I think we can see blatantly the eudaemonic possibilities of nuclear weapons. Think of the real estate possiblities! The surfeit of our own real estate agents makes this option a winner on two fronts: for those eliminated, a ‘peace of mind’ devoutly to be wished to those we wish to benefit; and on the unfortunates left behind, the solace of unending gain and a satisfaction gained by picking up the pieces of other people’s lives (besides their mere pieces).

I’m sure Mr. Duncan’s true human affront was the tangible recognition that he refrained from asking others in advance for their opinions. His un-Kantian pursuit of personal ends to the exclusion of the solicited suggestions from others made his act particularly egregious. The objection to people dispersing the benefits of death unilaterally is something of a private taste for most of us. We hate to admit it in mixed company, but the sheer nerve of someone taking the private lead in dispersing the sating qualities of ‘peace of mind’ in this way simply makes us envious. It’s a terrible feeling to keep our envy private. Perhaps that is why envy always seeks accomplices.

A slight, but pertinent, digression on the phenomenology of human aggression:

What is a taste for crowds if not a feeling that our agression might meet a willing accomplice? Despite initial appearences,Obama certainly has a taste for aggression. Yet his serene facade provides the canaille the crucial sense of beneficence to their motives that would otherwise bring them shame. It allows for a certain level of equanimous hostility that allows for their invective, vitriol, and vituperation to feel consonant with high ideals. He himself is not angry, yet he easily stokes the latent anger in himself through others. He merely has to point to the source of emnity and the canaille do all the rest. His equanimous charm gives solace to those who wish to vent their hostility and pent-up bile with a sense of righteousness. Albert Speer and Josef Goebbels would have instantly recognized the motives being served. Denver did have some of the feel of a Nuremberg party rally, just a bit more indirect in their admittance to hostile designs. As Goebbels knew, one shouldn’t ever underestimate the complicit nature of human beings when they sense they’ve found a vehicle for their latently hostile sense of impotence. Humans give up their sense of judgement eagerly as long as their passions are also assuaged.

It seems (given our history) that we object to Mr. Duncan’s act because of the choice of victim; the deed itself we merely consider a wasted opportunity. The number of people with the nerve to do what we merely privately consider for certain family members and neighbors is on this theory unfortuately small. This is why mass murder has always had a greater appeal than summoning up the personal nerve necessary to deal out ‘peace of mind’ on the merely local level. Mass murder, and thus the greater chances of human eudaemon pursuits, has been the blessing of the 20th Century. With the internet possibilities now in play, the chances of gaining accomplices for the eudaemonistic pursuit of mass murder should make the examples of Auschwitz, Armenia, and Ruanda look like stunted frolics of unimaginative men.

4. Huan - August 29, 2008

I would like to argue that even from the hard determinist perspective punishment CAN be justified, though with concepts that are a lot less glorified than “he chose to do evil” or “justice must be served”.

After a simple scenario in my head of someone cutting off my arm, I in fact did get a strong desire to cut off the other person’s arm as some sort of debt collection. That feeling seems like just a heavy hitting emotional displacement from everyday life, so heavy that it needed to be unleashed in some way. Given my already developed concepts of other beings and other minds, debt collection was the best way to unleash this emotional offset.

So what is this seek for closure through punishment then? Without glorification it’s simply a systemized way we get to unleash our emotional displacements obtained from heavy loss. Can anyone say that this emotional unleashing isn’t justified? Neuroscientists like Antonio R. Damasio place heavy emphasis on the importance of emotion for a human being, in fact it seems to be the guiding force behind all of our actions, even the reasonable ones. Why wouldn’t emotional closure be enough justification for punishment? Why would the evil doers need free will for punishment to be justified then?

On the other hand this whole thing does remind me of Law and Order: SVU. Similiar to watching Law and Order: SVU, the thing that interests me the most about this case is what made these evil doers? What’s their story? Was it biological sociopathic deformities? Was it a really messed up childhood? Was it both?

5. Charlette Lin - September 2, 2008

Moriae-
My comment that death may be a good thing was not intended to support mass murder.

I was also not trying to justify Duncan’s actions.

I suppose I was trying to say that death was too good for him. I did not mean to offend you.

Huan-
You make good points and I am convinced of your arguments. If punishing the criminals greatly helps out those who were influenced by providing emotional closure, then it would justify punishment from a hard determinist point of view.

6. Moriae - September 2, 2008

It was satire dear, I wasn’t affronted in any way

7. Huan - September 2, 2008

You know what they say(well maybe just me), one man’s satire is another man’s serious contemplations. I thought it was quite serious too! 😀

8. Moriae - September 2, 2008

Perhaps we should republish Swift’s Modest Proposal for the Chinese government too. Forgot, India could use it to good effect as well.

9. Huan - September 3, 2008

Haha I think the funny part is that the only reason it’s satire may rest on baseless humanist moral ideals and biological empathy, it’s a bit scary if you think about it.

10. Nina Rosenstand - September 3, 2008

Good to see you all going at it again! Looking forward to staying in touch with Inquiring Minds this way, during my Fall sabbatical.
Two things I’d like to add here: that, for one thing, putting people out of our misery is always going to be morally questionable–the “radical evil” that Duncan represents is harder to explain, and easier to condemn. Another thing is, satire or not, I actually do feel uneasy about group (mob, maybe?) enthusiasm as well as group animosity, regardless of which political direction it is coming from….
I think it is going to be an interesting season….


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