Wednesday, April 12, 2006

More valuable lives?

I confess that victim impact statements like these really infuriate me.

The theory of them is, on a very superficial level, very appealing: let the jury (or the person setting the sentence) see the consequences of the criminal's actions: Not only did he steal, in stealing, he made the victim's babies go hungry. Not only did she kill, in killing, she ruined the life of the victim's wife.

But therein lies the problem. Because the moment we allow the sentence to depend, in any part, on the impact on the victim, we start to judge people's lives and their worth relative to others' (appealing, perhaps, to Republicans and those who think that some lives are simply more valuable than others).

For example: A murderer kills a father of two, happily married, a pillar of his community, a teacher and basketball coach. The kids show up and say how devestated they are, the basketball team shows up and says that he was their mentor, community members stand up and talk about how the local Glee Club just won't be the same.

But another murderer kills a homeless man. No one shows up. No one is really even sure of the homeless man's name; the prosecutors only know he went by the nickname "Shorty." He's cremated and ashes scattered outside the city morgue.

Do these two murderers deserve a different sentence? I don't believe they do. The punishment should depend on the thing you do - kill - rather than two whom you do it. It shouldn't make a difference whether you kill a rich man or a poor man - it should matter that you kill.

And then think about the other consequences. The father, murdered above. All this great testimony about how great he was. And then a witness for the defence comes forward: this "pillar of the community" secretly had a drug habit. Oh, and he mollested young boys. And was engaged in shady tax deals. Does his sentence now change?

What if, say, Pol Pot were living in retirement here in the US, and someone killed him?

The point, to me, is this: life is life. A crime is a crime. You can set objective measures: Stealing goods of a certain value, or the level of intent in a killing. But to make things depend on the subjective measure of how many mourners you have turns sentencing into a popularity contest.


Red Tory said...

Not that I disagree altogether with what you’re saying, but I think the “victim impact statements” are more for the catharsis of the victim’s family and friends rather than ascribing a greater value to the life of the victim. There is also the school of thought that contends that in the criminal system, the victim often gets lost in the shuffle as all attention is focused on accused (e.g., how they were abused as a child, came from a broken home, dealt with drug addiction, etc.) during the trial. This is a way of leveling the balance and humanizing the victim.

Dean P said...

I could understand it as catharsis for the victim (though, to me, "closure" is such a California pop psychology thing), and certainly it does humanize the victims. That doesn't change, however, the fact that victim impact statements affect the severity of the punishment. You can be sure the prosecutors in the Moussaoui case are playing the tapes not so that they can give the victims a forum, but rather so that the jury will execute him.

Perhaps the solution is to allow victim statements after sentencing?

Red Tory said...

I think the victim statements do need to have some "bite" when it comes to the sentencing, otherwise they'll just be regarded as an irrelevant gesture or a vestigal appendix to the trial.

It seems Moussaoui wants to be a martyr anyway, so let him have his wish.