02.12.2012 01:00 AM

In today’s Sun: on the death penalty

Lots of hands went up.

Chris Levy, our brilliant criminal law professor at the University of Calgary, had just asked who among us favours the death penalty. My hand was one of them.

It was our first year of law school, 1984. The death penalty had been abolished by Parliament eight years earlier.

“Very well,” said Levy. “I will ask you again in your final year.”

It’s almost three decades later, and the subject of capital punishment is again with us. Last week, Angus Reid Public Opinion surveyed more than 1,000 Canadian adults about the subject in an online poll. We don’t know why they felt compelled to do so, but they did.

The results were surprising to some of us.

Sixty-three percent believe the death penalty is “sometimes appropriate.”
About a quarter of Canadians, however, believe capital punishment is never warranted.

The pollsters also found that 61% of Canadians say they support reinstating the death penalty for murder in Canada. A third of the respondents disagreed.

There were some unsurprising regional differences — westerners, being mainly conservatives, favour it; Quebecers, being mainly progressives, oppose it.
Asked why they disagree with the death penalty, 75% of opponents said they were concerned about “the possibility of wrongful convictions leading to executions.”

That is, making a mistake. When you execute the wrong person, there’s obviously no going back.

Me? As a liberal, I’ve (cravenly) avoided taking a public position for years. The hemispheres of my brain — like public opinion — are divided.

The right side of my brain, where scientists tell us emotion holds sway, feels this way: If someone killed someone I love, I’d want to kill them with my bare hands.If someone kills a child, with malice aforethought, I’d want to see them receive the same treatment.

That’s admittedly an emotional response to a very difficult question, but it’s no less valid for that. It’s a position held by other progressives I admire, such as Barack Obama and Bill Clinton.

The left side of my brain, where reasoning purportedly dominates, holds a contrary view. For example, what we all learned in law school — more than anything else — was how imperfect our system is. When you study the law, you learn that it is in need of continual improvement, and that it is fundamentally flawed. It is flawed much like the human beings who created it.

When you study the law, you also learn — as 75% of Canadian dissenters apparently already know — wrongful convictions are common enough to concern every right-thinking person.
And, therefore, it’s irrational to impose death sentences in a legal system that everyone agrees is deficient.

That’s probably a position held by another progressive I admire, Jesus Christ — who, it should be noted, was the victim of a wrongful conviction himself.

It’s not, however, that progressives like me oppose ending another’s life in any circumstances.

Our view on war isn’t dissimilar. Waging war against an enemy, and killing its combatants, isn’t any sane person’s first preference.

But when we sometimes wage war — as we did, say, against Nazism — our cause is just and defensible. But make no mistake: There is still a moral failing, even when fighting fascism, the ideology of murder.

In most cases of capital punishment, you see, society is terminating the lives of those few found to be guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. But in wars, we know — or should know — that we are, inadvertently or otherwise, killing innocents on a large scale (witness Dresden and Hiroshima). And we still do it.

Reason over passion, someone once said. It’s not the world we live in, but it’s the world we should aspire to.

Oh, in the final year of law school? Prof. Levy asked us again who favoured the death penalty.

No hands went up.


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    smelter rat says:

    Sun reader heads are popping all across the land!

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    Dudley Sharp says:

    that 61% above, should have been 63%

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    Dudley Sharp says:

    As is common with every law school I am aware of, the pro death penalty positions get very little if any discussion and, when they do, it is highly distorted or, otherwise, misrepresented.

    I am a former death penalty opponent who has found that anti death penalty claims to be false or that pro death penalty positions are stronger.

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    Bill says:

    I’m conservative on most issues and I must say these pro numbers are much higher than expected.
    I wonder if all that recent news coverage of Olson collecting a pension has pushed some people over to the pro side??

    I do think people have tired of the current offender first and victim second justice system we have today, however I’m not sure reopening this debate will helps with this problem.

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      Dudley Sharp says:

      Individual cases have a distinct impact on public opinion, as they should.

      Giving the death penalty, as in giving any sanction, if based upon us finding them being just and appropriate for the crime committed.

      Death penalty support would likely be at 80% in Canada, just as it is in the US, for the truly most horrific – terrorism, mass/serial murders, the rape/murders of children, etc.


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    MoeL says:

    Good watch for anyone who thinks the police and justice system can do no wrong!


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    Lawrence Stuart says:

    “Capital punishment: them without the capital get the punishment.”

    Ron McAndrew, former Florida State Pen Warden on why he became an advocate for abolishing the death penalty here:


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    JH says:

    Here’s some Canadian content Gord – Johnny Cash and Joni Mitchell’s version

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    Mike Morin says:

    As someone related to Guy Paul Morin through my father’s side of the family, I would suggest “guilty beyond a reasonable doubt” has been used somewhat loosely in Canada – http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/story/2009/08/06/f-wrongfully-convicted.html. I wonder if the 63% who believe capital punishment may “sometimes [be] appropriate” would change their view if he or she (or someone who they know) was put in the shoes of the wrongly convicted?

    I can say I changed my opinion a long time ago – http://www.attorneygeneral.jus.gov.on.ca/english/about/pubs/morin/

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    Michael Lee says:

    As Socrates might argue ‘stop giving examples of what exemplifies the use of capital punishment — just tell me what criterion should we use to judge the commissions of such a punishment.

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    CQ says:

    This didn’t change much from your earlier posting of your newspaper column here.

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      Warren says:

      If you find that disappointing, you’re welcome to go elsewhere.

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        CQ says:

        “welcome to go elsewhere.” – that’s what you think.

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    Trogdor says:

    Excellent article Warren. I believe your thoughts resonate with the thinking of most Canadians, no matter their political stripe. As a Gen-X’er, we all remember the monster among us, that in the early nineties along with his female accomplice, sent shivers down our spine with the horror they inflicted on two young women who were taken way too soon. Given the opportunity, I believe most of us would flip the switch on this convicted murderer today.

    I also remember the justice system failing the lives of two men, one for a murder in Saskatoon, another for the wrongful conviction for doing the same to a little girl north of Toronto. How can we as a progressive society, ever sentence a person to the ultimate punishment, knowing that we are still flawed ourselves.

    Kudos again on a great read.

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      Dudley Sharp says:

      As the poll finds that 71% support the death penalty, Warren’s article likely doesn’t resonate with most Canadians.

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        Trogdor says:

        I could have swore the article said “61%”. Why bother letting the facts get in the way of a good debate.

        Whether you ultimately agree or disagree with the question is irrelevant to my point. Warren spoke of his own internal struggle of what side of the question he sits on, which is the same struggle as mine and most of the people that I know, whether they say yes or no.

        So you think most people just blindly vote yes to something like this, without weighing the facts? I certainly don’t.

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    Dudley Sharp says:

    A ficitonal story and a great song.

    Try some real stories:


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    Marc L says:

    Excellent article. The way I see it is simple. The first issue is the moral problem — if killing someone is so horrible a crime, so morally reprehensible that it deserves the absolute worst punsihment because human life is sacred, how can one justify killing someone as punishment. Even as a kid, I couldn’t figure out the logic of those who favour the death penalty. In order to punsih for killing you…kill. Strangely enough, those who favour capital punishment are often the same people who are against abortion because killing is wrong, Go figure.
    But beyond that, the biggest problem is the possibility of error. Just look at the past 20 years — how many supposed murderers were found to be innocent? What if they had been executed? Innocent people would have been killed by the state. And in that case, the state becomes a murderer — as bad as the one who commited the crime in the first place.

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      Ted B says:

      The biggest problem is not the possibility of error. Because it is theoretically possible that you really could have a clear as day, open and shut case with no possibility of error, in that one case… and it would still be wrong.

      The biggest problem is actually the moral problem. You nailed that one right. Start with the most important part, what is at the heart of this issue, whether killing human beings is right or wrong. For me, the issue is pretty clear.

      The second biggest problem is that it is completely and utterly ineffectual: you are killing another human and it has no deterrant impact – as shown time and time again – and so there really is not even any point to allowing the state to kill humans for crimes. So this makes the issue even clearer for me.

      And then, if those arguments don’t work, there is the unavoidable fact that by permitting capital punishment you are sanctioning the deliberate, legal state killing of innocent human beings. It turns my stomach that some could cavalierly say that it is OK for the state to kill an innocent human being. That really should end the argument right there in any civilized country.

      And in almost every single democracy in the world, except for the United States, it has. Which tells you a whole lot.

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        Marc L says:

        I didn’t mention the so-called deterrent impact because to me it doesn’t matter. As you said, even if it did have a deterrent impact, it would still be wrong. About the possibility of error, it is not separate from the moral issue — I’m not sure I would care as much about the possibility of error if the consequences were not so morally reprehensible. So I guess you’re right — the real issue is the moral one.

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          Ted B says:

          I’m thinking of a recent case in, I think, Texas (surprise surprise) where there were eye-witnesses to a terrible rape and murder and the convict admitted not only that he did it but that he deserved to die because he couldn’t control himself.

          Some states have laws that, for capital punishment, raise the threshold from “beyond a reasonable doubt” to “no doubt”, so it is theoretically possible to have a system that would rule out innocents being killed deliberately by their own country. Theoretically.

          Which is why I always end with that argument, instead of starting with it.

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      Dudley Sharp says:

      Because executions and murder are very distinct, if you understand the moral differnces between punishment and crime, innocent vicitm and guilty murderer.

      Do you equate kidnapping and incarceration, fines and robbery/burglary? Likely not, because the foundations for sanction are very differnt than the moral foundations for crime.

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    Ted B says:

    Countries in favour of the state legally killing its citizens for crimes: China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, United States, North Korea, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, Somalia, etc…. a short list that includes all of the worst dictatorships/totalitarian regimes in the world, but fortunately a list that grows shorter every decade.

    Countries opposed to the state legally killing its citizens for crimes: Canada, United Kingdom, Germany, Australia, New Zealand, France, Russia, Israel, Argentina, Brazil, Poland, Paraguay, Hungary, Austria, etc… a long list that grows longer every decade.

    Churches/Denominations opposed to the state legally killing its citizens for crimes: Roman Catholic Church, Anglican and Episcopalian, United Church of Canada, Presbyterians, Baptists (other than the Southern Baptist Convention), Lutherans, Mennonites, Hinduism, etc.

    With which group would you want to be associated?

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    Patrice Boivin says:

    You meant James, right? Not a J-C (ref. Robert Eisenmann’s works)

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    Marc L says:

    Another issue is the hypocrisy of it all. Take the U.S. for example. It’s OK to kill someone as punishment but you have to make it look nice — you don’t want to shock too many sensibilities, especially since you also turn it into a spectacle, that the victims familiies are there to watch. So instead of killing the person in the most efficient way possible by putting a bullet through his head or just cutting it off with an axe or the guillotine, you come up with devices that make it look nice and clean. So you invent the electric chair, but once you get a few instances of people’s eyes popping out and other malfunctions, you dream up the lethal injection. Hey, you just put the guy to sleep. He just dozes off, and the whole family can watch. Killing someone has never looked so sweet.
    If these people are so convinced that capital punishment is an acceptable punishment, stop disguising it and own up to what you are actually doing.

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      Dudley Sharp says:

      I have never known a death penalty supporter or opponent who wasn’t aware that execution was a killing. Have you? How would anyone deny that?

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    Joni says:

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