Executing the Innocent

The Paideia Archive: Twentieth World Congress of Philosophy 7:21-26 (1998)
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Abstract

The risk of executing innocent persons is a decisive objection to the institution of capital punishment in the United States. Consequentialist arguments for the death penalty are inconclusive at best; the strongest justification is a retributive one. However, this argument is seriously undercut if a significant risk of executing the innocent exists. Any criminal justice system carries the risk of punishing innocent persons, but the punishment of death is unique and requires greater precautions. Retributive justifications for the death penalty are grounded in respect for innocent victims of homicide; but accepting serious risks of mistaken executions demonstrates disrespect for innocent human life. United States Supreme Court decisions of the 1990’s illustrate the existence of serious risk and suggest some explanations for it.

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Elizabeth A. Linehan
Saint Joseph's University of Pennsylvania

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