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Death Penalty Advocate Says Retribution Is Civil, Capital Punishment Devalues Murder

Originally published on April 6, 2017 2:06 pm

"It's punishment. We are going to take a person who's helpless and we're going to kill him. Why? Because he deserves it," says New York Law School professor Robert Blecker on the death penalty.

Blecker is the author of The Death of Punishment: Searching for Justice Among the Worst of the Worst.

After spending thousands of hours inside Lorton Central Prison in Virginia and writing copiously about criminal justice, Blecker has moved on to writing about sports, but he granted this interview toArkansas Public Media in part because, as a retributivist, he generally favors the state of Arkansas's planned executions of eight death row inmates this month. 

"A retributivist is somebody who believes in retribution. That is, as the principal purpose or justification for punishment. Very simply, [convicted criminals] deserve it. [They are] punished for the sake of justice."

Though he supports capital punishment, he disputed the state of Arkansas's schedule for executing eight men on four nights in close succession. "The punishment today is for a crime in the past. That's why I'm troubled by" Arkansas's schedule.

"It becomes only about them versus what did and the people they did it to. 'We're doing this to you now though you are no immediate threat to us. We are killing you because of who you killed and how you killed them — this person, this victim.'"

The rushed schedule cuts into the opportunity for families to honor the victims.

He opposes lethal injection, "not because it might cause pain but because it certainly causes confusion. It medicalizes it. It masks what it should be, which is punishment, which is why I'm in favor of the firing squad. It announces what it is. Unashamedly."

Blecker disputed the claim that the death penalty is systematically racist.

"Overall, there is almost no race-of-the-killer effect."

If it's true that black killers are more likely to receive death sentences for white victims, that's because the death sentence is more likely applied in districts where prosecutors think they can get such a sentence, and that skews middle class, rural and white. Victims that fit these characteristics, therefore, are more likely to result in capitally punished convicts, black and white.

Also, it is historically the case that poorer people suffer more violent crime related to poverty, and black Americans are disproportionately poorer. Robbery-murder, he said, is the most common death penalty rap, and the poor are more likely to commit armed robbery.

"You know the ancient great Greek lawmaker Solon once said that, in a well-governed state, citizens like limbs on one body, should feel and resent each other's injuries. That if we really take our citizenship seriously, if the citizens of Arkansas really feel the community that constitutes Arkansas is a sovereign state, the people of Arkansas in whose name this is being done, they should feel and resent, deeply feel and deeply resent what these people have done."

This story is produced by Arkansas Public Media. What's that? APM is a nonprofit journalism project for all of Arkansas and a collaboration among public media in the state. We're funded in part through a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, with the support of partner stations KUAR, KUAF, KASU  and KTXK. And, we hope, from you! You can learn more and support Arkansas Public Media's reporting at arkansaspublicmedia.org. Arkansas Public Media is Natural State news with context.

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