Retribution is the last refuge of those seeking to justify capital punishment, given the failure of other arguments (deterrence, incapacitation etc.). Retribution is a punishment that fits the crime: the severity of the punishment should be proportionate to the severity of the crime. Intuitively, therefore, retribution should justify capital punishment for murder. Only death is a punishment that is as severe as murder. The Latin origin of the word “retribution” indicates that something should be given back or returned: someone “gives” death and hence death should be returned.
However, in theory, retribution does not necessarily mean that the punishment has to be strictly equivalent to the harm caused by the crime: some claim that retribution simply means that we must punish severe crimes more harshly than less severe crimes. Yet we see in practice that capital punishment as punishment for murder is defended on retributivist grounds.
Retributivists, ancient and modern, have always been lured by one or another form of lex talionis. (source)
There’s often an element of desert introduced in retributivist arguments. A murderer should be put to death because this punishment fits the crime, and because this punishment fits the crime, the murderer deserves to die.
So, given this “natural” tendency of retributivists to favor capital punishment for murder, how can it be possible to construct an argument based on retribution against capital punishment, as the title of this post suggest? Thom Brooks has made a highly interesting attempt here. It’s based on a decision by Judge Jed Rakoff ( in US v Quinones):
What DNA testing has proved, beyond cavil, is the remarkable degree of fallibility in the basic fact-finding processes on which we rely in criminal cases. In each of the 12 cases of DNA-exoneration of death row inmates referenced in Quinones, the defendant had been guilty by a unanimous jury that concluded there was proof of his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt; and in each of the 12 cases the conviction had been affirmed on appeal, and collateral challenges rejected, by numerous courts that had carefully scrutinized the evidence and manner of conviction. Yet, for all this alleged “due process”, the result in each and every one of these cases, was the conviction of an innocent person who, because of the death penalty, would shortly have been executed (-some came within days of being so-) were it not for the fortuitous development of a new scientific technique that happened to be applicable to their particular cases. (source)
This should even convince retributivists that capital punishment has to be rejected. Even if you adopt the moral rule that murderers deserve to die you, shouldn’t apply the death penalty in practice because you can’t be certain that a particular defendant is really guilty of the crime and hence deserves to die. And there’s no point arguing that the systematic use of DNA testing gives you this certainty: first, it’s not always possible to use DNA tests, because the crime has to be of such a type that DNA traces are potentially available, and even if they are potentially available they may not be actually available; and second, we don’t know if DNA testing is accurate enough and won’t be discredited in the future.
You could also argue that the same lack of certainty is the case for all types of crime, and that rejecting capital punishment because of a lack of certainty implies rejecting criminal punishment tout court. Not quite: all other types of punishment allow for the possibility to correct mistakes resulting from uncertainty. Capital punishment rules this out.
And there’s another kind of uncertainty that militates against capital punishment and that should convince retributivists to reject it. The desert of a criminal is usually based on more than mere physical evidence of his actions. Intent also plays a part. Take the case of someone who caused the death of someone else by his actions – and let’s assume that we are certain about this, e.g. we have DNA evidence and we know that no future scientific developments will cast doubt on this evidence – but did not intend to kill. Many would argue that he doesn’t deserve to die. However, intent is impossible to prove because it requires reading someone’s mind, and hence we can never be certain that someone intended to kill. A desert based argument for capital punishment is void if desert includes intent.