I am less sure that capital punishment should be abolished than I am that it should be extended to crimes not now covered.
The only sane purpose of the death penalty is to deter, and it is well known that crimes of passion, say, are not much deterred by the mere existence of the death penalty on the books for murder. In such cases, juries commonly settle for imprisonment and this seems right.
Especially since there have been so many abuses--I cite one example and dwell no more on this point: I was a juror once, to decide whether a man should be executed for murdering a person. Since all parties to the facts were unable to speak clearly, and lacked the words to describe exactly what they had seen or heard, it was a mere flip of the coin whether the man was guilty or not. It was impossible for the state to prove beyond a reasonable doubt any fact except one: namely, that the so-called public defender was an irresponsible fool who could not (among other defects) get the name of the defendant right, and who seemed unsteady about even the simplest circumstances of the crime.
It was, in fact, the public defender's general incompetence that saved the man from the gallows. If I have seen such a case myself, I do not doubt there have been other cases in which the poor, the ignorant and the physically unattractive have gone to execution wrongly.
The class most easily deterred from crime by threats of punishment is, quite simply, the class in authority. Public officials, especially, are strongly sensitive to jail terms and so are corporation officers and, for that matter, newspaper columnists, who have no authority at all, but who (some of them) have moderate gifts of imagination and in any case like to wander about loose and hate rope. I mention columnists merely to avoid seeming beastly to public and corporation officers exclusively. The only crime columnists commit that deserves hanging is seeming to hold an opinion they do not in fact hold.
Getting on to the proper prey of the hangman, any elected official who accepts cash bribes should be killed. So should any administrator of public funds, at whatever level of government, who enriches himself wrongly through public office. Furthermore, these persons should be hanged publicly, even though capital punishment as we now know it should be abolished.
Corporation persons, or simple businessmen beyond a certain degree of wealth, should be hanged for investing and speculating in narcotics known to be addictive, costly, and ruinous to those who become hooked on them. But note, if the drugs are sold by the government at reasonable prices to all, no guilt shall lie, since the gravamen of the crime is enticing a poor man to heroin so that he robs to pay for the drug.
Those found guilty of using "charity" drives to enrich themselves, playing on the decent urges of the public to help the unfortunate, should be hanged in public. If they happen to be clergymen, they should be hanged at a sufficient height to be seen for at least one (1) mile. But note, a distinction is to be made between mere administrative incompetence and outright embezzlement. For mere fiascos in charity drives, only the present deterrents, if any, should apply.
These few crimes are surely as shocking as any in our society, and since those who perpetrate them are singularly likely to think twice about being hanged, the death penalty should be limited to them. This very limited use of hanging would also have a splendid effect on the criminal law in general, helping to revise public thinking on what is serious crime and what is not. Possessing 18 joints (marijuana) may or may not be against the law, but I believe substantial jail sentences have been dealt out for it. Those who enrich themselves greatly by investing large sums in the cocaine and heroin trade, however, probably would think again after two such convicted investors had been hanged in the Capitol Plaza.
It is a frightful crime to kill a policeman in the pursuit of his duty, but executing the villain probably has no deterrent effect on others, and therefore imprisonment is the correct punishment.
If a few public officials, on the other hand, were hanged for bribery, there would be fewer instances of it.
For this enlightened change to work properly to the public good, it would be absolutely necessary to resist capricious extensions of the hanging law. Thus the state should be on its guard against proposals to hang people who switch lanes in traffic without warning, or who silently whoosh past you on bicycles on the sidewalk and so on. These are grievous offenses, but they do not strike at the very fabric of a civilized state and, besides, those who commit them are sufficiently unaware in general that no threat of any kind is likely to deter them.
But a man given (wrongly, of course, but then this commonly happens) authority over others and who betrays that trust for money, may readily be deterred by the thought (and visual experience) of public hanging. The execution of public officials should be strictly limited, however, to cases of gross bribery and embezzlement. It will not do to try to extend the hanging law to public officials who misuse their authority simply because they are ignorant, lazy, inept, wrongheaded, dalecarnegied or pliant. You cannot change a leopard's spots by any law, but you can correct one gross abuse, such as bribery, with a moderate outlay for rope.