I am very fortunate that my contact with capital punishment has been abstract and not via personal experiences.

Like many children, at an early age I lay in bed obsessing about what it meant to switch off the light of consciousness in death. The resulting terror was not the dark but that there wouldn’t even be dark. The idea that this penalty could be imposed by a powerful institution somehow made it much worse. Would it be better to anticipate this or have it happen randomly? The superficial paradox of the “unexpected hanging” (you can google it) seemed to me to drive home the additional horror of a specified finite existence.

I confronted a family friend, pointing out that the death penalty, at least as applied for murder, was hypocritical. They said this was much too simplistic and that, in any case, it was the deterrent value that was important for society. This gave me pause for a bit. Intuitively this felt absurd. I knew about the scientific method; could you do a controlled experiment? More important, the situations where the deterrent effect of punishment would be evident are where it is designed to be disproportionate to the crime; highly unappealing!

This thought process was enough for me for a long time. Once you realize something is flawed at a fundamental level, its attempted usage will inevitably bring out the worst in us replete with unintended consequences, biases and abuses.

In September 2011 there was a well publicized execution of Troy Davis despite most of the evidence and testimony resulting in his conviction being weak at best. What struck me, being professionally involved in improving decisions under conditions of uncertainty, was that from a naive mathematical basis the denial of clemency was so obviously wrong. Even if you accept the notion of an eye-for-an-eye, the choice to move ahead with the death penalty for someone who has already spent 25% of a normal lifespan imprisoned requires almost total certainty (90%), especially if you consider the cost to society of a wrongful execution.

Most recently my family and I have started a farm which constitutes an ethical source of dairy and eggs but without any killing and with attention to our animal partners with respect to their existence as sentient beings. The final piece of the puzzle in getting to our model was recognizing that it was not acceptable– for us at least– for some animals to be slaughtered even if painlessly and presumably oblivious to their fate. We could observe directly the emotional and social connections in our animal population and could easily imagine the impact of a sudden absence. There are other ‘higher order’ considerations, significant enough to become first order ones: 1- the effect of pre-knowledge of the fate of the different animals on the care and attention received from the farmer, 2- the accumulating psychological impact on those involved in the process and the act. The analogies to these within our penal and capital punishment system are hardly necessary to state.

What we love about DPF is that it uses the lens of this deep wrong to probe and attack many different types of inequities and problems with our criminal justice system. It doesn’t replace other efforts but provides a powerful orthogonal perspective that maybe someday in not that distant future will be happily irrelevant.