Al Gore, the Libertarian Party and the Death Penalty


Today’s Headlines from Libertarian Sites

Funds Anti-Sprawl Politics with Tax Dollars

by Randal O’Toole (CATO Institute)

Privacy Under Attack–Still
by Twila Brase (Heartland Institute)

with Prisons Show Merits of Privatization
by Adrian Moore
(Heartland Institute)

from School Choice
by Matthew Berry (Heartland Institute)

Link between Regulation and Power Blackouts
by Murray Weidenbaum
(Heartland Institute)

Tax Collections Reach New Heights
by Bill Ahern (Heartland

to Rehabilitate Probation and Parole
by Morgan Reynolds
(Heartland Institute)

the Internet from Death by Taxes
by John R. La Plante (Heartland

to the Internet: Regulation or Markets?
by David B. Kopel
(Heartland Institute)

Progress Explosion
by Jonathan H. Adler (Heartland Institute)

Say “Tomato,” They Say “Poison”
by Martin Zelder (Heartland

Parents: Choice Is the Only Solution
by George Clowes (Heartland

State Continues to Grow
by Robert Rector & David Muhlhausen
(Heartland Institute)

Parton, John D. Rockefeller, and Bill Gates
by Jim Johnston
(Heartland Institute)

‘Model T’ Health-care System
by Peter Hadekel (Intellectual

My Scripts
by Nadine Strossen (Intellectual Capital)



Al Gore gave an extraordinary
to the San Francisco Bay Guardian recently in which he asserted
that it was okay for the state to murder its own citizens provided its
intentions were good.

The topic at hand was capital
punishment. The Guardian reporter pointed out that the Republican governor
of Illinois recently placed a moratorium on all executions in that state
after a string of innocent people had been released from death row (in
fact, Illinois has had to set free one innocent person on death row for
every person it actually executed in recent years).

       Rather than take the bait and
come down against capital punishment altogether or at least recent reforms
that make it harder to file appeals, Gore took the opposite route — it
doesn’t matter that capital punishment inevitably kills innocent people.

“. . . I support the death
penalty,” Gore told the Guardian. “. . . I think that any honest and candid
supporter of the death penalty has to acknowledge that that support comes
in spite of the fact that there will inevitably be some mistakes. And
that’s a harsh concession to make, but I think it’s the only honest concession
to make, and it should spur us to have appreciation for habeas corpus,
for the procedural safeguards for the accused, and for the fairness that’s
a part of the American judicial system and to resist efforts to take away
the procedural safeguards.”

Gore then turns around and
agrees with rulings and laws limiting the appeals of death row (and other)
prisoners, saying, “I think that the pendulum swung so far in the direction
of a flood of habeas petitions that the decisions of some courts to weed
out the procedural abuse is justified.”

So as long as you give an innocent
man or woman a few appeals, it’s okay to commit murder afterward.

Normally, this would be the
part of the article where I’d get all high minded about how libertarians
oppose such arbitrary state power and would never go along with such nonsense
as Gore does, but in fact the most prominent libertarian political organization
in America — the Libertarian Party — has a stand which makes even less
sense than Gore’s. The Libertarian Party’s position is that it officially
does not take a stand on the death penalty.

The same folks who think the
U.S. government is violating the constitution when it asks any census
question besides “How many people live in your home?” think the death
penalty is just too controversial an issue to take a stand on.

The same group that regularly
chronicles the massive inefficiencies in government, doesn’t even comment
on the state’s inability to ensure that the people it executes are actually

Give me a break. The issue
is not that complex. A state that engages in extrajudicial
itself can hardly be trusted to ensure that the people it executes
for crimes are truly guilty.

As with Gore’s answer, the
Libertarian Party’s position on the death penalty is a clear example of
putting politics ahead of principle. The Libertarian Party’s only hope
for any real electoral victories is to bring economic conservatives who
currently vote Republican into the fold. Unfortunately, a lot of those
conservatives tend to be pro-death penalty and would be turned off by
a party plank against capital punishment.

The Party admits as much on
its web site when it mentions a
showing that about 25% of its members supported the death penalty
in an unscientific survey it conducted. Presumably if 25% of its members
decided the drug war was a great idea, the organization would change its
stance on that issue too.

This sort of shameless behavior
is why many libertarians either don’t vote or vote for Republican candidates.
If I want to vote for an unprincipled candidate who will change his views
according to the prevailing political winds, George W. Bush will probably
be there on the ballot already. Why do I need the Libertarian Party’s
second hand version of a Republican waffler?

The Libertarian Case Against the Death Penalty

It happened again. Last
week another prisoner on Illinois’ death row was exonerated after new
evidence (DNA tests in this case) proved someone else committed the crime.
This is getting to be a habit in Illinois. Since 1987, an average of one
death row inmate every year has been cleared of the crime for which they
were sentenced to die in Illinois.

In the current case Ronald
Jones, 49, had been sentenced to death for the brutal rape and murder
of Debra Smith, 28, in March of 1985. Blood tests introduced during Jones’
trial demonstrated he might have been the killer, but what really cooked
Jones’ goose was a confession he gave police admitting he raped and murdered

During his trial and numerous
times during his 12 years of incarceration, Jones maintained he signed
the confession only to stop the beating he received from the police assigned
to interrogate him. Of course now that this “confession” has been proved
to be false, Illinois prosecutors quickly announced they weren’t going
to bother to investigate Jones’ charges that he was assaulted by police

In fact, even though Cook County
prosecutors announced on May 18, 1999 that they wold drop all charges
against Jones and not retry him, the test results on sperm taken from
Smith that proved someone other than Jones raped her was completed in
1997. Prosecutors kept Jones sitting in an Illinois jail for two years
while “investigating” whether or not they wanted to retry Jones for Smith’s
murder after the Illinois Supreme Court threw out the conviction in July

There’s nothing like speedy

Jones is certainly no choir
boy. Rather than being released from prison, he will be extradited to
Tennessee where in 1980 he walked off a prison work release program while
serving a sentence for armed robbery. But at the same time neither was
he a murderer, and without innovations in DNA testing and the numerous
delays in carrying out capital sentences that law and order types despise
so much, he almost certainly would have died for a crime he didn’t commit.

This outcome should be no
surprise to libertarians — the state is just as inefficient at ensuring
the people it sends to their deaths are truly guilty as it is in delivering
any other good or service. In other words, barely one step above what
well trained chimpanzees could do. Should it really come as any surprise
that the same government that can’t provide decent schools for children
or properly maintain roads can’t be bothered to make sure people on death
row are really guilty?

Certainly most people who
consider themselves libertarians wouldn’t hesitate to point out the abuses
of the police power that the modern Leviathan state makes all but inevitable.
The drug war tends to create and reinforce racial stereotypes among police
as well as alienate officers from the people they are supposed to protect,
creating a strong us vs. them culture in many jurisdictions. Police officers
and chiefs often turn around and become the primary advocates for banning
all sorts of consensual activities from pushing for stronger drug legislation
and more resources to go after drug users to strong opposition to citizens
arming themselves with concealed weapons. It is no secret that significant
numbers of police officers see themselves as above the very law they enforce.

But would simply eliminating
the corrupt laws, police officers, prosecutors and judges be enough to
prevent miscarriages of justice as almost happened with Robert Jones?
Perhaps if we lived in a libertarian paradise where government was minimal,
billions of dollars wasn’t wasted on the drug war, and the state respected
people’s Constitutional rights, the justice system would get it right
and the odds of an innocent person going to jail would be almost nil.

Perhaps. And perhaps in this
world of minimal government things would also be so wonderful that nobody
would really need to own a handgun for personal protection, thereby making
gun control a viable proposition (since the state is minimal, after all,
what harm can it do to the gun owner or innocent man?)

Just as most libertarians
would object to the claim that a truly just government would obviate the
need for gun ownership, so they should reject the notion that the state
should have the right to kill its citizens as an officially sanctioned
penalty for crimes such as murder.

This should not be taken to
mean that the right of individuals or agents of individuals, including
the state, lack a right to defend themselves against an imminent danger.
People certainly have the right to kill other people who pose a direct
and immediate threat to their own safety, but once a criminal, even a
murderer, is in custody and placed on trial he or she rarely poses such
a direct and immediate threat. Killing him or there, therefore, is more
akin to cold blooded murder than an act of self-defense.

Similarly, this should not
be taken as a call for the sort of coddling of serious criminals advocated
by some misguided activists (usually of Leftist persuasions). A prison
system that wasn’t bogged down with the overwhelming number of drug and
other consensual crimes could easily handle the permanent, lifetime incarceration
of those who intentionally commit murder. Those falsely accused of such
crimes could be released and compensated by the state when the error is
brought to light — an option unavailable to those killed by the state.

The historical record of the
20th century is quite clear that giving any group of people
the power to kill those who don’t pose an immediate and direct threat
inevitably leads that group to apply its power against the innocent, whether
intentionally or not. The power to kill those who don’t pose a direct
and immediate threat should be one firmly opposed by libertarians.