People should have no illusions about the brutal injustice of the death penalty after all of the exonerations in recent years from DNA evidence, but the case of Cameron Todd Willingham is still shocking.
Mr. Willingham was executed for setting a fire that killed his 2-year-old daughter and 1-year-old twins, but a fire expert hired by the State of Texas has issued a report casting enormous doubt on whether the fire was arson at all. The Willingham investigation, which is continuing, is further evidence that the criminal justice system is far too flawed to justify imposing a death penalty.
There are and always will be moral and scientific arguments showing that capital punishment cannot be imposed justly.
For many years it has also seemed to me as a student of rhetoric that capital punishment is incompatible with what we know about the human capacity to make public judgments, which are inevitably the result of, among other things, rhetorical processes. Our capacity to discover what happened in the past is always based on probability, which can be approached only through processes of argument by flawed human beings using systems of persuasion that cannot attain justified certainty. The ultimate extinction of capital punishment simply cannot be justified in light of our limited capacity to know and to communicate what happened and why, and to sort out the moral weight of human action.