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Is Executing an Innocent Man Violent?

Eager to write another post on the philosophy of violence, I thought I had stumbled upon the perfect question, “Is executing an innocent man violent?” When I posed this question to Eric C, he had a simple answer, “Yes. Are you seriously asking me this question?”

I am. If it had such a simple answer, than society would fight more vociferously to prevent wrongful executions. When I first started writing for On Violence, I defined violence by linking injuries with injustice. A death is not violent; a murder is. For centuries, a majority of Americans have seen the death penalty--capital punishment euphemistically (Conservatives use “capital punishment” but blame liberals for politically correct language.)--as fitting punishment for murder. Fitting equals justice, in some people’s conception.

Last year, Georgia executed Troy Davis after the witnesses who identified him as the murderer recanted their testimony. Forensic evidence now exonerates Cameron Todd Willingham, who died in Texas adhering to his innocence until the end. DNA evidence overturned hundreds of death sentences--most recently in Virginia. Yet most Americans do not consider these executions, or near executions, “violent”. Why not? Is executing an innocent man unjust. Can we hold anyone responsible?

(To be clear, I am ignoring the issue of executions as inherently violent--like Eric C insinuated above--or structural violence--that poor and minority defendants fare much worse than the rich or the majority. We will explore those issues in later posts.)

To determine if executing an innocent man is violent, I want to break that action--an execution--down to its component pieces. Every violent action has a perpetrator, a victim and the motivations of the former. Somewhere in those pieces lie justice or injustice. In the case of the state executing an innocent man, the state is the perpetrator and the victim is the defendant.

Let’s start with the hardest category: the motivations of the state. When I answered the question, “Is bombing civilians in wartime ethical?” I specifically blamed the Allied Air Command officers for knowingly targeting civilians, despite centuries of just war theory and tradition saying they should not. Their motives were sound--ending the war--but their means violated all ethical norms. That case, though, had a single actor to blame, the people giving the orders.

In this case, I have to determine the motivations of the criminal justice system. So who do I blame if an innocent man dies? The investigators? The district attorneys? The judges? The juries? The defense counsels? The appellate courts? The governor? The people who elect all those individuals?

Maybe all of them. Looking at the motivations doesn’t give us an answer; I assume everyone acted with good intentions. They believe in capital punishment, and don’t want to execute innocent people. Everyone would agree on this point. While researching “Intelligence is Evidence”, in nearly every case of corrupted justice I found, the prosecutors and investigators believed, and most still believe, that the people they prosecuted had committed the crime. Even in the massively corrupt investigation of the Norfolk Four, the family of the victim still has not forgiven the wrongfully convicted defendants.

So let’s move on to the perpetrator (the state) itself--ignoring their motivations. When the state executes an innocent man, something went wrong. It could be an unfair trial. Or it doesn’t have enough safe guards or checks and balances. Worse yet, the people of the state believe in the death penalty, and as a result force elected officials to over-pursue death penalty cases. In the most egregious examples, almost every part of the criminal justice system made a critical mistake. Ignoring the issue of structural violence, it seems that the system itself might have problems if the system can send innocent people to their deaths.

Which might just condemn the system itself. It doesn’t matter if someone’s intention are pure; if their actions are violent--and executing an innocent man is violent--than their actions are violent. Unjust actions can be unjust by their very nature.

And even though it is hard to assign blame, we still can. The system isn’t the problem. A system is made up of individuals who can influence its behavior. As I said before, the state is made up of a lot of actors--prosecutors, investigators, judges--and in some way they are all to blame. Dresden had a host of people responsible for the final outcome--bomber pilots, intelligence officers, generals from Air Command up to the Commander in Chief--but we could still assign ethical blame. When it comes to capital punishment, if an individual’s self-interest--say getting re-elected--encourages them to ignore compelling evidence of a person’s innocence, and that leads to an innocent person’s execution, well, that decision is on that person, not the system.

If the individuals in a system contribute to the death of innocent people, we can call that violent, and blame them for that violence.

Philosophically, I have convinced myself the state can commit a violent act, and probably has. But why do so few people agree? Knowledge. Most people don’t watch Frontline or read The New Yorker or those other “liberal propaganda machines” that feature scathing exposes about justice gone awry. Sure, they follow every nuance of the Casey Anthony case, and want to get rid of the jury system (a constitutionally protected right), but they don’t care about Troy Davis or Cameron Todd Willingham or other people put to death whose guilt is in doubt.

And why not? That’s a question I can’t answer.

three comments

I’d still argue that all executions are violent, because all murder is unjust. But that’s why I don’t support capital punishment. Michael C and I agree on most topics, but disagree on some. This would be an example.


I find capital punishment in the US to be fascinating and thoroughly violent. Not the act of executing a prisoner in particular as much as keeping him in fear, uncertainty and to a certain extent, hope for so many years. To me, it’s a form of psychological torture to hold a sword of Damocles over somebody’s head for so long. It’s a process that borderlines ritual.


Hmm. Interesting take, though I still think most prisoners would take the time in prison over swift and speedy executions wrongfully done. I would love to see a study on that, though.