Never be afraid to get dirty, but be sufficiently sure-footed to avoid the abyss of contamination.

Democratic Attorney General Debate

The primary is June 8th, and the Democratic field is a bit crowded. The moderator asks the candidates about their views on the the Arizona law (they’re all against it), marijuana legalization (all against), and finally, the death penalty. Here, Kamala Harris is the only candidate to distinguish herself as being personally against the death penalty but willing to enforce the laws of California.

While Harris has come under criticism for this belief, I consider it a positive. All of the candidates admitted that our justice system is broken. A broken justice system is one that can convict innocent people, and giving the state the power to execute people for crimes they may not have committed does not make sense to me. It troubles me that other candidates can find a way to reconcile these contradicting views.

There is a compelling counter-argument that I often hear: shouldn’t there be a process to execute those who are obviously guilty of a capital crime? My problem with this argument is that it is very difficult to identify what “obvious” means from a legal standpoint. Perhaps footage of a suspect committing a crime makes it obvious, but how many pixels are necessary to distinguish the suspect from a doppelgänger? Perhaps there are eyewitnesses to the crime, but there needs to be a reliable way to measure their trustworthiness. Perhaps the suspect admits guilt, but there are several cases in which admission of guilt has not implied a suspect is guilty: those that are later recanted, made under duress, or turn out to be inconsistent with other facts. Murky standards on what is “obvious” can lend themselves to abuse.

At the same time, one might hold the view that the state should have the power to defend its citizens, and somewhat implicit in this power is the right to kill when there is a clear and present danger. This view leads to a stronger counter-argument. If a person who goes on a shooting rampage can be shot in a gun battle, is that right stripped if said person is somehow captured alive? Is dropping the gun and raising a white flag all it takes for protection from a state without the death penalty? Not having a death penalty may certainly make such hypothetical scenarios possible, but even if the state does not have the power to execute such people, it still has the slightly more limited power to reduce such a person’s ability to harm others. Of course, based on cases like Diallo, one might wonder how much power the state should have even in the supposed defense of its citizens.

Of course, it is the legislature and citizens of the state, and not the attorney general, who have the power to change state law on this matter, and whoever is elected will have to abide by those laws. Whether or not an attorney general should be elected to enforce these laws is another matter entirely.

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