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Should Michael Ross Die?

by James Graham 

Posted: 15 December 2004
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Should Michael Ross Die?

Like many other people I'm opposed to the death penalty. I have no reservations about it; I believe it's wrong in all circumstances. But that doesn't mean it's always easy to argue the case against it; nor does it mean there's no rational case to be argued in its favour.

There are instances in which it is relatively easy to decide. A woman kills her abusive husband, who has assaulted her repeatedly over a period of ten years, and who has convinced her that if she tries to leave him he will find her and kill her. Who could reasonably insist that this woman should be executed?

But then, sometimes, you come across a serious test case, a really tough one. Michael Bruce Ross is scheduled to be executed in Connecticut on 26 January 2005. If the execution is carried out, it will be the first in the state since 1960. We're not talking here of assembly-line judicial killing such as we find in Texas; this is the liberal Atlantic seaboard. Even so, Governor Jodi Rell has refused to grant him a reprieve.

Two facts interfere with Ross's eligibility for reprieve - and make him a difficult case to call upon in support of the anti-death-penalty argument. The first is the nature of his crime: he raped and strangled eight young women between the ages of 14 and 25. Even in a world of more or less casual mass killing by state military machines and freelance terrorists, these are inexorably terrible acts. There are psychiatric reports in Ross's case; unsurprisingly, he has been found to be not mentally or emotionally 'normal' - what else can we expect of a man who did these things? Nonetheless it is very tempting to set all his supposed psychiatric problems aside and conclude that a man who subjected eight women to extreme terror and agonising death, denying them all possibility of fulfilment and happiness and bringing to their families anger and grief almost beyond assuaging, does not deserve to live.

Nevertheless I don't believe he should be executed. By all the suffering he has caused, Michael Ross has taken upon himself a duty that he should not be allowed to escape: the duty to go on living. He must be made to confront the enormity of what he has done, and work towards atonement. At the same time he should work towards achieving, even for a short portion of his life, a purpose other than destruction, exemplifying a philosophy of punishment found in many societies but notably in revolutionary ones: that felons should expiate their crimes through productive work. There is nothing soft about any of this, no misguided liberal agonising over the perpetrator rather than the victim. There is a real sense in which the perpetrator's life would - and should - still be forfeit.

The second awkward fact is that in American death-row terminology he is a 'volunteer' - he has opted out of the appeals process and asked to be executed. Where does that leave the abolitionists? All other things considered, if he wants to die, let him die. But the decision by a death row detainee to volunteer for execution is one that is always hedged about with psychological and moral pitfalls. It may be the outcome of despair after protracted appeals and repeated temporary stays of execution. It may be taken in order to assert that there is still one narrow field in which the prisoner retains control of his or her own life. In a few cases there may be a desire on the prisoner's part for notoriety. Whatever the motives, we have to remember that the prisoner's decision is taken within the context of incarceration. That is, within the particular 'universe' of death row, which functions in very particular ways with structures, relationships and values unlike those of a normal community. More specifically, within the context of a loss of real decision-making initiative, in a situation in which virtually everything is out of the prisoner's hands, so that a decision to die can be felt as a final assertion of personal autonomy. The prisoner's supposed decision to die can never be taken as consensual. His 'voluntary' death cannot be seen as 'state-assisted suicide'; a much more apposite phrase would be 'prisoner-assisted homicide'.

Faced with this tough one, it's harder to argue on personal grounds, as you can in the instance of the woman who kills her violent husband. To some extent you have to shift your ground and argue from general principles: it's wrong, for example, to execute Michael Ross because an execution is an unresolvable paradox: a murder committed in order to deter murder.

This argument, incidentally, would be harder to sustain if capital punishment did in fact succeed in deterring murder. But there has never been convincing evidence that it does. To cite only one example - a very striking one - the murder rate in death-penalty states of the US is currently 65% higher than in non-death-penalty states. This differential has been widening over the past decade. So it's wrong to execute Michael Ross because his death will do nothing to prevent future killings.

The general arguments, as always, do carry some weight. But even in such a case you can deal also with the particular - even with this individual who arouses no sympathy but only revulsion. The penal system can and must enact the imperatives he has brought upon himself. He must be made to understand that by taking life he has set himself a series of demanding and inescapable tasks.

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Comments by other Members

Account Closed at 19:46 on 15 December 2004  Report this post
James, a difficult topic, one which law students spend hours pondering. The arguments for and against are well-known but what makes this article/case original is the 6th paragraph about the 'volunteering'. I think you expand on this very well. It makes me think about animals being killed due to disease (foot & mouth, mad cows, rabies) and they use the term 'euthanasia' (in France, anyway) which gives the impression the animal had the choice.


pastytraveller at 20:28 on 15 December 2004  Report this post
Albert Camus makes a very good case against capital punishment in his cheerily titled book of essays, "Resistance, Rebellion and Death". I think the article is called "Reflections on the Guillotine." I'd recommend it to anyone debating this issue.

Thanks for a thought-provoking read.


sue n at 21:31 on 15 December 2004  Report this post

When thinking about this issue I am always torn between my fundamental belief that the taking of life is wrong and the instinct that if it was my loved one murdered I would want the perpetrator to die painfully.

As no one I know is involved I can rationally argue that taking his life is the easy option - easy for him and concur with your last sentence.
Sue n


Forgot to say that the writing is impressive

Nell at 07:54 on 16 December 2004  Report this post
James, this is a succinct and compelling piece of work, and the argument is presented with conviction. I keep re-reading your last sentence, which worries me, not from the point of view of its suitability to end the piece - quite the reverse as a good piece of journalism should leave one with questions. My question is this: What 'demanding and inescapable tasks' could possibly be devised as punishment? I can only echo others' opinions - this is thought-provoking and impressive writing.


tinyclanger at 12:59 on 16 December 2004  Report this post
Concise and powerful writing, James. I always enjoy in your prose something that we see in your poems too, the very easy, flowing style which carries the reader along yet is never simplified and is perfectly capable of getting across complex ideas.
As to the debate...rather worryingly, in my case it seems to be true that as I get older I get more reactionary. Asked about this 10 years ago I would have been anti the death penalty but now I see reason in it. As Nell said WHAT tasks could constitute any adequate form of reparation or bring realisation of the pain caused, assuming the guy is capable of such feeling?
I saw a documentary recently about 'lifers' - one of them had brutaly raped and murdered. He was now claiming that after prison therapy he had found empathy with his victims...when asked how he thought she must have felt as he bashed her head against a radiator after cutting her clothes off and assaulting her, he proudly stated, "well, she must have been quite frightened"

There is also the fact that the prison service may simply not be set up in such a way as to be able to put any form of programme into operation. So often prisons seem to be simply based around a philosophy of containment, there is little funding - or will - for anything constructive to take place...perhaps it's different in the US, though I doubt it..

A very difficult issue, one that even as I write I'm wavering on.
Seems your piece works extemely well!

Anna Reynolds at 13:03 on 16 December 2004  Report this post
Echo the above, and think; give the man a column! In the newspaper world at present where so many column inches are taken up with people blethering on about insiginficant or overtly personal angsts, this is impressively profound. If bleak..

James Graham at 19:16 on 16 December 2004  Report this post
Thanks, everyone, for your positive comments.

tc, I'm sure the prison system is not at all geared to put programmes into effect. But if there was the political will, it could be made to happen. It isn't a matter of cost - the cost of the death penalty in the US, with all the protracted appeals and hearings, is much more than the cost of a life sentence. In Florida, for example, it's six times more. Without the death penalty, even with programmes in place, taxpayers' money would be saved.

Nell, you ask about 'tasks' and hit on a point I didn't really back up because I don't know enough about it, and ought to do some research.

What tasks could possibly be devised? The article does say something very general about that, but doesn't go into any detail. I'm not very well-informed as to practicalities, what actual programmes the offender should have to go through while in prison. But the tasks start with the offender's duty to go on living. It was expressed very simply by the father of one of the Oklahoma victims, who was against the execution of Timothy McVeigh. 'He must find a way to face up to the vast amount of suffering he has caused.'

Still very generally, with no nitty-gritty, the offender's task has to be to confront what he has done and try to achieve an understanding of the full implications of his crime, and ultimately - the best word I can find - atonement. There will always be some near-impossible cases - intelligent men who are capable of grasping the implications but refuse to do so, or prisoners whose powers of understanding (or moral sense) are very limited - or the guy who after years of therapy comes out with 'She must have been quite frightened'. These cases may even be in a majority - but a judgement on that can't be made in advance, so that one offender is judged saveable and avoids execution, while another is judged to be totally irredeemable and is killed. The possibility of working towards atonement must be kept open in all cases.

Another kind of task might be reparation. Some ideas on this come from the American group CUADP - Citizens United for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. The most straightforward is that prisoners should work, preferably doing work that has some sort of social or community value, and that their wages should be paid into 'a restitution fund for social, psychological and religious help for victims and survivor families'.

I like another thing the Oklahoma father said: 'Yes, our taxes will be going to feed him, clothe him, and keep him alive, but I prefer that to my taxes going to the acceptance of Timothy McVeigh's values' - meaning, of course, that his taxes would be used to pay for state-sponsored murder and so help perpetuate the same kind of values for which McVeigh was condemned.


Mr B. at 10:18 on 17 December 2004  Report this post
It's so easy with an issue like this to be sanctimonious and preachy. You make your thoughts known, but allow me to work through the questions raised without crushing my own ideas on the subject.

I remember hearing of a case in America where a convicted paedophile said he had acted on urges caused by a brain tumour he had. Once the tumour was removed he claimed he no longer had these urges and was consequently no longer a 'threat to society'.

Thanks for the read,


Zettel at 13:40 on 18 December 2004  Report this post
Compelling piece James. Fascinating from a writing point of view: there are subjects where even single words or phrases reveal a perspective. Even more, the tone of a discussion of this perplexity says all. Anyone who addresses these issues (for it is in truth, a nest of moral problems) with certainty, or an absence of the humility of doubt, is deeply troubling. You of course, as I would expect, send all the right signals. This it says, in the writing, is worth reading. And it is.

A brief observation about the arguments: first, one of the fundamental issues is captured in the phrase -
deserve to live
. If one's moral perspective is that life is a gift (transcendental or not) then 'deserving' to live makes no sense. A similar argument I believe, applies to the distinction between 'justice' and 'rights'.

Anecdotally, I checked up on 'felon': it struck me as interesting that one of its past meanings 'a wicked person' is now described as 'obsolete'. Another conceptual pebble in a large moral pond. Also, strangely, I read that all distinctions between felonies and misdemeanours were apparently eliminated in the UK in 1967.

Have to stop: I can bore for England on this stuff. Mark (Pastytraveller) offers impeccable advice: no one writes more cogently or passionately (and it is rare for those to go together) than Camus. No writer ever arrived at a conviction of the 'sacredness' of human life from such a rigorous examination of the alternatives. It is also blasphemous that so many 'Christians' are willing to sanction killing in the name of their conception of their God.

Philosophically I would change your question to: If Michael Ross dies, what possible sense might we give to the act and/or the event? The answers different people give to that, will perfectly reflect the different arguments in your piece. Sorry to name drop but it is a Wittgensteinian philosophical perspective say of this: not only is there no proof of which of these possible senses is true; but that there cannot/must not, be such a proof.

Fine piece. Thanks.


kcirts at 21:59 on 18 December 2004  Report this post
To say the death penalty is not a deterrent to crimes like murder and mayhem is not really a valid argument because it is onlu carried out in a miniscule number of cases.
Any penalty that is not carried out except in extreme cases is only a threat and can never be a deterrent to anything.
In 1953 there were 131 peole on deathrow in the United States and executions wee fairly freequent.
By last year that number had climbed to 3,374 and probably all but 20 of that number will die in prison of natural causes.
I don't make the arguement for the death penalty on the grounds that it may or may not be a deterrent to anything. But because it is a fitting and proper punishment for the heinous crimes that have been committed by the people who have been sentenced to die for those crimes.
As a side note I believe it would be a very good idea to set aside a special day to do away with all 3,374 at once.


Please excuse the typos. my computer keeps droping it's connection to the net and I didn't read this before i submited it. You can probably still get the point.

Zettel at 00:15 on 19 December 2004  Report this post
Hey Frank

Maybe your computer's trying to tell you something.


kcirts at 02:45 on 19 December 2004  Report this post
I don't think so zettel,
is that the only comment on my comment.


On the other hand my computer may be telling me there is very little point in talking to people whos ideas are all on the far left.

Zettel at 13:31 on 19 December 2004  Report this post

In my experience, the WW people I have had contact with are immensely diverse, and amazingly supportive. If you try to write and love to read, there is an implied commitment to reason and rational argument. If you want to see those qualities luminously displayed, you only have to read James' piece on which you commented.

What unites the people on this website is a sensitivity to other people's ideas and efforts to express them. And I for one do not believe that the political left have a monopoly of either compassion or concern for others.

Up to your "side note" it seems to me that although I don't agree with it, I can recognise, a legitimate argument. I have no way of knowing, but I doubt very much whether you are the only WW member with political views to the right.

Your 'side note' however was neither political nor rational: it lumped 3,374 human beings together into a waste bin of your mind and suggested destroying them all at once. Presumably to make a point. Echoes.

Even if you read James' piece, you certainly didn't read my comment on it. I'll take anyone on in an argument, whatever their views; however I really have no wish to compete in a venomous lack of compassion or discrimination of thought.

That's my last comment. It is not my place to 'speak' for anyone but myself. My ironic little remark was designed to see if you might ask yourself if your 'side note' was not OTT. I think I may have my answer.



kcirts at 16:07 on 19 December 2004  Report this post

You're right. My side note was out of line.


James Graham at 21:24 on 19 December 2004  Report this post
Zettel, thank you for your appreciative comment and for adding a philosophical edge to the subject. I agree at once that to talk about deserving or not deserving to live makes no sense. On the question in the title/headline, I think I'd ask both 'Should Michael Ross die?' and 'If he dies, what meaning can we ascribe to his death?' Do you see a contradiction in asking both questions? Does the answer to the Wittgensteinian question preclude asking the other question?

Frank, it's wise of you not to argue for the death penalty on grounds of deterrence. And it may be that even to argue against it on grounds of deterrence isn't central to the issue. But I have to argue against it on grounds of compassion. Or let Camus do it for me: 'Compassion does not exclude punishment, but it suspends the final condemnation. Compassion loathes the definitive, irreparable measure that does an injustice to mankind as a whole because of failing to take into account the wretchedness of the common condition'.

We have to remember, of course, that a very large majority of people with direct experience of 'the wretchedness of the common condition' manage to get through their lives without committing even one murder - though not so many get by without committing lesser crimes. Poverty can't be offered as a blanket excuse for the actions of murderers. Nevertheless, I think we can say that if we find poverty and violence in the offender's childhood, we have to suppose it was at least a contributory factor. If that is so, then some part at least of the cause of their murderous behaviour is social, grounded in deprivation. And if that is so, we should certainly punish them, but have no right to kill them.

I doubt as few as 20 of the present 3,000+ will be executed. There have been four executions in Texas alone in the past month, despite calls by a federal judge and a state senator for a moratorium on executions because of long-running doubts as to the reliability of the Houston police crime laboratory. One of the four executed was a woman, Frances Newton - this in spite of questionable forensic evidence, and witness evidence in her favour which wasn't presented at her trial. The number of dubious and wrongful convictions in US courts is high, largely because poor people can't afford a competent lawyer.


Zettel at 02:06 on 20 December 2004  Report this post

Absolutely nothing precludes asking both questions. W was the least presciptive of philosophers. The point of bringing him in was to draw attention to the importance of being clear what questions are being asked and avoid the trap of believing one answer can satisfy different questions. E.g "Should Michael Cross Die?" This can be several, very distinct questions masquerading as one.

Philosophy concerned itself for over 2000 years with the effort to arrive at a set of moral principles which if properly understood then all people would find acting in accordance with them undeniable and inescapable.

In his only known general public lecture W chose ethics ("I thought I should talk about something important, not just logic") he approaches, as we must, ethics through ethical language especially the idea of an absolute value. Of the above enterprise - trying to decribe a general absolute moral principle that in time we will discover, he makes the following striking remark:

.....I at once see clearly, as it were in a flash of light, not only that no description that I can think of would do to describe what I mean by absolute value, but that I would reject every significant description that anybody could possibly suggest, ab initio, on the ground of its significance..(i.e) I see now that nonsensical expressions (of absolute value) are nonsensical not because we have not yet found the correct expressions, but that their nonsensicality is of their very essence

To relate this way of thinking to the title of your excellent article: we have to decide as individuals and citizens sharing a way of life, how we should deal with cases like Michael Ross. To do so, we use the complex set of social practices which convert diverse individual opinions into agreed social and legal principles.

So, sorry to take so long: There is, can never be, any the answer to your question, only the one that by the developed means we use, what we decide as a society, shall be the answer. And the answer we give to a few morally exemplative questions like this will define, more than anything else, no less than the kind of society we are, what we hold most dear and how we want to live our lives.

It isn't anything like a science: after all we don't have to decide upon say the 2nd law of thermo-dynamics. and its not the kind of thing scientists disagree about.

I'm very tempted to delete all this as it seems way too long and probably 'up itself', but it is I think where your title leads. And why would we think the answer to that is either simple or short?

Therefore for all the reasons you so cogently cite: I prefer to live in a society that has eschewed the death penalty thus giving witness to a commitment to compassion over vengeance.


Zettel at 02:11 on 20 December 2004  Report this post

Good for you. Welcome to WW (from me). Hope to see some of your writing in due course.



kcirts at 16:31 on 20 December 2004  Report this post

Thank you for the welcome

I'd love to hear your opinion of my writing.

I've been reading some of yours and although I haven't made any comments yet I think it's quite good and very thought provoking.


James Graham at 20:10 on 20 December 2004  Report this post
Zettel, I'm grateful to you for making a lengthy comment - then I feel I'm not the only one who bangs on! I never studied philosophy, and I'm not even sure if I have the aptitude - if that's the word. What I take from your Wittgenstein quote and the points you make about it, is that to explore ideas about universal value would add depth to my question 'Should Michael Ross die?' but that's still the question I'm most keen to ask. So I suppose what I do is prioritise ethics over speculative thought.

On the subject we're talking about here, this ethic simply amounts to an assertion that it's wrong to take the life of any person whatsoever. (There are difficult issues about abortion, embryology etc. here too, but that's another subject.) It comes not from religion but a belief that each person's death is the end of that person, body, mind, and spirit - if 'spirit' can be used to bracket such things as love, imagination, courage and other qualities that seem to transcend what we call reason. Each person born is a unique being and also possesses a common humanity - I don't mean innate goodness - and this uniqueness, and this portion of common humanity, will both end absolutely at the moment of his death. For that very reason I have no right to kill him or consent that he should be killed. If we believe, on the other hand, that some essence of a person lives on after death, then it becomes easier for us to contemplate not only our own death but the premature deaths of executed criminals, soldiers (and civilians) in war, and so on - as not being the end of their lives, only of 'this life'.

I realise that all this demonstrates the truth of what you say, that the answer can't be simple - or short! But I still think that, for me, while speculations on the possibility or impossibility of arriving at an expression of absolute value are interesting and valuable, they would always be a kind of subtext to the question about what is to be done: 'Should Michael Ross die?'.


SamMorris at 21:02 on 20 December 2004  Report this post
James, I think this is an really emotive issue you have picked up on here. It cuts straight across the desire, on the one hand to do the right thing, and on the other hand suitably punish those who have committed very serious crimes. I am fairly certain that my answer to the title question would be no. I do wonder however if this would change, if I had personally known one of the women involved.

It makes me wonder, what would be the cruellest punishment: A quick and painless death, or the rest of a life spent in solitary confinement. Not that I would advocate that as an answer, just as a thought. Which one would be the most just, and / or the most barbaric punishment.

Top stuff!


Zettel at 00:11 on 21 December 2004  Report this post
I happen to share your sentiments and certainly was not arguing that the abstract philosophical question was more important than the actual question of what should be done. If executed, someone has to authorise, and someone implement the decision. What this discussion, prompted by your piece, demonstrates, is that different people will answer that question in different ways. My only philosophical point is that it is an illusion that there must be some common set of values or area of agreement within which these competing judgements can be reconciled. Thus you and I for certain ethical reasons would answer 'no': Frank takes a diametrically opposed view and can argue his answer 'yes' also has an ethical justification. Neither science, nor even ethics can give a definitive answer: that's the point of W's remarks.

In the end we must decide and then act. And how we act will reveal what we value most. The desire for certainty here is wriggling against the necessity to decide, or worse, the longing for someone else to decide for us.

Strange how philosophy written sounds more 'preachy' than in its proper form - spoken dialectic. Sorry - certainly not meant these q's trouble me as much as anyone.

You certainly have generated a fascinating debate, which I for one have enjoyed.



James Graham at 21:15 on 21 December 2004  Report this post
Sam - If one were a close relative of a murder victim...I think anyone would have to be honest and admit that's the hardest question to answer. But there are relatives, like Coretta King (Martin Luther King's widow) or the father of the Oklahoma bomb victim (see above), who were still opposed to the death sentence being passed. I'd like to think I'd be the same as them - but that's easily said.

As for life imprisonment - though this may seem too soft and liberal, I would imagine in a world without capital punishment the alternative would be more humane. I don't mean the element of punishment would be removed, far from it. But over the span of a long prison sentence I don't see that it should be impossible for the offender's life to move to a phase that was in some sense beyond punishment. We must always remember how diverse murderers are - like the rest of humanity. Some are so lacking in moral awareness they can't even see what they did in terms of right and wrong. Some are thoroughly aware of the moral implications, but use incredible stubborn energy to resist acknowledging them. Some are mentally very inadequate, some emotionally unstable. There are some who cannot be released, because they will kill again. But some may be capable in the course of a life sentence of rising in some way above the narrow mentality or want of wisdom or emotional coarseness - whatever - that characterised them when they killed.

Zettel, I understand what you mean much better from your latest comment. Knowing there are no certainties and no possibility of universally shared values, we must neverthless decide. I suppose for some - religious fundamentalists? - to be wrapped up in certainties seems a liberation, from themselves perhaps. But for me, to acknowledge that there are no certainties is the liberating thing. Not only that there are none, but there never will be!

Yes, this discussion has been very interesting. Has been...still is.

All the best to all for Christmas and 2005.


Zettel at 23:26 on 21 December 2004  Report this post

Just so. In every sense.

Thanks for your commitment throughout 2004. We are better writers for your intervention and help. Especially when you dissent!

Peace for 2005


James Graham at 18:39 on 23 December 2004  Report this post
Many thanks. Much appreciated.


James Graham at 18:44 on 23 December 2004  Report this post
I've opened up a discussion on this same topic in an American discussion forum. Unfortunately there would be no point in giving the web address as it's a members only thing. But if anybody over there has interesting points to make I can pass them on.


hsl at 00:25 on 24 December 2004  Report this post
James/Zettel - I have observed your verbal skirmish from the touchline and I have to say it has been a pleasure.Admittedly,there were times I wasn't entirely clear what you were saying and where you were heading but the sheer quality of the exchange more than compensated.

You are both fine writers in that you love words enough to look after them properly.Your sentences are properly constructed and articulated and,joy of joy,you treat punctuation as your friend.

Am I alone in my predilection for this apparently dying art?Does anybody else,I wonder,lean this way or am I barking up my own tree?


Zettel at 03:11 on 24 December 2004  Report this post
Gracious words indeed Howard. Thank you.

Your metaphor works fine for me so you are not by any means alone. I try to treat punctuation as a friend ans as such, I always listen carefully to what he says but sometimes pat him on the back and say: come on fella, don't take yourself too seriously - that works for me. If you want some comfort of course the Lynne Truss book requested in my sometime bookshop as the one about the Panda who can't spell is fun. John Humphrys new book will be better value in paperback but once you get past the pedantic rant of the first few chapters, the rest is a fascinating look as language, the media and politics. n this respect, an important book I think.

Thanks again for the kind remarks. (And thanks of course to James - it takes two to tango).



James Graham at 12:02 on 26 December 2004  Report this post
Thank you, Howard. Much appreciated. You can take liberties with punctuation, more in verse than in prose, but to do so you have to know what the norms are. Picasso made portraits with fragmented faces, ears and eyes all over the place, but he learned the conventions of portrait painting in order to do that. Yes, the punctuation marks are my friends too - though the comma is wayward, the exclamation mark is a limelight case, and the apostrophe can be an awkward customer.


Zettel at 00:44 on 27 December 2004  Report this post
Last word on punctation Howard.

I have periodic bouts of colon-itis ro mild attacks of its brother disease semi-colinitis: and even Lynne Truss doesn't cure the problem. Happy for any help from anyone. It seems like one of those 'rules' that is very clear except in thos cases where it isn't.

HAve a good holiday';:

Peace :-;,


James Graham at 11:51 on 27 December 2004  Report this post
After our wee diversion into punctuation, I've got a couple more things on the death penalty and Michael Ross. I started a thread in an American forum, but so far have had only one reply - from someone in Britain! The question I put was, knowing the facts of Ross's case, the nature of his crime, the fact that he has asked to be executed, does it alter your view on the death penalty? No word from the Americans yet...maybe it's just seasonal oblivion.

The British contributor quoted Noam Chomsky:

'The death penalty can be tolerated only by extreme statist reactionaries, who demand a state so powerful that it has the right to kill.'

The other thing is, on 'volunteering' for execution, I said in the article that Ross has a duty to go on living. You could look at that in a slightly different way - the converse or obverse of it - and say he has no right to ask anyone, even an agent of the state, to kill him. His request should be denied.

Just keeping the wheels turning! If the topic gets played out (I was going to say 'done to death'...but that's not the most felicitous phrase!) it can go off to the archive. But it's an interesting topic with a lot of implications.

Have a good Festive Season Part Two.


Zettel at 12:49 on 28 December 2004  Report this post

Some issues here are obviously normative - defining a fundamental value from which all else springs. Yet there are also it seems to me pragmatic decisions: there are many reasons for denying Ross a 'grandstanding' Gary Gilmour media circus death, and I would so deny him that. In the sure knowledge that if the request for execution is a sign of irremediable remorse, then it is not beyond the wit of anyone, on death row or not, to contrive a means of self-destruction, quietly, privately, unobtrusively. I'm not for one moment recomendating that we facilitate this in any way, but suicide out of genuine remorse would be an act that I certainly could recognise and in a sense respect. In a low profile news report recently, a young recidivist paedophile, from shame and rather than submit to arrest, committed suicide. For me, there is the stuff of tragedy there yet I suspect a popular poll would endorse "good riddance".

If I may be so arrogant as to comment upon Chomsky: philosophically and politically he is irreducibly a 'structuralist' just as the immmense diversity of language must have a deep structure to underpin it, so with political and social institutions. This is a thinly disguised deterministic view of the world. It is perhaps the diametrically opposite view, certainly about language, to that of Wittgenstein. NC is however I believe, to be respected and commended for his unswerving commitment to political dissent and concern for social issues.



James Graham at 19:42 on 29 December 2004  Report this post
Wouldn't that be a tricky one - allowing the prisoner to find a way of committing suicide, but not facilitating it in any way?

As for Chomsky, you're probably right about his general mind-set - his own 'deep structures'! - but when it comes to specifics, especially US foreign policy, his critique is impressive.

On the death penalty, he says it can be tolerated only by statist reactionaries. Not quite, NC. You go out and stop ten nice people in the street, and just ask them.


Zettel at 11:49 on 09 January 2005  Report this post

I guess my (philosophical) postion would be that from a mistaken 'stucturalist' philosophical account of language, that cannot account for its wonderful diversity and open-ended possibilities; NC extrapolates a manifestly simplistic, deterministic account of society that equally allows no room for the wonderful diversity and opened-ended possibilites of human beings with the freedom to choose.

Like you however I deeply respect his activist commitment to the right issues. One of the most precious features of that wonderful diversity, people and language, is that it allows us to distinguish between the man and his ideas, theories: no one owns ideas - they belong to us all.

That scraping sound is me hiding the soapbox away.

This piece has perhaps generated more comments and response than any other piece in 2004? Good on yer.

Happy New Year

James Graham at 15:41 on 09 January 2005  Report this post
Between us we've got Chomsky just about right. Yes, this is a long page of comments - it was a really challenging issue, one of those you can come at in so many ways.

If there's any further news from the US on the Michael Ross case, I'll post it here.


engldolph at 23:52 on 18 June 2005  Report this post
HI James,

Came across this in random read.
Very interesting and well written article from you ..and interesting debated stirred.

As Z and Wittgenstein pointed out - there doesn't appear to be value in searching for a definitive, absolute truth to this question...

My base for this if I had to vote on it...and ultimately it seems quite strongly a social concensus issue (what isn't these days)..
would be to vote no.

But my reasoning would be based solely on the thought of:
What if the executed man innocent.

There cannot be many things worse than the idea of an innocent man being strapped to an electric chair, or a platform for a lethal injection, and all with our tacit consent.

There are many examples of the imperfections of our justice system, including murder sentences and death penalties - it can never be perfect and 100% sure. The devastating wrong done by one innocent man being mistakenly put to death, for me, outweighs any possible social benefit of a guilty man being executed.

Thanks for your pursuit of the issue.


James Graham at 21:39 on 19 June 2005  Report this post
Hi Mike. This may be the strongest point against the death penalty. The number of innocent men and women executed in the US is probably quite high. It's hard to tell how many, of course, because of grey areas in the evidence in some cases, but quite a lot. One factor in this is the fact that poor people get incompetent, inexperienced or indifferent lawyers to defend them. Evidence in their favour is omitted from the trial or badly presented; the prosecution is allowed to go unchallenged.

Having said that, there was never any doubt as to Michael Ross's guilt. He raped and murdered eight young women, the youngest 14. But the law that, arguably, saw justice done in his case also sees off the innocent, or sees off the woman who kills the husband who has abused her for ten tears. The alternative - far preferable in my view - is to abolish the death penalty, and grit our teeth and let someone like Ross live so that no mistakes are made in other cases.

Ross was executed on May 13th. There was a final (as it turned out) appeal by Amnesty International a few days earlier. Other issues came into it. There was a bill for abolition due to come before the Connecticut State Legislature; if Ross had got life without parole the bill might have had a chance, but it's scuppered now.


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