By this time I’m sure most of you already saw the brief, national flurry of coverage over Donald Trump’s proposal to mandate the death penalty for convicted cop killers. This led to the same flurry of arguments from critics with aghast looks on their faces which ensues after, well… pretty much everything Trump says. Allahpundit weighed in on it last night with his own set of arguments, leading to a lengthy conversation among our readers over the various merits of the plan, or lack thereof.
Speaking as someone who has been a vocal proponent of just such a plan – whether on the state or federal level – going back to the days when we still had the death penalty in New York, I have to take exception with at least a few of the points being raised. I’ll preface this by saying that the idea of any president “mandating” such a thing is well and truly out the window for a number of reasons, several of which AP captured nicely. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not a policy which can’t be implemented or shouldn’t be considered.
One of the first and most common objections I’ve seen was repeated by AP and it deals with the question of states’ rights and the controversial nature of the death penalty.
Besides, anyone who’s been following the last few years of Obama’s executive overreach already sees the problems here. For starters, cop-killer prosecutions usually fall under state, not federal, jurisdiction. Nineteen states have abolished the death penalty entirely, including Trump’s home state of New York. The idea that the president can dictate to a state how it should punish its criminals is a kick in the nuts to federalism so sharp that even Obama wouldn’t try it.
It’s true that the vast majority of murder and homicide cases are handled at the state level under their own rules. This is particularly true when both the killer and the victim(s) are from the same state. Why get the feds involved if you don’t need to? But as with all things there are exceptions and this question is no different. For example, I know one person who was tried for killing other residents of his own state where the death penalty is banned but was still sentenced to die this year. His name is Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Massachusetts doesn’t have the death penalty, but Tsarnaev was taken to trial in federal court. With that as a backdrop, why should we not consider the murder of law enforcement officers as an equally serious matter worthy of federal attention? (It should be noted that he didn’t get the death penalty for the murder of MIT police officer Sean Collier… but he should have.)
There are, of course, understandable objections to the proposal. One comment from a reader last night asked the following questions:
What makes a police officer’s life more valuable than, say, that of a fireman or a secretary? Or, for that matter, any father or mother, or anyone else going through life in an honest fashion?
It’s a fair question and one I’ve addressed here before. I absolutely agree (and I believe the vast majority of cops would as well) that the person inside the police uniform is still a human being with a life which is not inherently more or less valuable than that of any other citizen. We admire and respect our first responders, (at least most of us do) but they are not a special class of citizen. But when you murder a uniformed police officer in the line of duty you are doing more than putting a hole in one human being. You’re literally attacking the physical embodiment of the line our society has mutually decided to draw between civilization and mayhem. You’re putting a hole in the fabric of the social contract which allows all of us to lead otherwise peaceful lives within the law. It’s a more serious crime than the murder of one individual.
We don’t seem to draw much of a line as to where the feds should or shouldn’t intervene in other types of cases, and I’m not just talking about terrorists like Tsarnaev. The Justice Department somehow manages to get its snoot into the pie whenever a police officer shoots a suspect these days, particularly if that suspect is a minority. In fact, all you need to do during any alleged violation is slap the phrase “hate crime” on it and the feds will generally swoop in and take over the investigation. Whether you’re talking about terrorist threats or “hate crimes” on the streets, isn’t the murder of a law enforcement officer charged with keeping order in society at least on the same level?
So how do you do it? As I said above, a “mandate” from the Oval Office is preposterous. But a president could provide the leadership on the issue to get Congress to consider the matter and bring such killings into the federal arena. The Department of Justice could also be instructed to ensure that such allegations receive the attention they deserve and that the death penalty is at least on the table. Should it be mandatory in all cases? On that score Trump oversteps the boundaries of good sense, assuming that’s what he actually intended to say. Some prosecutorial discretion has to be left in play because not all incidents are created equal. There may be certain cases, particularly when a suspect is seriously impaired or a clear argument can be made for an accidental weapons discharge, when the death penalty may not be appropriate. But for the vast majority of them it should be. Sure, there are issues with Trump’s ad hoc proposal when it comes to the fine details, but let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater here.