Dogma

In the 2003 film “The Life of David Gale” Kevin Spacey plays a philosophy professor and anti-death penalty crusader who finds himself on death row, and is executed. The twist in the tale is that though he is innocent, the whole affair, resulting in the execution of an innocent man, is planned by Spacey and his colleague and he leaves behind the proof of his innocence, proof that the system failed.

This fear, of putting an innocent man to death, has always troubled those with a conscience—it has always been one of the greatest arguments against the penalty. And New Yorker, in a recent story, asks if Texas finally did it. Looking at the way the justice and law enforcement systems work in many countries, it would seem that justice is the last thing they are interested in. From cops who act like goons, to judges who behave and talk like bureaucrats, to elected representatives who pander to public opinion and special interests who depend on a bloated justice system, justice isn’t something many people are interested in.

In the case in question, it seems that the investigators who helped execute the man relied on “intuition” rather than science. The paragraph before last-

In 2005, Texas established a government commission to investigate allegations of error and misconduct by forensic scientists. The first cases that are being reviewed by the commission are those of Willingham and Willis. In mid-August, the noted fire scientist Craig Beyler, who was hired by the commission, completed his investigation. In a scathing report, he concluded that investigators in the Willingham case had no scientific basis for claiming that the fire was arson, ignored evidence that contradicted their theory, had no comprehension of flashover and fire dynamics, relied on discredited folklore, and failed to eliminate potential accidental or alternative causes of the fire. He said that Vasquez’s approach seemed to deny “rational reasoning” and was more “characteristic of mystics or psychics.” What’s more, Beyler determined that the investigation violated, as he put it to me, “not only the standards of today but even of the time period.” The commission is reviewing his findings, and plans to release its own report next year. Some legal scholars believe that the commission may narrowly assess the reliability of the scientific evidence. There is a chance, however, that Texas could become the first state to acknowledge officially that, since the advent of the modern judicial system, it had carried out the “execution of a legally and factually innocent person.”

The last phrase is based on a statement by a former Justice of the US Supreme Court, Sandra Day O’Connor, who had noted that the “execution of a legally and factually innocent person would be a constitutionally intolerable event.” A current Justice doesn’t think that however.

The anger of those who reviewed the case, nine so far, all with similar conclusions, is valid. Both Beyler, recently, and Hurst in ’04, dismiss the techniques used, calling them “junk science” etc. It isn’t surprising though that many people use such techniques and simply “believe” in them. Humans have shown time and again that they are more likely to believe in fairy tales than facts.

Pragmatism as a philosophy isn’t worth much. But pragmatist philosopher Sidney Hook did say one thing—”What cannot be tested in action is dogma.” Make of it what you will.

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