My argument is actually somewhat different from what you are describing. As the death penalty is now practiced in America, we take extra precautions with it, in virtue of its irreversibility. As a result, two advantages of the death penalty over life imprisonment are compromised. First, while most people think the state pays less by using the death penalty than it does in life imprisonment, the fact is that when litigation costs are factored in, execution is more expensive. Second, the deterrent effect is diminished, since not only does the criminal expect to get away with it (otherwise, he wouldn't commit the crime), but also, should someone actually be tried and convicted and sentence to death, death is hardly immanent, because the murderer can expect a long appeals process which is going to delay the execution for many years, assuming the execution occurs at all. This is probably the reason why crime statistics in states without the death penalty are no worse than in states with it. Having the death penalty just means that you might be sentenced to death, and then after 20 years or so, after your appeals run out, you may get executed, unless, of course, they decide not to execute you, which they might very well do.
i) Actually, I think that exposes the duplicity of death-penalty opponents. They raise inconsistent objections.
On the one hand they object to capital punishment because the appellate process diminishes the deterrent effect of capital punishment.
On the other hand they object to capital punishment given the risk of executing the innocent.
Yet the point of the appellate process is to minimize the risk of executing the innocent. So if this is a dilemma for death-penalty proponents, it is also a dilemma for death-penalty opponents.
ii) And this is a false dilemma for death-penalty proponents who support capital punishment primarily on grounds of retribution rather than deterrence.
Of course, the irreversibility of the death penalty is an argument against its very existence.
i) But, as I pointed out in my post, our society condones many hazardous activities. Those consequences are equally irreversible. So Reppert will need to modify his argument.
ii) A life sentence is also irreversible for innocent convicts who die in prison.. And even if their conviction is reversed 40 years later, they can’t get those years back. You go in young, you come out old. Your kids are grown. Your wife remarried. Your mojo is gone.
However, where we do practice the death penalty, we seem to concede an important point to its opponents, namely, that there should be a lot more appeals when we execute than when we imprison, because we can release exonerated prisoners, but not people we have executed.
i) Actually, I see no reason why we shouldn’t take the same precautions in case of life imprisonment.
ii) Keep in mind, though, that under our current system, the point of appealing the verdict is not to confirm or disconfirm the actual guilt of the defendant, but to confirm or disconfirm whether he received a “fair” trial. Were his due process rights violated at any point? Should he be acquitted on a technicality, even if he’s guilty? So we could streamline the process without upping the risk of executing the innocent.
iii) Also keep in mind that death-penalty opponents don’t necessarily view life imprisonment as a morally acceptable alternative. They may offer that as part of their incremental strategy to phase out the death penalty, but they may also view life imprisonment as harsh, vindictive, and pointless.
If, say, they reject retributive punishment in favor of remedial punishment, they are just as likely to oppose life imprisonment for murder. Consider how Norway punishes murder–even mass murder.