In regard to the issue of capital punishment there seem to be some discrepancies in this theory. When was the last time you read about someone with money or influence being put to death by the state after being convicted of first degree murder? Then again, how often do we read about a person with money or influence ever been convicted of first degree murder?
One major ethical and legal issue is the tremendous disparity between black and white criminals. Statistically, African Americans who commit capital crimes are much more likely to be sentenced to death than white defendants. A major factor is the level of legal representation that African American defendants can afford. Unless they are fortunate enough to be able to retain a prominent criminal defense attorney pro-bono, most African American defendants will be represented by a public defender.1
Are there two completely different systems of justice based upon a person’s social standing or level of education? This issue was addressed in the novel Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881). The main character, Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, has developed a theory that people are divided into two “camps” namely the ordinary and the extraordinary. Rodion Raskolnikov believes that the “ordinary” person must pay the consequences for their actions, but this is not true for the “extraordinary” person.
An impoverished former law student, Raskolnikov considers himself to be one of the “extraordinary” people. He decides to test his “theory” by robbing and murdering Alyona Ivanovna, a local unpleasant and elderly pawnbroker, with an ax which he stole and theorizes that this robbery is justified because the money will be used for a “higher purpose”. While attempting to flee from this woman’s apartment he is confronted by her half-sister, Lizaveta Ivanovna, whom he also kills. He manages to steal a few items, but the majority of the old woman’s wealth and possessions are left untouched.
Following the murder of these two women, Raskolnikov begins to descend into madness. Prior to the murder he had begun losing his grip on reality, but the double murder has only made him worse. His suspicious behavior points to him as the primary suspect of this crime, but there is no proof of his guilt.
Based upon the available evidence, Raskolnikov could “get away with murder”, if it were not for the fact that his conscience is tearing him apart emotionally. He does not want to confess to this double murder and have to pay the penalty for his actions, but he is finally confesses his actions to Sonia, a prostitute who has very strong Christian values and only becomes a prostitute because of her family’s financial state.
While he is confessing his crime to Sonya, this confession is overheard by Arkady Ivanovich Svidrigaïlov, a former employer of Avdotya Romanovna Raskolnikova, Rodion’s sister. Arkady Svidrigailov, who was considered a suspect in the death of his own wife, attempts to seduce and rape Rodion’s sister, who convinces him not to. He spends the night in confusion and despair and in the morning he shoots himself.
The only person besides Sonya who knows what Raskolnikov did has committed suicide. He could simply leave St. Petersburg and begin a new life somewhere else, but Raskolnikov goes to the police station and confesses his crimes.
The epilogue tells of how Raskolnikov is sentenced to penal servitude in Siberia, where Sonya follows him. Avdotya and Dmitri Prokofich Razumikhin, Raskolnikov’s friend, marry and are left in a happy position by the end of the novel, while Pulkheria Alexandrovna Raskolnikova, Raskolnikov's mother, falls ill and dies, unable to cope with her son's situation. Raskolnikov himself struggles in Siberia. It is only after some time in prison that his redemption and moral regeneration begin under Sonya's loving influence. 2
While Raskolnikov considers himself to be one of the “extraordinary” people (equal to someone such as Napoleon Bonaparte); however, by the end of the novel he is sentenced to serve a prison term in Siberia where he pays for his crime like any “ordinary” person would. Raskolnikov could not ignore his guilty conscience. Is Dostoevsky saying that one of the things which separate “ordinary” from “extraordinary” people is that “extraordinary people” have no conscience?
1) “The Case Regarding Capital Punishment” http://heideggerm1.blogspot.com/2011/02/case-regarding-capital-punishment.html
2) “Crime and Punishment” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crime_and_Punishment