It has been a while since I have discussed the subject of capital punishment on this site. Indeed, my only piece of writing dealing solely with the subject is an 11th Grade English paper titled “Thou Shalt Not Kill“—coincidentally, the oldest piece of content still present on this site. If you go read it, please bear in mind that it doesn’t exactly reflect my opinions today (though it does come pretty close), and I was a much worse writer back then.
There have been a few passing mentions in the mean time, but in general I’ve been pretty quiet on the subject. In light of yesterday’s execution of Troy Davis in Georgia, which has proved quite controversial, I figured it was time to finally give capital punishment the full Off on a Tangent treatment. This subject is one where I have basically always found myself at-odds with my fellow conservatives. While right-wing politicos are usually the loudest supporters of the death penalty, I have always found it distasteful.
Our legal system is predicated on the idea that it is better for ten guilty persons to go free than to convict one innocent. This is why so many prominent accused criminals—O.J. Simpson and Cacey Anthony, for example—are acquitted when the evidence against them seems overwhelming. Even so, our courts do convict innocent people from time-to-time. Often they are exonerated later, though I am sure that sometimes they are not. That this will happen occasionally is inevitable, though we must do everything we can to prevent it. When it does happen and the error is discovered, the victim of that miscarriage of justice must be set free and generously compensated for their unjust hardship. We can, and must, always set these errors right.
But when the innocent has been put to death, they cannot be set free. The dead cannot be compensated by the government for their troubles. The punishment is permanent. This is the primary reason that I have always opposed the death penalty: the risk, however remote, of killing an innocent far outweighs any potential benefit to the victims of crime or for the society.
Oft-cited reasons for supporting capital punishment include its purported deterrent effect, that society must be protected from violent killers, and that it is just to kill one who has killed. Let us address these one-by-one.
The purported deterrent effect has never been supported by the facts. The vast majority of murders are committed in the heat of passion, when the consequences are the last thing on the killer’s mind. Those who commit premeditated and planned murders are usually suffering from a strong delusion that they will get away with it. As such, the consequences are of no concern to them. Comparisons of violent crime rates between states with and without the death penalty reveal little discernible difference . . . indeed, permissive firearm ownership laws—which pose an immediate risk to the criminal that doesn’t require them to get caught first—seem to be much more effective in this area. Likewise, states that have instituted or dismantled capital punishment programs have seen little-to-no change in violent crime rates.
The argument that society must be protected from violent killers seems plausible on its face, but it suffers a fatal logical disconnect. Society is no more or less safe from a violent criminal imprisoned for life than it is from one who is dead (barring the extraordinarily rare jailbreaks). In fact, the cost of putting a criminal to death (including the many guaranteed appeals) is higher than the average cost of imprisoning them for the remainder of their natural life. If protecting society is our concern, there are cheaper and equally-effective ways of doing it. Furthermore, life imprisonment gives the criminal a chance to contemplate his actions, suffer remorse, and hopefully eventually reform himself. Although he will never reenter society, this opportunity for redemption has high moral and religious value. We Christians are concerned about justice, yes, but we should also be concerned about people’s souls—even violent criminals’.
Lastly, we are told that it is just to kill a killer. This also seems plausible on its face but suffers from serious problems. If this is true, then why is it not so in any other case? We do not rape rapists. We do not steal from robbers. We do not assault those who commit assaults. Justice demands that the severity of the punishment fit the severity of the crime, yes, but it does not demand punishment in-kind. Murder is among the most serious of crimes and warrants the most serious of punishments . . . but killing a killer is not justice.
Having said all of this, we must recognize that capital punishment, while unjust, is not as extremely so as many of its opponents would accuse. The argument that the death penalty is, in and of itself, a form of murder is an invalid argument. Murder is the intentional killing of an innocent human being at any stage of their life. Those subjected to capital punishment are not innocent (except in those rare cases where there has been a miscarriage of justice). There are times when killing is a moral, appropriate thing to do—in a just war, in self defense, etc. Killing an innocent out of malice and killing a killer after he has been lawfully convicted are, morally speaking, two very different things . . . even if you argue, as I do, that both are wrong. There is little moral equivalence between executing a convicted murderer and, say, raping and murdering a college student. The attempt to make them appear equivalent serves to undermine the anti-capital punishment position much more than it helps it.
We must also address the religious argument, held by many conservative Christians, that capital punishment is established and upheld by Scripture. First and most obviously, I should point out that Jesus Christ himself was an innocent man, charged and convicted by the legal system of his day, and then put to death in accordance with the law. Most of his chosen Apostles met similar fates at the hands of the Roman government, as did thousands of Christian martyrs in those early days of the Church.
It is true that the Old Testament law called for the death penalty as a criminal punishment, and that the Christian Church has always accepted its use in certain circumstances (though this allowance has sometimes been abused by people claiming to act in the name of the Church). Before the existence of robust, permanent criminal justice systems and prisons, putting a killer to death was often the only reasonable way of protecting society from him. The Church taught that, in these cases, the death penalty was perfectly acceptable because it was necessary for preserving public safety. Today, the circumstances are different. The same un-changing doctrine of the Church—that public safety is the determinant of proper punishment for violent criminals—leads us to a different course.
The correct Christian position on capital punishment in modern society is spelled out very clearly in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 2267:
Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.
If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.
Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm – without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself – the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity “are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.”
This is precisely why Christ established an authoritative Church to weigh moral issues and come to binding conclusions, the early history of which is recorded in the Book of Acts. If we are all left to create our own interpretation of Scripture, then many of us are bound to interpret incorrectly. This is way so many Christian sects come to so many different conclusions on major issues, including this one.
But if we take the time to learn what Scripture has to say about capital punishment, and interpret those statements in accord with the age-old teachings and traditions of the Church that Christ established, we come to the conclusion that it is largely obsolete today. Where there are non-lethal means at our disposal to protect society from the violent criminal, we must use them instead. This is what true Christian faith demands of us. We must always, as much as possible, allow the criminal the opportunity to redeem himself in this life.
There are many perspectives from which to evaluate capital punishment in the United States. We may root our positions in Christian faith, or in the scientific data on its effectiveness as a deterrent, or on an evaluation of its justice, or on the relative risk of putting an innocent person to death. By any of these standards, it is clear that we must move beyond the death penalty. In history, capital punishment served the righteous purpose of protecting society from violence. Today, it is no longer necessary. We can accomplish the same purpose in other ways.