Arguing The Death Penalty

I’m going to make a case as to how the death penalty is the only moral response to certain highhanded crimes, how the death penalty upholds human dignity and how the death penalty is indeed prolife.

 

It is thought by the anti folks that punishing a deserving man with the death penalty is mere revenge and therefore cruel but a man, even a criminal, has a right to his just deserts, no more, no less.  When the punishment doesn’t fit the crime then the criminal in a mere subject that the justice system tinkers with in its own subjective pursuit. As C.S. Lewis says, this humanitarian theory removes from punishment the concept of desert and the concept of desert is the only connecting link between punishment and justice. It is only as deserved or undeserved that a punishment can be just or unjust.

 

Next I will enumerate popular arguments and rebuttals to those arguments.

 

The Risk Of Executing The Innocent

 Imprisoning innocent people is also wrong, but we cannot empty the prisons because of that minimal risk. If improvements are needed in the system of representation, or in the use of scientific evidence such as DNA testing, then those reforms should be instituted. However, the need for reform is not a reason to abolish the death penalty. Besides, many of the claims of innocence by those who have been released from death row are actually based on legal technicalities. Just because someone’s conviction is overturned years later and the prosecutor decides not to retry him, does not mean he is actually innocent. If it can be shown that someone is innocent, surely a governor would grant clemency and spare the person. Given our thorough system of appeals through numerous state and federal courts, the execution of an innocent individual today is almost impossible. Our present system of capital punishment limits the ultimate penalty to certain specifically defined crimes and even then, permits the penalty of death only when the jury finds that the aggravating circumstances in the case outweigh all mitigating circumstances. The system further provides judicial review of capital cases. Finally, before capital sentences are carried out, the governor or other executive official will review the sentence to insure that it is a just one, a determination that undoubtedly considers the evidence of the condemned defendant’s guilt. Once all of those decision makers have agreed that a death sentence is appropriate, innocent lives would be lost from failure to impose the sentence. Capital sentences, when carried out, save innocent lives by permanently incapacitating murderers. Some persons who commit capital homicide will slay other innocent persons if given the opportunity to do so. The death penalty is the most effective means of preventing such killers from repeating their crimes. The next most serious penalty, life imprisonment without possibility of parole, prevents murderers from committing some crimes but does not prevent them from murdering in prison.

The mistaken release of guilty murderers should be of far greater concern than the speculative and virtually nonexistent risk of the mistaken execution of an innocent person.

 

The Death Penalty Is Racist And Is Applied Arbitrarily

 While it is true that it is mostly white victims that place murderers on death row (75% of death row inmates killed a white victim). More whites than blacks are executed (56% whites, 34% blacks). While most murderer-victim pairings are same race, whites kill whites, blacks kill blacks, white victims will land a murderer on death row more often than black victims even though 52% of homicides are black victims and 43% of homicides are white victims. It’s also evident that sentencing is arbitrarily handed down. Meaning one case will get the death penalty and a seemingly similar case will get life in prison. The overarching thesis is that the application of the death penalty is unfair.

Discretion has always been an essential part of our system of justice. No one expects the prosecutor to pursue every possible offense or punishment, nor do we expect the same sentence to be imposed just because two crimes appear similar. Each crime is unique, both because the circumstances of each victim are different and because each defendant is different. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that a mandatory death penalty, which applied to everyone convicted of first-degree murder, would be unconstitutional. Hence, we must give prosecutors and juries some discretion. In practice, the death penalty does not single out the worst offenders. Rather, it selects an arbitrary group based on such irrational factors as the quality of the defense counsel, the county in which the crime was committed, or the race of the defendant or victim. Almost all defendants facing the death penalty cannot afford their own attorney. Hence, they are dependent on the quality of the lawyers assigned by the state, many of whom lack experience in capital cases or are so underpaid that they fail to investigate the case properly. A poorly represented defendant is much more likely to be convicted and given a death sentence. Even if the death penalty punishes some while sparing others, it does not follow that everyone should be spared. The guilty should still be punished appropriately, even if some do escape proper punishment unfairly. The death penalty should apply to killers of black people as well as to killers of whites. High paid, skillful lawyers should not be able to get some defendants off on technicalities. The existence of some systemic problems is no reason to abandon the whole death penalty system. After all there are systemic problems with imprisoning people as well. Should we empty the prisons? No. We maintain a justice system even while there are systemic flaws.

 

It Should Not Be Within Mans Power To Take A Life

Why should it be within mans power to mandate life imprisonment? Or mandate treatment? Or mandate anything?

Victims have the right to punish wrongdoers and the reasons for creating a state include reasons for potential victims to transfer that right to the state and avoid the chaos and vengeance of vigilante justice. After all, retributive justice is not revenge because it hands a criminal his just deserts whereas revenge, propelled by emotion, is not concerned with giving a criminal no more than what is just, revenge is concerned with satisfying the rage.

Because we have a system of justice in our society that is based on the inalienable view that all people are made in the image of God and endowed with human dignity we correct misbalances and it is right to do so as long as the punishment matches the crime.

 

Man Shouldn’t Play God

 See my post here.

 

The Death Penalty Is Cruel And Unusual

When someone takes a life, the balance of justice is disturbed. Unless that balance is restored, society succumbs to a rule of violence. Only the taking of the murderer’s life restores the balance and allows society to show convincingly that murder is an intolerable crime that will be punished in kind. For the most cruel and heinous crimes, the ones for which the death penalty is applied, offenders deserve the worst punishment under our system of law, and that is the death penalty. Any lesser punishment would undermine the value society places on protecting lives and life in general.

In 2011 Anders Breivik killed 77 people, mostly children, the largest mass shooting in modern history. He was deemed sane and sentenced to serve 21 years in prison “in a three-cell suite of rooms equipped with exercise equipment, a television and a laptop.” That’s 100 days of posh prison time for each person he murdered, with a legal release possible at age 53. After his 21-year smack-on-the-hand for killing 77 people, Breivik could be kept there indefinitely by judges adding a succession of five-year extensions. This is thought of as the more humane punishment for murderers in contrast to the US whose criminal justice system is thought of as “cruelly punitive”.

What’s ironic is that Norway’s humanitarian theory is cruel and unusual because it removes just deserts from punishment and imposes therapeutic means of punishment that is subjectively devised and handed down. If it’s up to judge’s subjective therapy then should it not be in the hands of experts? After all we’re talking about prescriptions, not just deserts. The Humanitarian theory, then, removes sentences from the hands of jurists whom the public conscience is entitled to criticize and places them in the hands of technical experts whose special sciences do not even employ such categories as rights or justice. If a criminal’s sentence does not have to accord with what he deserves, it does not have to be just. At that point we are all at the mercy of those who are in power to call anything we do a crime and give it any therapeutic or remedial solution they choose, including gas chambers and medical alterations.

At each appeal Breivik will be assessed by a panel that will take no note of just deserts, they will solely ponder him- is he remorseful, is he rehabilitated, is he no longer a threat?  77 dead children won’t even exist in the periphery, only two subjects- the moods of the panel and the sales pitch of the murderer.

Wrongdoers have a “right to be punished” such that not punishing them with just deserts wrongs them. What is meant is that wrongdoers have the right to be treated as the kind of being who can be held responsible and punished, rather than as sick or dangerous beasts.  It is more respectful of normal humans to treat them as beings with the kind of dignity that comes with being responsible for their choices than not. Treating normal humans as merely more or less dangerous animals, whose behavior can hopefully be modified with threats and rewards is to over-extend the medical model. The medical model should be applied only to those whose mental capacities are distinctly sub-normal. Which speaks to the therapeutic sentence. Retributive justice maintains the dignity of the wrongdoer whereas therapeutic sentencing (sentencing concerned with rehabilitation or deterrence and not just deserts) treats the wrongdoer as sub-human. It is exactly because he is a human being with dignity, with all his faculties, who chose an evil act by free will that restoration should be just deserts.

 

 

Retributive justice is the only objective (because it is exactly what he deserves, no more, no less), humane (because it maintains his dignity as a human being with faculties of free will and reason) and prolife (because it treats life as valuable and profoundly worth protecting) sentence of justice there is.

Arguing The Death Penalty

Forgiveness

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Have you ever been hurt so badly that forgiveness seems like a contemptible commandment? Of course you have! Haven’t we all?! And even if your personal life has squeaked by largely unscathed there is the horror of the Holocaust that makes us remember. There is pain, misery, evil and death out there. Even in your home those things reside, rearing their head between moments of joy or peace, like a whack-a-mole. Can’t I just whack that thing once and for all? Do you find your exhaustion and your resentment festering until it becomes as C.S. Lewis describes- “a black we wish was blacker”? In other words, if you found out that some indicting point of view you have about someone is untrue would your reaction be ‘phew, he is not as bad as I thought’ or steadfastness in your indignation that your hatred has to be well founded? Aren’t we all guilty of the latter? We want people to be as guilty as our feelings sentence them with. But the former is the type of love forgiveness is rooted in.

 

Lewis thought Chastity was the most unpopular virtue. That is, until Forgiveness. We are called to love our neighbor as ourself but within that paradigm is your enemy. If everyone around you are idiots or more nefariously, corrupt, how can you love them? What does that look like?

 

Here is what forgiveness is not. It is not feeling fondly for the person. It is not finding them attractive. It is not thinking them nice when they have not been.

 

“This is an enormous relief. For a good many people imagine that forgiving your enemies means making them out that they are not really such bad fellows after all, when it is quite plain that they are.” –C.S. Lewis

 

Forgiveness does not reduce the hatred we feel for the wretchedness of the wrongdoing. We ought to hate it. It does not mean that the subject of the wretched act ought not be punished. Punishments and governing authorities are anointed to administer earthly justice. Deserved punishment is a wrongdoer’s right as a human being. Because we are ‘selves’ or self conscious sentient beings or made in the image of God (whichever way you want to put it), because we have that level of dignity above all other creatures and life forms on the planet is why just deserts matter. Forgiveness doesn’t negate retributive justice. So, depending on the trespass, jail or prison or death may be necessary. For the Gestapo this is necessary. But even in the execution of the punishment we should, as Lewis says, “feel about the enemy as we feel about ourselves- to wish that they were not bad, to hope that he may, in this world or another, be cured: in fact, to wish his good.”

 

What does forgiveness look like for a spouse, friend or family member who hurt us personally? It means loving someone who is sometimes unlovable. But then, are you yourself ever unlovable? Yes. We all are. Whether it’s that I must always be right or that I mentally reduce my loved ones to fools when their interests or idiosyncrasies or delights seem below me. Whether it’s having unreasonable standards or being perfectionist. Whether it’s glossing over my own wretchedness to go out of my way in pointing out theirs. Whether it’s my impatience, my intolerance, my misunderstanding, my anger, my rudeness, my frustration: MY EGO, these all make me deplorably unlovable. Even in my ‘noble’ hope that my loved one be cured of their unlovable affliction, which is an aspect of holy forgiveness (we are called to approach forgiveness with hope for redemption) we still miss the mark with this focus. Even reading this essay you have someone else in mind. You’re thinking of someone who may or may not deserve your forgiveness. Which leads us to what forgiveness IS.

 

Lewis sums it up so well here:

 

“For a long time I used to think this a silly, straw-splitting distinction: how could you hate what a man did and not hate the man? But years later it occurred to me that there was one man to whom I had been doing this all my life- namely myself. However much I dislike my own cowardice or conceit or greed, I went on loving myself. There had never been the slightest difficulty about it. In fact the very reason why I hated the things was that I loved the man. Just because I loved myself, I was sorry to find that I was the sort of man who did those things.”

 

Isn’t that sharp?! There is someone in this universe that you always go out of your way to forgive. Yourself. When you’ve done something awful (and you have! We all have.) how long does it take you to forgive yourself, an hour, a day, maybe for the more brooding personality a month? Then you carry on enjoying your own company and finding yourself quite worthy and deserving of good things. That is what forgiveness looks like. But what forgiveness is is this: love your neighbor as yourself. It’s a challenging call because ‘our self’ is our constitution that we’re stuck with, that we can’t be rid of, that we can’t abandon so forgiving it is not only built in but necessary. Another’s self isn’t lodged in our being. We can abandon it. But how much more selfless and good and glorious is it to choose to love an abandonable person than the automatic and choiceless act of loving ourself? You would wish your loved one would choose love for you. Through your wretchedness, your guilt, your sorrow you wish for forgiveness and love from them.

 

So do they from you.

 

Forgiveness says, you have done an evil thing; nevertheless, I will not hold it against you. I love you.

 

This is why forgiveness is unpopular, radical and HARD. But for ourselves it is simple. We should extend the generosity we give ourselves to other people. That is love.

 

To love is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully in your hobbies and your vices, avoid all entanglements, lock it up safely in the coffin of your selfishness. But in the coffin- safe, dark, motionless, airless- it will change. It will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to heartbreak isn’t safety, it’s damnation. The only place you can be free from the danger of love is Hell.

– paraphrase of C.S. Lewis

 

 

Forgiveness