The Death Penalty At Its Best

Virginia executed the D.C. Sniper tonight, and I am not sorry. Apparently not very many others are either: in stark contrast to past executions, like that of Gary Gilmore, anti-death penalty protests regarding the execution of John Muhammad have been minimal.

A responsible society is obligated to have a death penalty to set an appropriate upper limit for state imposed punishment. Without such a ceiling, the punishment for every other crime must be ratcheted down, and this tends to lower the penalty for capital crimes as well. The Lockerbie Bomber would never have been released after a short prison term in the U.S., as he was by Scotland; in all likelihood, he would have been executed. As with Ted Bundy, Timothy McVeigh, and Muhammad, it would have been a case of the punishment fitting the crime.

Maintaining the death penalty is an ethical act by society, elevating responsibility over mercy as a virtue. A society must demonstrate respect for life, and has a duty to protect it, and honor it, by meting out serious punishment for the crime of taking it away. Other justifications for the death penalty are illusory. It does not deter murder. It does not creat “closure” for the victims’ families. Vengeance is an unethical rationale for punishment.

What the death penalty does accomplish is to declare that some conduct is so vile and intolerable that the perpetrater forfeits the right to live or be cared for by the community that he or she has harmed. We can debate what that conduct is; but it is important that we designate some conduct as reaching those depths of intolerability. The D.C. Sniper certainly qualifies.

Much is made of the fact that Europe has almost entirely abolished the death penalty. Europeans, however, have a history that gives them an extra incentive: executions were used as a means of political control and oppression in almost every nation. The United States doesn’t have that history, and our citizens do not have that fear.  The United States executes killers, not patriots. The Europeans are wrong, but their orientation is easy to understand.

Amnesty International has condemned Muhammad’s execution, and the organization is true to its mission by doing so. But in the case of Muhammud, its argument seems strained and without conviction. “There are lines that we as a society should simply not cross, or lines that we should not cede to our governments the power to cross, ” it declares. Agreed.  But executing a mass murderer does not cross that line, in my view. The organization expresses concern that Muhammad might have been mentally ill. I’m sure he was; I’m certain all mass murderers are, in some respect, mentally ill. Sociopaths are, if you like, mentally ill. But our law holds that if an individual can comprehend the nature of his act, he is sane enough to be punished.That is a fair and reasonable standard.

Finally, Amnesty International quotes the statistics of condemned men being exonerated in the wake of new evidence. This is a non sequitur in a discussion of the execution of the D.C. Sniper. Nobody doubted his guilt or credibly argued for his innocence. If we decided to limit the death penalty only to the cases where there was absolutely no chance that the wrong individual was in custody, that would be a reasonable, if extreme, limitation.  It would still be applicable to Muhammad, Bundy, the BTK Killer, McVeigh, Jeffrey Dahmer, David Westerfield, and other monsters. It doesn’t have to be a large category. It just has to be there, making society’s statement that there are some crimes against humanity that preclude mercy.

We should not cheer the death of the D.C. Sniper, or any human being. We should, however, be secure that our government recognizes that life is precious, and taking it away warrants the permanent, irrevocable removal of all rights—even the right to life itself.

9 thoughts on “The Death Penalty At Its Best

  1. I had actually forgotten he was due to be executed until I saw an article on MSNBC that said it was done. I think the article claimed he ‘maintained his innocence.’ Maybe he did, but from what I understand, the trial was what my brother and I refer to as a ‘slam-dunk,’ meaning the guilt is not the least bit in doubt.

    I would not mind the death penalty only being applied in cases that are ‘slam-dunks,’ such as with connecting DNA evidence or other irrefutable evidence. Nevertheless, I’ve always believed that, with the incredible potential of the human imagination, there must be SOME crime so heinous that it deserves the ultimate punishment.

  2. Or to put it another way, the orientation of the post, we must have an ultimate penalty, and undoubtedly we will have occasion, however rare, to use it.

    The Sniper didn’t plead guilty, which means that he technically maintained his innocence. He made a jury convict him. But he never offered any credible or specific argument that he didn’t do the crimes, because, quite obviously, he did them.

  3. That’s another issue. Most people who plead guilty avoid the death penalty, but is there a crime so odious that even that should lead to execution? Treason, perhaps? (I’ve previously said that even if we abolish the death penalty for every other possible civilian infraction, treason should still be punished with the death penalty when appropriate.)

  4. There is no legal or ethical reason why pleading guilty should mitigate a sentence for any crime. I don’t have time now, but I’d love to know how often a guilty plea has failed to stop a death sentence. My guess is “often,” but not lately.

  5. Jack,
    Let me start off by saying how nice it is nice for someone to defend the death penalty without resorting to the common cliches (it’s cheaper, it’s a deterrent, etc); however, there is one argument against it which I have yet to receive a satisfactory answer to: the question of human fallibility.

    As with everything created by man, the justice system is flawed and liable to make the occasional mistake. The old adage, of course, is that it’s better to see 10 killers set free than 1 innocent man go to jail, yet, any number of innocent people are put away every year. And while it may be one thing to argue that such people are the unfortunate victims of an imperfect system; surely it can’t be ethical to condemn some to death because of it?

    Even if false convictions are rare (and I prefer to think that they are), it would seem that in cases of capital punishment even one is too many. Whatever good the death penalty may do in society, it seems that the potential for evil is far too great to ignore. Israel has only formally sentenced two men to death over the course of it’s history: one being Adolf Eichmann (who I won’t be losing any sleep over), and the second was a man named Meir Tobianski who, as it later turned out, was completely innocent. Is that really a risk we as a society should be taking?

    I guess my main objection isn’t your advocation of the death penalty, but rather your phrasing in ethical terms. However justifiable it may be in a perfect world, we’re not there yet and, in the meantime, I fail to see how sentencing someone to death is of any benefit whatsoever. That being said, I await your response ..


  6. I hate people that use the “deterrent” argument too. Deter people may be what it does, but it is not what it is, and what it is, is punishment. Like all punishment, it must be administered in a “just” manner. Administering any punishment to an innocent party would be “unethical”, but with this punishment, there is a finality associated with its administration.

    “Hurricane” Carter spent years in prison for a crime he did not commit. Was his imprisonment any more or less ethical than executing an innocent man? I don’t think so. Was his situation more favorable than being executed? I know to him it was.

    We have set the standard in this country that the death penalty is an option. I personally agree with that standard. However, if it is not being used with the most discriminating light – then it needs to be shelved. “Slam Dunk” cases need the option. I would even support another layer of security, perhaps a supreme court sub-panel of 3 judges needs to certify every death sentence and discern which convictions were “strong” and which were “a slam dunk”.

  7. Tim says it well. The fallibility argument can be usedd for any punishment. I know of prisoners exonerated after 25 years or more in prison. Their lives have been ruined. Are we only going to permit mild punishment because the harm of wrongful conviction would be acceptable?

    And as I said in the post, it has nothing to do with Muhammad, who was convicted by a mountain of evidence. John Wilkes Booth was witnessed by a hundreds of people leaping from Lincoln’s box after a shot was fired, and shouting, “Ever thus to tyrants!” I think it would have been safe to hang him. Sirhan Sirhan was tackled immediately after shooting Bobby Kennedy, and he had the gun in his hand. He’s not likely to be exonerated. I wouldn’t object to a super-stringent standard for capital cases, but these guys would qualify under any standard.

    • Whenever I see the death penalty carried out, I often wonder what would happen if ever a demonstrably innocent man were put to death, in modern times, before our eyes.

      I completely agree that the death penalty is desirable as an upper limit to punishment, and is an ethical approach. I would dispute that not having a death penalty as an upper limit is less ethical or wrong, if that is in fact your suggestion. There are reasonable and sound ethical arguments for not having a death penalty, and the effect of having other punishments “ratcheted down” is not because of a lack of the death penalty, but because of the unfortunate viewpoint that mercy should be considered a greater virtue than justice.

      A concern for killing the innocent is a valid, even necessary consideration when examining the death penalty, and I know you weren’t suggesting otherwise. But it is not unethical or wrong to conclude that any such risk is unacceptable while an innocent incarceration is less so. At least the innocent who is incarcerated has life, and hope. An executed person has neither.

      But don’t take away from my comment that I am opposed to the death penalty, I am not. But I also think that a society who decided not to implement a death penalty can do so in an equally ethical manner.

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