The Death Penalty


I don't go in search of topics.  Life comes full speed, and topics come with it.  The Death Penalty.  Sure, why not?

According to a NY Times article, the American Law Institute recently quit their work as an advocate and framer of judicial arguments for capital Death Penaltypunishment. One less organization, no big deal, right?   That doesn't appear to be the case.  It is a big deal, for those both pro and con on the issue.

The Institute, made up of over 4,000 judges, lawyers, and law professionals, apparently leaves a void to resist judicial activism and other inputs against the death penalty.  Why did they quit?

In summary, it sounds like they got worn out by some credible observations of shortcomings related to: racial disparities, expenses of trial proceedings, bottom rung defense attorneys, erroneous convictions, and political poisoning - the last of which, if TV dramas are correct, would probably relate to prosecutors who want to be perceived as "tough on crime" for later political purposes.  There are abundant sites, such as AmnestyUSA which advocate abolishing the death penalty due to these and other issues.  I won't belabor them.

Those are arguments for those against.  There are also reasons why people would favor the death penalty, including:

1.  Costs - this may not win an argument as the length of duration between sentencing and execution is considerable, added to the legal defense costs.  But, however the price tag is tallied, the significant costs of housing, feeding, and otherwise providing for murderers resonates with those who view it as an unproductive and avoidable use of tax money.

2. Safety - As stridently put by John McAdams, a Marquette professor:

If we execute murderers and there is in fact no deterrent effect, we have killed a bunch of murderers. If we fail to execute murderers, and doing so would in fact have deterred other murders, we have allowed the killing of a bunch of innocent victims. I would much rather risk the former. This, to me, is not a tough call.

3. Retribution - This is really a non-factor.  Those related to the victim don't have much input to this.  Nor does the victim.  But there remains an intuitive response from those less involved that "an eye for an eye" remains an equitable and appropriate component of justice.

4.  Closure - I don't want to imagine being related to or otherwise being close to a murder victim, but if I were to do this for just a moment, I think I would feel appreciably better knowing that the possibility of parole and subsequent murders is nil.  Case closed.  Let the healing begin.

5.  Deterrence - to persuade others that the cost is not worth the benefit.   Here's an interesting fact:  In 2009, there were 52 people executed in the U.S.   Deterrence cannot be considered a factor as the death penalty is so infrequently enforced, exacerbated by the number of years between the crime and the execution.

In could be said that the arguments against capital punishment relate to the rights of the murderer, whereas the arguments in favor represent the justice due to the victims (extrapolated from the deceased to loved ones to society at large).  Each side tends to diminish the weighting of the moral oughtness of the arguments offered by those who oppose.  Which is more important?  Rights of the accused, or victim?

The best answer would be both, but from those with constituencies on the web, there does not seem to be a middle ground.

As a Christian, I have to test my underpinnings on where I stand on this issue. 

The biblical "eye for an eye" verses are found in the Old Testament (or Pentateuch), that portion of the Bible where many Christians cringe at the rough God that establishes laws and prescribes very un-loving punishments.  Christians who are against the death penalty point towards numerous offenses of lesser significance than the taking of a life which resulted in a sentence of stoning.  They also would argue that this was a primitive means of deterring certain behaviors that was intended for and limited to a nomadic people who did not benefit from a system of justice, suitable detention facilities, or behavior counseling. 

We move forward to the New Testament, where a faith based on grace requires those transgressed against to forgive, just as they have been forgiven ("for the penalty of sin is death" - Romans 6:23).  Additionally, there are now the societal means of accommodating criminals, during which it is possible that murders may themselves come to faith in Christ - as some have.

The death penalty does not compete with the act of forgiving.  A person can forgive another a hurt, while still allowing the societal harm to be remedied by civil law.

The major point of contention is within the 10 Commandments.  "Thou shalt not kill." - Exodus 20:13.  Taken literally, it would seem to well support those who oppose the Death Penalty.  It would also oppose killing for food (plant or animal), squishing a spider or the use of herbicides, etc. 

Clearly, this regards murder.  Is it wrong to murder?  Yes.  Is it wrong to kill someone who murdered another?  No. 

Capital punishment is not murder.  As scripture indicates, God ordained governments to implement civil laws (Romans 13), and Christians are bound to obey those laws unless they conflict with a biblical moral law. 

A person executed is not done so by the victim or those close to the victim.  It is done by the institution provided to protect and redress the society from the crime committed.  Any argument to equate capital punishment with murder simply doesn't hold true.  As a Christian, I can accept the death penalty as a valid means of punishment.  Christians can also choose to oppose the death penalty (and many do), but they will find it difficult to argue that it is inconsistent with biblical teaching.  The Rough God of back then remains the same Rough God from whose wrath all Christians are saved.

It's pretty clear in the broad strokes, but it's also obvious that "the system" doesn't work perfectly.  I do have some suggestions, of course.  Instead of selectively pursuing the death penalty, it should be the default sentence when the below are proven to be true.

1.  If the murder was clearly done with malice aforethought, execute.

3. If there were additional means of cruelty (rape, torture, abduction, etc.) prior to the murder, execute. 

Additionally, an appeal should be heard within two years of the first sentencing.

If the murder was "in the heat of the moment" from a personal dispute, don't execute.  But no TV either, a fate worse than death.

Changing tacts a bit, capital punishment is a pro-life position.  It affirms the value and sanctity of life by prescribing a merited penalty for those who take the life of another. Interestingly, the numbers of executions are surprisingly few:  52 in 2009, 37 in 2008, 42 in 2007...

Meanwhile, there were 820,151 recorded abortions in 2005 alone.   It's an interesting societal irony that many opposed to the death penalty are at peace with killing the innocent, yet they point towards persons like myself who take the opposite view on both points as if the two are not logically sustainable.

But if the NY Times scribe is to be believed, the Death Penalty will wither and die.


  1. how can you determine that the "suspect" is innocent or not??????

  2. That's not my job to determine - that's left to the judicial system.

    If you're suggesting that the death penalty be invalid due to the potential that an innocent person might be convicted, logicical consistency would insist that you apply that to misdemeanors as well.

    On the other hand, given that there have been some abuses in prosecutions, my point is really targeted towards the future. If the death penalty were the starting point for sentencing and effectively acted upon (rather than selectively used for political gain), I think there would be less interest by prosecutors to take short cuts, or worse, hide evidence.

    Further, as DNA testing seems to proving some innocent of past crimes (particularly rape), I'd think it's reasonable to expect that DNA testing is suitable to support convictions going forward, as it is a form of evidence not routinely used for past cases.

    Regardless of any argument, I'd wager that most opinions fall on rights of the accused vs. the rights of the victims. I choose the latter.