I’ve been against the death penalty for my entire adult life. The biggest reason for my opposition is my personal fear of making mistakes. The idea that an innocent person might be executed just scares me; after all, there are no do-overs.
The moral question is rather more murky. Does society have the right to impose the ultimate sanction for truly heinous behavior? I’m just not sure, although I incline towards the “no” side. Nonetheless, I do think about the reasons people feel the other way. Their opinions fall into various general categories:
- Deterrent: Seemingly every time a first degree murder is committed (particularly if the victim is white, I’m ashamed to say), the argument is made that the death penalty serves as a deterrent. My response to that is “How’s that working out for you”? After all, if it were a deterrent then it ought to deter. A common response to that objection is that the death sentence, as implemented here, isn’t carried out as quickly and efficiently as it should be. There shouldn’t be so many avenues for appeal; we should be more like Texas. In other words, kill them quickly before we have a chance to find out we’re wrong. Even the Republican Governor of Illinois couldn’t stomach that, and he suspended executions after a flurry of activity by the Innocence Project proved just how fallible our justice system can be.
- Justice: People often use the Biblical injunction “an eye for an eye” as a proof text, and so it is; but are we really going to carry out every Biblical injunction? We don’t stone disrespectful children, at least in my neighborhood. If you look through the Bible you’ll find plenty of instances of God commanding genocide; do we want to take that as an example of moral behavior? When slavery was in fashion the Bible was cited as justification for that, too. Everyone, even Halachic Jews, picks and chooses what, and how, to implement Biblical injunctions.
- Punishment: This argument is pretty much the same as the one above, without the religious underpinnings.
- Revenge: Westerners decry the barbarous practice of “honor killings,” but how different is this? Compare and contrast, folks.
- Retribution: You don’t hear that word much, unless it is prefixed by the word “divine,” but I did see it used in a letter to the editor recently. I’m not sure, but I think the difference between revenge and retribution is that the former is more a personal matter. The latter is inflicted by the impersonal “State”; the former makes it sound as though someone from the victim’s family were flipping the switch. Personally I think that the jury ought to carry out the sentence. That might make them think twice.
It’s been said that life in prison without chance of parole is an even more severe punishment than the death penalty. Never having experience either, I don’t know if that’s the case; but at least the justice system has the chance to fix its mistakes.