Published in The Daily Beacon, Monday, March 19, 2007|
In recent weeks, the death penalty has been a frequent topic of discussion here on the Beacon editorial page, with practically all of the arguments being in opposition. I can certainly respect the convictions behind that viewpoint, as I struggled over the issue for many years myself. Nonetheless, I have come to believe that a mandatory death sentence for certain crimes is not only ethical, it is absolutely necessary for a stable and just society. While my own personal views may very well be in the minority, I feel that I must offer the other side of this debate.
For the most part, the previous columns have focused on two facets: the ethics of a punitive death penalty and the deterrent value it offers. These are certainly important concerns that I will also address. However, I would also like to introduce a third premise: the need to make a statement about how our society values life. If we hold human life in proper regard, then the only sufficient penalty for taking it is for the murderer to give his or her own life. As Ed Koch, the liberal former mayor of New York, points out: “... it can be easily demonstrated that the death penalty strengthens the value of human life. If the penalty for rape were lowered, clearly it would signal a lessened regard for the victims’ suffering... When we lower the penalty for murder, it signals a lessened regard for the value of the victim’s life.”
While the right to life is foundational, it can be forfeited. This concept is found in both the Judeo-Christian scriptures (Genesis 9:6; Ezekiel 13:19; Acts 25:11; Romans 13:1-4, etc.), as well as in the U.S. Constitution. According to the Fifth Amendment, no person shall be “… deprived of life, liberty or property, without due process of law.” In other words, if, through this due process, a person is found guilty of a capital crime, the State has a right to impose capital punishment.
Some may object to my use of the Bible in this manner: “But what about ‘Thou shalt not kill?’” A better translation of this verse is “Thou shalt not murder.” While all murder is killing, not all killing is necessarily murder. By definition, the word “murder” means to willfully take the life of an innocent person. This commandment could not have been a prohibition of capital punishment, since in the very next chapter, God specifically commands the death penalty for a number of different offenses.
In the debate over capital punishment, the word “compassion” is often used, and rightfully so. However, when properly carried out, the swift execution of violent criminals is one of the most compassionate things a just government can do. It permanently removes the offender from society.
It also sends a powerful message to would-be criminals. Although some have argued otherwise, the facts remain unchanged: The deterrent value of a consistently enforced death penalty is a powerful restraining agent against crime. In fact, according to a 1985 study by Stephen K. Layson in the Southern Economics Journal, each execution performed in the U.S. deters approximately eighteen murders. For example, in a 1961 California case known as “People v. Love,” the convicts specifically admitted that their decision not to kill hostages was motivated by fear of the death penalty.
It is a horrible thing to have to take a human life. In a perfect world, capital punishment would not be necessary. It is an unfortunate fact of life that, as long as crime and violence exist on this planet, there will be a need for a properly exercised death penalty to punish the guilty and protect the innocent. Failure to do so is an insult to every person who has ever been the victim of a violent crime. In the words of former Mayor Koch:
“The death of anyone - even a convicted killer - diminishes us all. But we are diminished even more by a justice system that fails to function. It is an illusion to let ourselves believe that doing away with capital punishment removes the murderer’s deed from our conscience... When we protect guilty lives, we give up innocent lives in exchange.”