Death to the death penalty?

November 12th, 2009

Recent events in the news have been chilling enough to send a shiver down the spine of Stephen King. The police found 11 bodies in Anthony Sowell’s house on the east side of Cleveland. The majority of the bodies were found buried in the ground with ties around their necks. Two of them were found in his house, rotting away upstairs. One still had a knife sticking out of her body. All of the victims were women, and authorities say they were all probably raped before they were murdered.

This is the kind of stuff you’d expect to find in horror stories. Not in Cleveland.

Then there was Maj. Hasan’s rampage at Fort Hood in Texas, which killed 13 innocent bystanders and injured plenty more. If convicted, both of these men will likely receive the death penalty.

But do they really deserve to die?

First you have to decide whether the main objective of our criminal justice system is to punish criminals or to protect society from them.  If the whole idea is to punish criminals, then it would make sense to give them the death penalty for committing murder. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life. That’s pretty solid logic, right?

If you agree, you’re in some pretty good company. Ever heard of al-Qaida? How about the Taliban? They cut off the fingers of thieves and behead their murderers. But I like to think that our society is a bit more advanced than those of terrorists. And while some claim that the death penalty “deters” criminals from committing heinous acts, it didn’t deter any of the hundreds of convicted murderers in the United States.

So let’s assume that the goal of our system of justice is primarily to protect us from dangerous criminals. In that case, the argument for the death penalty is pretty weak. The Catholic Church teaches that the death penalty is only morally acceptable if a criminal somehow threatens society. And for the most part, life in a maximum security prison is sufficient enough to keep us safe from the murderers and rapists of the world.

But I could think of an instance where it still might be needed. Say, for example, we eventually catch Osama bin Laden. And we lock him away in a maximum security prison. Chances are, al-Qaida would attempt to break him out. Or they would take hostages and threaten to kill them unless bin Laden is released. In that case, it would be morally acceptable to use the death penalty in order to protect innocent lives.

But that is the most extreme case. The bottom line is that most – if not all – death penalty cases in the United States cannot be morally justified. When you add in the financial argument – that a death sentence costs more than life-in-prison – and the fact that many of those given the death penalty were later found innocent, it’s hard to understand how the United States still uses it at all.

New Mexico made a good decision earlier this year to abolish the death penalty. Hopefully more states will follow suit. The problems Ohio has experienced recently – where lethal injection failed to kill a criminal, raising questions of cruel and unusual punishment – might hasten the transition.

But until then, Sowell and Hasan better keep their fingers crossed.