Craig Payne teaches at a community college in southeastern Iowa.
The perennial topic of capital punishment is in the news again. On the national level, according to a recent AP report, the Supreme Court voted 5-4 to uphold the constitutionality of a Kansas law recommending that juries sentence a defendant to death (rather than to life in prison) when the evidence supports the imposition of capital punishment. However, writing for the dissenting minority, Justice David Souter said that the law is "obtuse by any moral or social measure."
Here in my home state of Iowa, similar thoughts were expressed during the recent Democratic run-off elections. As carried on a Des Moines news program, one of the three Democratic hopefuls was definitely against capital punishment, the next (Ed Fallon) called it "morally wrong" and asserted that "clearly as policy it doesn't work," and the eventual winner, Chet Culver, favored it only in highly qualified cases. Culver made it clear he was "not running to reinstate capital punishment."
These are strongly held judgments. Its opponents say that capital punishment is "morally wrong," for example, or even "obtuse by any moral or social measure." However, by now most of the logic behind these judgments can be boiled down to some fairly standard arguments. Since proponents of capital punishment (such as myself) typically run into some form of the following nine common objections, I would like to list these objections in order and attach a reply to each:
Objection # 1: "Capital punishment is not a deterrent to crime"-or, as Fallon put it, "Clearly as policy it doesn't work."
Reply: First of all, this common objection is not proven-there exist studies on both sides of the argument, along with anecdotal evidence to back up both sides as well. But secondly, how on earth could the deterrent effect of capital punishment on crime be proven? How could we possibly know how many people were not murdered because of the potential murderers' healthy fear of execution? In most cases, we should rely on the common-sense intuition that punishment deters.
Objection # 2: "It costs more to execute someone than to keep him in prison for life."
Reply: This may actually be true. However, the problem is not in the nature of capital punishment itself, but rather in the laxness of a legal system that allows almost unlimited appeals; the bills for these drawn-out appeals are not related to the execution, but to the process of getting to the execution. Reasonably limiting the number of appeals granted in clear-cut cases would reduce the costs.
Objection # 3: "It's morally wrong to keep someone on Death Row for years and years."
Reply: I agree. See response to Objection # 2, above.
Objection # 4: "What if the person on Death Row uses his time there to repent and be rehabilitated?"
Reply: Most people would welcome the news of the prisoner's repentance and rehabilitation. However, a prisoner's repentance does not remove the debt that prisoner still owes to society; the prisoner still should be punished for the crime committed.
Objection # 5: "But as long as the prisoner is alive, there is still the chance of repentance and rehabilitation. Execution removes that chance."
Reply: True. On the other hand, merely keeping a prisoner alive does not raise the chances of repentance and rehabilitation; in fact, it may actually reduce the chances. As Samuel Johnson put it, the prospect of imminent execution tends to concentrate the mind wonderfully well.
Objection # 6: "But capital punishment trains society to seek revenge. Take you, for example. You actually sound happy about executing people."
Reply: Society is not seeking revenge, but fairness. In my own case, I am never happy about capital punishment, but as a citizen of a society under the rule of law, I am always happy at the exercise of justice. As one translation of the book of Proverbs says, "It is a joy to people when justice prevails." Further, the Christian philosopher Thomas Aquinas points out two meanings of "revenge": there is revenge "beyond the order of reason," based on one's anger, and there is revenge "according to justice." The first type should be avoided, but a society based on law must impose the second type consistently and fairly (I would also add "and quickly").
Objection # 7: "Why is it always you Bible-thumpers, the so-called 'pro-life' people, who are in favor of capital punishment? The Bible says 'Thou shalt not kill.' Capital punishment is killing and is therefore forbidden by the Bible."
Reply: The King James Version of the Bible makes the translation error, "Thou shalt not kill." Virtually every other translation renders this as "Thou shalt not murder." There are ten Hebrew words used in the Bible which mean "kill." To kill in battle, to kill accidentally, or to kill in self-defense, for example, all require different words. However, there is only one word which means "murder," and that is the one used in the commandment against murder. The Bible, in other words, does not prohibit capital punishment.
Objection # 8: "Well, whether or not capital punishment is allowed in the Bible, it is still both cruel and unusual, and our own Constitution forbids cruel and unusual punishment."
Reply: First of all, it is not "cruel" punishment. At least, it is far less cruel than most of the actual crimes for which it is imposed. Secondly, the only reason it might be "unusual" is that many states are reluctant to impose it. Thirdly, capital punishment is specifically mentioned and allowed in the Constitution. Citizens are not to be "deprived of life" without "due process of law"; this clearly implies that, given the due process of law, citizens may be deprived of life by the government.
bjection # 9: "My most important objection I have saved for last. It is simple: What if we make a mistake? What if we execute an innocent person? It would be better to do away with capital punishment entirely than to execute someone who is not guilty of the crime."
Reply: Certainly this thought should make us quite cautious in applying the extreme penalty. However, being very careful in applying a punishment does not entail that one should never apply the punishment. Even if capital punishment is a last resort, that still implies that it is a resort. In fact, for some crimes, capital punishment is the only proportionate response. This is the real reason most people are in favor of capital punishment: not to save money in the legal system or somehow get "revenge" on the criminal, but because capital punishment is morally right.
This last statement will doubtless infuriate some. But in the long run, it is the fundamental validation for retaining capital punishment, and it is still the view held by the majority of Americans. On this subject, the intuitions of the majority are just. *
"No crisis is beyond the capacity of our people to solve; no challenge too great." --Ronald Reagan