Capital Punishment

The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear two capital punishment cases during this session.

Slowly, inexorably, capital punishment is being eliminated. Most western nations have abandoned the practice, and many American states no longer impose it.  Liberal opinion today is definitely against it, and conservatives have mixed opinions.

The present situation in the United States with regard to criminal executions is indefensible.  There is no real consistency in the way death sentences are imposed around the country.  An individual might be sentenced to death in some states for one act of murder, even a crime of passion   At other times and in other places, a person guilty of the most heinous crimes avoids the death sentence.  Your fate is largely dependent on where you are tried and what sort of legal talent you can afford.  Indigent defendants with no access to good legal talent are more likely to be condemned.  Those with high priced legal defenders are almost never put to death.

Once a murderer is convicted and sentenced to death, he or she is likely to spend years on death-row as the case goes through an extended appeal and review process. By the time execution takes place, the general public often has little memory of the crime for which the person is being executed.

It is no wonder that many citizens cry out against this barbaric system.  They point to the cruelty and unfairness of the process, and they emphasize that sometimes innocent persons have been imprisoned and executed.

Recently Pope Francis changed the Catholic catechism with reference to capital punishment.  After 2,000 years of the church teaching that a moral use of capital punishment for murder is consistent with Catholic theology, the pope announced that the Catholic catechism, the church fathers and even the great St. Thomas Aquinas, prince of theologians, were wrong.  In 2015, Francis wrote, “today capital punishment is unacceptable, however serious the condemned’s crime may have been.”

Unacceptable to whom?  About half of all Americans, including half of professing American Catholics, still support capital punishment in certain cases. There are times when the very enormity and cruelty of a crime seems to call out for execution of the guilty.  Only then can there be true catharsis.

I agree, however, that the present system must be changed.  Recognizing, of course, that these reforms must be carried out at the state level, I suggest the following:

  • The death sentence should only be imposed for the most heinous offenses, to include serial murders, deliberate mass murders, brutal torture of a victim followed by murder, etc.
  • The evidence of guilt must be virtually incontestable and include physical evidence of the accused actions. Circumstantial evidence alone should not suffice for a death penalty, and the death sentence should not be applied to an accessory before or after the fact if that person was not involved in the actual commission of the crime or crimes. Other severe punishments would still be available for these crimes, up to and including life without parole.
  • After conviction, any trial resulting in a death sentence should be subject to expeditious review by a special court established for that purpose. After review, there would be no further appeals, and the execution should be carried out forthwith.

These appear to be simple and straightforward suggestions that would remove inequities in our present system.

Many insist that we should eliminate capital punishment altogether.  They see it as a barbaric holdover from an unenlightened age.  Some think it cheapens the state, and others agree with Pope Francis that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.”

I take the opposite point of view.  I agree with someone who wrote that “Allowing all murderers to keep their own lives diminishes the evil of murder and thereby cheapens the worth of the human being.”  The wrongful, deliberate taking of human lives is the pinnacle of wickedness, and it calls out for retribution.

In 2007 two evil men entered the home of a Connecticut physician and proceeded to torture, rape, and murder his wife and two young daughters.  Then they set the house on fire.  The grieving husband and father said, “I think when people willfully, wantonly, without any remorse take someone else’s life, they forfeit their right to be among us.” He was right.

There are certain monstrous criminal beings who should be separated from human society forever.  If we eliminate the death penalty, I suggest that we bring back dungeons.

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