Wednesday, April 6, 2005

Illogical Compassion: Death By Lethal Imprisonment

There are many people and organizations in the United States working to end the death penalty – again. In 2003, Gary Ridgway, the infamous Green River Killer in the state of Washington, received life imprisonment despite confessing to 48 murders. Of course, those are the known ones – how many others met their end at the hands of Ridgway is only speculative. It does not matter the profession of a majority of those women, many of whom were prostitutes – Ridgway took 48 lives without conscience or remorse. He even confessed in court to killing “so many women I have a hard time keeping them straight . . . I wanted to kill as many women I thought were prostitutes as I possibly could.”  Which is more chilling:  such an unremorseful statement of deeds or a plea bargain that gives such evil life in prison?  A life sentence that will be paid by taxpayers, including the families of those murdered. Just one example of many where the punishment seemed inappropriate for the crime, is it fair?

Biblical wisdom – “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” – would tell us that it is not:

The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he, who in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness, for he is truly his brother's keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who would attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know my name is the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon thee.” [Ezekiel 25: 17]

Yet, logic dictates that punishment must fit the severity of the offense. The question is whether capital punishment works as a deterrent or simply fits a human need for retribution. While it does serve the need, deterrence is not a reasonable argument pro or con. Murderers will kill no matter the consequences – after all, there are laws that specify murder to be wrong. Either the law is flawed or deterrence does not work. However, there can be no civil society without law, and there can be no deterrence without consequences for violating the law. Is it logical then to dismiss the death penalty because it has little affect on deterrence, when laws themselves do little against the criminal mind?

Many opponents of the death penalty argue that it is arbitrary and inhumane – a one-sided system of justice that has death row inmates waiting for the Angel of Death without any hope of reprieve. Such advocates would rather let unrepentant murderers stay confined for life until natural death, thereby giving them the chance to pay back society for their heinous crimes – seen as a more humane form of justice, let alone more cost effective. Is the cost of execution versus the cost of life in prison more important than allowing a demon to remain a living reminder to victims’ family and friends? Charles Manson certainly would see it that way, along with the many others saved by the Supreme Court’s nullification of the death penalty in 1972.

Opponents also contend that ten executed inmates are not worth one wrongfully convicted one. What of the one rightfully convicted parolee who kills again, or the guilty freed on lawyer tricks and technicalities? Englishman John Stuart Mill, speaking before the British Parliament in 1868, summed it up concretely:

When there has been . . . by conclusive evidence . . . and when the attendant circumstances suggest no palliation of the guilt, no hope that the culprit may even yet not be unworthy to live among mankind, nothing to make it probable that the crime was an exception to his general character rather than a consequence of it . . . that to deprive the criminal of the life of which he has proved himself to be unworthy . . . is the most appropriate as it is certainly the most impressive, mode in which society can attach to so great a crime . . ."

There are consequences in life, and those who find themselves on the wrong side of the law must pay them. Judicious execution is not morally wrong – it is doing nothing in the face of evil that is. Let justice be fair and balanced, but let it be served. The death penalty does exactly that.

©2005 Steve Sagarra

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