The devil’s advocate: Debating the death penalty
Context: Rather than focusing on a specific political proposal from the news, necessitating thorough background, we will focus on the broader, more existential argument over the retention of capital punishment.
Gaughan will argue in favor, while Granahan makes the case against — both representing their personal views.
Among the most common arguments against capital punishment as the ultimate criminal penalty is the lack of proof of its efficacy as a deterrent to future potential violent criminals. In fact, according to the National Academy of Sciences, “Research on the deterrent effect of capital punishment is uninformative about whether capital punishment increases, decreases, or has no effect on homicide rates.” To this extent, death penalty opponents are inarguably correct.
Of course, notable is the fact that the same research affords no proof that it is incapable of such deterrence, and surely such a threat would deter at least some subject to such malevolent instincts. Thus, equally inarguable is the fact that the prevention of even one criminal act so cruel as to warrant the invocation of that most solemn lever of justice, perhaps saving any number of innocent lives, is worth a nod of recognition.
Conservatives may cry for the minimization of government while liberals plead for its expansion. But in our republic, born of the Lockean social contract, we should expect, that at least in some respect, both do so in defense of liberty. It is from the same principle of our sacred contract that we should derive the role of the government — of the justice system — in facilitating this gruesome tool.
As citizens of a republic we all must live beneath certain fundamental concepts of law and ethics, even as subjectivity may afford certain deviations therefrom. And as it is the role of the citizen to live under such tenets at the crossroads of community and individuality, it is the role of the government, with whom they must perpetually engage, to afford protection to their life, liberty, and property. It likewise must exercise maximal restraint in the undertaking of such protection. It should therefore be understood as the last resort of judicial authority to breach this first principle, seizing the life of the one, in protection and service of, and homage to all others, or itself in cases of critical national betrayal. This is not an unfortunate act of deterrence. It is a grievous act of remedying the damages brought about by the breach of this contract. It is the most significant, most terrifying, most important execution of its contractual responsibility, when the contract itself has been utterly forsaken by another; to take for what has been taken.
The judicial termination of a life is a tragic thing. But perhaps it is also a quintessential act of mercy. Mercy in part for the guilty, otherwise forced to live as long as their health may sustain them, removed from society but not from this world, and certainly not from their guilt. But it should also be viewed as a quintessential act of mercy for those tried by tragedy rather than justice. That is to say, an act of benevolence for the loved ones of victims fallen at the hand of the guilty, offering closure not for the whole of their pain but to that aspect of it pertinent to those who created it. From the ouster of the guilty from the world of the living, the judicial system offers the families of the victims a form of closure from which they can begin to navigate their own paths to internal peace.
Finally we arrive at the fear of inaccuracy. Per the old Blackstonian maxim, “Better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.” But the chances of such undue suffering are minimized under most current systems — though no argument is made here for explorations of the highest bars of evidence and conviction.
With most capital punishment prospects demanding entirely separate subsequent trials to determine if the death penalty is even on the table, appeals, and a typical waiting period of years, if not decades for those awaiting such a fate, the justice system has again proven the value it places on the life of the individual, ensuring that all available evidence can be seen, all arguments heard. It is this very value upon which this argument is premised, and likewise upon which it must recognize the validity of its opposition.
In 1764, Enlightenment philosopher Cesare Beccaria voiced his concerns about the impact that punishments of the physical body had on people’s perception of their fellow man, writing: “Let the laws be feared, and the laws only.” In an execution, there will always be a person to be feared, whether they are swinging the ax, firing the coup de grace, or flipping the electrical switch. In a prison cell, a criminal’s worst tormenter is their own mind. Nearly three centuries later we have tragically failed to learn from the wise words of Beccaria.
According to criminological standards cited by the United States Department of Justice, there are four intentions behind criminal sentencing: incapacitation, rehabilitation, deterrence, and retribution. Incapacitation of a convicted criminal, in order to actively prevent them from committing a crime, can be achieved through life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Although escape is a possibility, prison escapes are exceedingly rare, and the vast majority occur among minimum- and medium-security prison inmates. Rehabilitation is a moot point in the death penalty debate; the justice system has — in my opinion — correctly found some crimes to be so heinous that those who commit them cannot be rehabilitated, and must instead spend the rest of their lives in prison, either naturally or prior to their execution.
Thus, the deciding factors in whether capital punishment or life without parole is a preferable fate for the most despicable of criminals must be which is more effective at deterring other citizens from committing such crimes and which is more effective at providing a sense of justice and vengeance for those impacted by the crime. With regard to the first question: Of the 10 states with the highest per capita homicide rates, seven continue to carry out executions. Clearly, those who continue to commit murders in these states are not deterred from doing so by the fear of execution.
The more subjective question is whether a death sentence or a life sentence provides more justice, closure, and peace of mind to those impacted by the crime. The answer to this question is admittedly very subjective, but consider this: inmates at supermax penitentiaries, the highest level of security reserved for the worst criminals, spend 23 hours a day in their cells, devoid of virtually any human interaction. Although you as the reader may personally disagree with me, I believe that death is a preferable fate to spending decades experiencing such a severe degree of isolation. Conversely, I see the mental anguish of life imprisonment as punishment fit for those who have committed the worst of crimes.
I will also contest the idea that a death sentence is the strongest message against crime that can be sent. Death is a fate inevitable for all humans, and whether a criminal is sentenced to capital punishment or life without parole, they have been condemned to die in prison; the only difference is whether that will happen in a matter of years or a matter of decades. For his aiding and abetting of the murder of 168 Americans, Oklahoma City bombing co-conspirator Terry Nichols is currently serving 161 consecutive life sentences, the longest prison sentence in human history. That is a stronger message than the death penalty will ever send.
Finally, the prospect of executing a wrongfully-convicted defendant is far more horrifying than anything I have mentioned insofar — to such an extent that I will not entertain the idea of this being justifiable. It is virtually impossible to deny that the death penalty is too inhumane of a punishment for the innocent. That said, the death penalty is also too humane of a punishment for the guilty. By continuing to use the death penalty we have failed to deter crime. We have failed to adequately torment the most heinous of criminals for their crimes. And we have failed to live up to our potential as a nation where the laws are feared and the laws only.