Jake Hegee’s opera Dead Man Walking opened the Met Opera’s new season last week. It’s based on a book of the same name by Sister Helen Prejean. Sister Helen is an ardent opponent of the death penalty. Though opposition to capital punishment is not a feature of Hegee’s opera its depiction of it and Sister Helen’s well known position about it set me to thinking of the reasons for and against it. Thinking and expostulating on serious and complicated problems can tie one into rhetorical knots that might discourage thinkers deeper than I am, but I’ll take the plunge nonetheless.
I do not believe that this subject is resolvable by argument. It resides in the realm of emotion rather than logic. Like much human action, reaction precedes analysis rather than the reverse – desirable as the reverse order is. Passion and reason are separated by a chasm too wide.
There are two reasons to oppose capital punishment after the application of impartial justice administered by a duly empowered judicial system empowered by the people. That first is that human life, beyond the charge of war or self defense, is so basic a right that the government should have no role in its termination and that doing so is an assault on decency and essential human rights. If this is your position then no argument in favor of government execution can gain purchase. Capital punishment for such a person is an abomination that can never be justified or condoned. That this view is widely shared is evident by the large number of states that have abolished it – 23 plus the District of Columbia. The second and more practical reason is that the wrong person may be executed. Such a miscarriage of justice obviously cannot be remedied. The constant round of appeals and the use of modern forensic technology such as DNA analysis has reduced the incidence of a fatal error in jurisprudence to virtually zero.
The arguments for the death penalty are several. The law distinguishes among classes of killings – various types of manslaughter and degrees of murder. Only first degree murder may provoke the death penalty. More often than not a lengthy prison sentence, sometimes without possibility of parole, is the punishment imposed on a person found guilty of the crime in the first degree. Execution is typically the sentence reserved for the most heinous of killings. These are murders considered so awful that the only appropriate punishment is death. The Old Testament pronouncement of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth is an example of reciprocal justice. The punishment should fit the crime. But the bible also commands one not to kill. This is a mistranslation as the commandment is “Thou shall not murder.”
Punishment is not the only justification for the death penalty. Deterrence is another. Not that executing a murderer weighs heavily on the mind of a different potential killer. There’s no reason to believe that the putting to death of Murderer 1 prevents potential Murderer 2 from actuating the deed. Rather killing Murderer 1 prevents him from committing another murder. If incarcerated he may kill another prisoner or a guard. He may escape and kill someone beyond the prison gates. He may be released. A sentence of life without parole may be commuted.
All of the examples just listed have real life equivalents. Convicted murderers sentenced to long or perpetual imprisonment have committed additional murders. The only certain way to prevent a murderer from killing again is to execute him. These justifications for capital punishment may be abhorrent to someone who is deeply convinced of the immorality of the government taking a life in cool blood. But almost certainly such a person is not taking a big chance of a lethal consequence of his moral belief. If a convicted murderer kills again his victim will likely be a person who lives or works in a prison or a civilian whose economic status is most likely downscale.
I do not intend to impugn the sincerity of those who protest capital punishment. They are doubtless sincere in their belief that it is immoral and should be abolished. But those who support its continuance do not occupy a lower moral branch. Throw out the lunatics that may be found on either side of a serious moral issue and what remains is a major difference in the view of retributive justice that will never be settled by argument as it is held in the emotional core. Such beliefs are common and impervious to argument. This centrality of emotions as captains of our worldview is why so many important issues of existence resist debate and guide our behaviors.