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I supported the death penalty for many years. It seemed only just that a man convicted of a truly heinous murder deserved death, and therefore the state, reflecting the collective conscience of the community, had the right to avenge the brutal death of a murderer’s victim.
Then, about 20 years ago, I read Dostoevsky’s novel The Idiot, and I changed my mind … though still with a sense that there were many flaws in the arguments against capital punishment. In The Idiot, the protagonist, Prince Myshkin, describes an execution by guillotine he had witnessed, and makes an impassioned case that executing a man, even with swift efficiency, was profoundly wrong because, in the moments before he died, the condemned man lost all hope and was driven to insanity. That made sense. It still does in the abstract.
A number of years later, the state of Montana executed one Duncan McKenzie. This loathsome human monster had kidnapped a young school teacher named Lana Harding, beat her, repeatedly raped her, and finally lashed her to a junked car with barbed wire and left her to die. The morning after Mckenzie’s execution, the sun shined a bit brighter and there was a sense of peace in the air. Mckenzie got his due, and so did Lana Harding and her family.
That morning I regained my belief that capital punishment for truly vicious killers like Mckenzie is supremely just.
I do a lot of pro-life work. For the past three years, I have been the local director for the area’s 40 Days for Life campaign. I’ve spoken at many pro-life events like the local March for Life, which takes place on the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision. I’ve worked with high school students in the movement, and written much on the issue.
And I have determined that capital punishment is pro-life.
Many of my compatriots in the local pro-life organization disagree with me. Some see my position as poppycock. Their argument is that anytime a life is spared—even the life of a vicious killer—the cause of life is strengthened. Some call me a hypocrite. I take that in stride and remain firm in my belief that sometimes a killer’s death is the only way to ensure that life is seen as truly precious. The victim’s life, I argue, is affirmed by the execution of her killer. To leave so cruel a killer as Duncan McKenzie alive is an outrage. Mckenzie sought not only to kill Lana Harding’s body. He sought to destroy her soul. That is the very definition of an evil man.
My friends on the other side of the capital punishment debate argue that my position is wrong because it is grounded in the desire for revenge.
Well, yes. That is how it should be. The first and overriding function of any system of criminal justice is retribution. The community restores justice by exacting revenge on the criminal. If retribution were not the first principle of criminal justice, there would be no justification for punishing anyone.
So, I ask my abolitionist friends, if retribution is not the cornerstone of punishment, how can it be just to punish anyone? The usual response is that punishment is designed to rehabilitate the criminal and to protect the community, and that capital punishment obviously cannot reform the killer. Besides, I often hear, sentencing the killer to life in prison offers full protection for the community.
My reply is “who cares?” A killer like McKenzie has committed so great an outrage against his victim and the community that it is irrelevant that he cannot be rehabilitated or that he can be taken out of society by life in prison. Lana Harding’s death cried out for justice. That, for me, is the end of it.
The usual fallback position among my abolitionist friends is that innocent men may be executed, and that such an injustice trumps the community’s need for retribution.
My reply is that the assertion that it is “better that 100 guilty men go free rather than that a single innocent man be put to death” is nonsense. To send 100 Duncan Mackenzies back into the world would be like releasing a deadly toxin into the air. To release 100 sociopaths is to risk condemning 100 innocent lives.
Besides, virtually every action by the state requires the balancing of risks and benefits. All human action carries the risk of error, but the community must still have the power to condemn barbarians.
But, my abolitionist friends respond, Christian teaching compels society, as a matter of mercy, to refrain from executing even a guilty man.
Really? The family of a brutally murdered loved one suffers horribly from the loss. It is a hard task to bear the pain and loss of a murder victim while the killer is still up wandering around. I can scarcely imagine the dread Lana Harding’s parents must have endured, not just at her murder but at imagining the fear and despair of their daughter. Her father must have awakened every day and berated himself because he was not there to save his child. The victim’s loved ones deserve the mercy of justice far more than does the psychopath who robbed his victim of her life and her humanity.
I’m a Roman Catholic, so I stand in fear and trembling when I make these arguments. The Church, however, has never held that capital punishment is intrinsically evil. The Catechism provides that execution is still an option as a matter of justice (the word used is retribution). The question of whether alternative punishments are available to satisfy the needs of the community is a prudential judgment. So, until the Church formally decides to disallow capital punishment, I’ll remain in my position — because to completely abandon the death penalty would cheapen life by granting immunity from death to those who brutally kill. The community would have effectively declared that a cold blooded killer’s life is of greater worth than the life of his victim. This would trivialize murder, and by extension, would trivialize innocent life.