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Noted moral philosopher Jorge Bergoglio (Pope Francis) issued a statement last week regarding the Catholic Church’s updated position on the Death Penalty:
Recourse to the death penalty on the part of legitimate authority, following a fair trial, was long considered an appropriate response to the gravity of certain crimes and an acceptable, albeit extreme means of safeguarding the common good, there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes; Consequently, the church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.
The irony of all this is particularly bitter, given that the Pope could be credibly accused of having a conflict of interest on this issue when considering yesterday’s new revelations of a vast and heinous conspiracy of child abuse among the Pope’s employees.
In contrast to the incredibly anodyne and sterile language which the Pope used here to describe the worst manner of offenses against humanity I present you with this case from Colorado:
A Frederick husband and father is behind bars in the Weld County Jail, booked early Thursday morning, in connection to the disappearance of his pregnant wife and two young daughters.
Two law enforcement officials with knowledge of the investigation told Denver7 investigative reporter Jace Larson that Watts had confessed to killing Shanann Watts, 34, and their two daughters — 3-year-old Celeste and 4-year-old Bella — and that officials believe they know where they can find the bodies.
Think about that: Shannan Watts was pregnant with the couple’s third child, and Chris Watts murdered them all.
What can society’s just response to such wanton evil be, aside from denying this mass-murderer his own life? Here we see a situation where a man murders four people — people whom he had a direct hand in either bringing into this world or had sworn to care for in sickness and in health — and the Pope’s response to that is to claim that it is a greater moral good for society to feed and house this monster in perpetuity.
I can think of little which would be more offensive to the notion of basic decency that Chris Watts will get to keep his life under any circumstances while Shannan and her children lost theirs.
So, let’s briefly recount the arguments against the death penalty:
- The State shouldn’t be killing people;
- It’s expensive;
- You could convict the wrong person — or — You can’t un-kill people; and
- Hard cases make for bad law
The first argument is utter nonsense. For people to make this argument credibly, they also have to argue for disarming police, who can serve as judge, jury, and executioner in extremis. If the police can kill people in the course of enforcing the law in a far less controlled or legalistic manner … how can it be “worse” for people to be executed after innumerable appeals and substantial quantities of due process? This argument is incoherent.
As to the notion that execution is costly … the very people who complain about its cost are the same people who make it costly in the first place by fighting so strenuously against its use. The objection is the equivalent of complaining that there’s a leak in your canoe because you shot a hole in it. Most of the legal wrangling about such cases is process-related and has nothing to do with new facts emerging to exculpate the accused. That process should be streamlined with a special set of courts of appeal designed to handle such procedural objections. That would significantly reduce the time and cost of such processes.
If you truly believe the first half of the third objection, it becomes hard to morally justify things like “prison” in the first place. If the deepest injustice is being falsely imprisoned to begin with, how can you justify taking the risk of jailing anyone? The system could be wrong, after all. Admittedly, sometimes it is, and people are sent to prison for lengthy sentences for crimes they didn’t commit. However, sensible people would likely concede that such cases tend to be extraordinary and few would probably be willing to stake that the criminal justice system is more wrong on balance than not.
Financial compensation can only do so much to make whole the people who’ve been wronged in this fashion but the same argument works on the side of the victims of crime. Particularly when those victims have been deprived of the most fundamental of rights: their lives. This, in my opinion is the strongest argument against the death penalty. In situations where there is any reasonable doubt as to the complete moral culpability of the intended recipient of such punishment, that should place extreme caution in the minds of those contemplating it. You can, after all, regain your freedom, but not your life.
Lastly, we arrive at the somewhat ambiguous notion that such cases are extraordinary or rare and this, therefore, means that we shouldn’t do anything extraordinary about the situation. What poppycock. It is precisely the extraordinary nature of these situations, and the wanton evil on display in them, which justifies extraordinary punishment.
What will we as a society gain by killing a monster like Chris Watts, who murdered his entire family? To be honest: Very little. But what we lose by keeping him alive is the notion that such infamous crimes will result in the ultimate price being extracted from their perpetrators.
The still-warm blood of these children cries out from the ground for justice, and their calls deserve to be answered.