Your Daily Reminder That the Death Penalty Is Both Moral and Necessary

 

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.

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  1. Frank Soto Contributor
    Frank Soto
    @FrankSoto

    There is no part of me that likes the death penalty.  Yet I find all arguments against it to be unconvincing.

    • #1
  2. Hang On Member
    Hang On
    @HangOn

    Shawn Buell (Majestyk): 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.

    And then you have Cook County, Illinois.

     

     

    • #2
  3. Joseph Stanko Coolidge
    Joseph Stanko
    @JosephStanko

    Shawn Buell (Majestyk): 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.

    The argument is precisely that police are only authorized to use lethal force in extremis, as a last resort.  If an active shooter is firing at innocent people, killing him is morally justified on the grounds of saving innocent lives.  Once he has been disarmed and locked up in prison, you remove that particular justification for killing him.

    • #3
  4. Frank Soto Contributor
    Frank Soto
    @FrankSoto

    Joseph Stanko (View Comment):

    Shawn Buell (Majestyk): 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.

    The argument is precisely that police are only authorized to use lethal force in extremis, as a last resort. If an active shooter is firing at innocent people, killing him is morally justified on the grounds of saving innocent lives. Once he has been disarmed and locked up in prison, you remove that particular justification for killing him.

    I just don’t see this argument that the state shouldn’t be killing people. It is a wholly new construction historically and has never been well explained.

    • #4
  5. Shawn Buell (Majestyk) Contributor
    Shawn Buell (Majestyk)
    @Majestyk

    Joseph Stanko (View Comment):
    Once he has been disarmed and locked up in prison, you remove that particular justification for killing him.

    True.  Imagine also that you have such a person who knows that they are going to be locked up permanently, without hope for release.

    What further punishment can be levied against such a person for crimes they might commit while in prison?  Solitary confinement?  Please – many of these sociopaths might prefer that.

    The point is that certain acts such as the killing of guards or other inmates while locked up ought to trigger an additional layer of punishment, just as the truly horrific crimes we’re discussing should.

    • #5
  6. Valiuth Inactive
    Valiuth
    @Valiuth

    Frank Soto (View Comment):

    There is no part of me that likes the death penalty. Yet I find all arguments against it to be unconvincing.

    Yet, are the arguments for it anymore convincing? Killing the man described in the OP will not undo his crime, nor can it really compensate for it in any real way. It might create a temporary sense of satisfaction. He killed them we kill him. But Christian morality has always been in opposition to this kind of thinking and reasoning. By jailing him you prevent future danger to society from him, thus he no longer becomes a threat. With the threat neutralized what justification do you have for killing other than petty emotions? By letting him live you give the criminal the opportunity for repentance. Isn’t that a higher good overall? From a Christian perspective? 

    Let me ask this question. It is not in dispute that during an active shooter situation the police are perfectly justified to use deadly force to stop the shooter. I assume even Pope Francis would agree with this. But imagine if you will a technological development that allows us to use bullets (no higher cost than regular ones) that will just incapacitate their target for several minutes (thus allowing police to stop but not kill their target). If functionally they were the same as bullets (range, ease of use, cost, etc.) would there be any moral justification for police to use deadly ammunition against an active shooter vs. the none lethal kind? 

    • #6
  7. Frank Soto Contributor
    Frank Soto
    @FrankSoto

    Valiuth (View Comment):
    But Christian morality has always been in opposition to this kind of thinking and reasoning. By jailing him you prevent future danger to society from him, thus he no longer becomes a threat.

    We need to watch this logic.  It cannot be immoral for the state to execute people for certain crimes when God himself prescribed death for certain crimes.

    You can argue that after Jesus, we should head in a different direction, but it simply cannot be immoral when assuming the existence of God to do what God prescribes.

    • #7
  8. Misthiocracy, Joke Pending Member
    Misthiocracy, Joke Pending
    @Misthiocracy

    Shawn Buell (Majestyk):

    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

    None of those describe my reasoning for opposing the death penalty. 

    My reasoning is that I shouldn’t ask the government to perform a task I wouldn’t be willing to perform myself.  As far as I see it, the purpose of government is to perform services that we cannot perform ourselves as individuals (i.e. national defense), not services that we are unwilling to perform ourselves as individuals.  

    Since I don’t personally feel like I’d have the cohones to pull the lever on a condemned man, I don’t think it would be morally right for me to delegate that task to a bunch of government officials.  If I’m not willing to do something, I shouldn’t ask the government to do it.

    This, of course, does not mean that I think it’s wrong for other people to support the death penalty.  I simply think it would be wrong for me to support the death penalty.

    • #8
  9. Frank Soto Contributor
    Frank Soto
    @FrankSoto

    Misthiocracy, Joke Pending (View Comment):
    My reasoning is that I shouldn’t ask the government to perform a task I wouldn’t be willing to perform myself.

    I could perform it myself.  Next objection.

    • #9
  10. Joseph Stanko Coolidge
    Joseph Stanko
    @JosephStanko

    Valiuth (View Comment):
    But imagine if you will a technological development that allows us to use bullets (no higher cost than regular ones) that will just incapacitate their target for several minutes (thus allowing police to stop but not kill their target).

    “Set your phasers on stun!”

    • #10
  11. Shawn Buell (Majestyk) Contributor
    Shawn Buell (Majestyk)
    @Majestyk

    Misthiocracy, Joke Pending (View Comment):
    This, of course, does not mean that I think it’s wrong for other people to support the death penalty. I simply think it would be wrong for me to support the death penalty.

    Does that simultaneously mean that you must necessarily oppose people who support it?

    Relatedly, I don’t want to lock people up in my basement for crimes either, but that doesn’t mean I’m bothered when the state does it.  Just saying.

    • #11
  12. Shawn Buell (Majestyk) Contributor
    Shawn Buell (Majestyk)
    @Majestyk

    Valiuth (View Comment):
    But imagine if you will a technological development that allows us to use bullets (no higher cost than regular ones) that will just incapacitate their target for several minutes (thus allowing police to stop but not kill their target).

    Obviously if less lethal means of subduing people become available and they are as reliable as guns, we should have that discussion.

    That doesn’t mean that the bad guys are likely to pursue similar, less lethal means of stopping people from taking into custody though.  It also doesn’t imply that lethal retaliation should be off the table in certain cases which richly deserve such punishment.

    • #12
  13. Joseph Stanko Coolidge
    Joseph Stanko
    @JosephStanko

    Shawn Buell (Majestyk) (View Comment):
    The point is that certain acts such as the killing of guards or other inmates while locked up ought to trigger an additional layer of punishment, just as the truly horrific crimes we’re discussing should.

    Are some murders more “truly horrific” than others?  I’ve long thought the criteria for which murders merit the death penalty seem rather arbitrary.

    For instance, from your example, is it more horrific to kill a family member rather than a total stranger?  And yet, the stranger also has a family who will mourn his loss and demand justice.  If this argument is valid:

    Shawn Buell (Majestyk): 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.

    It seems to me that justice demands that the death penalty be the standard punishment for all cases of first degree murder.

    • #13
  14. Frank Soto Contributor
    Frank Soto
    @FrankSoto

    Joseph Stanko (View Comment):
    Are some murders more “truly horrific” than others?

    Yes.  If you are arguing that we don’t define these well enough in law, than that is a good argument for defining them better, not a good argument for doing away with the death penalty.

    • #14
  15. Joseph Stanko Coolidge
    Joseph Stanko
    @JosephStanko

    Frank Soto (View Comment):

    Joseph Stanko (View Comment):
    Are some murders more “truly horrific” than others?

    Yes. If you are arguing that we don’t define these well enough in law, than that is a good argument for defining them better, not a good argument for doing away with the death penalty.

    How would you define them then?

    • #15
  16. Frank Soto Contributor
    Frank Soto
    @FrankSoto

    Joseph Stanko (View Comment):

    Frank Soto (View Comment):

    Joseph Stanko (View Comment):
    Are some murders more “truly horrific” than others?

    Yes. If you are arguing that we don’t define these well enough in law, than that is a good argument for defining them better, not a good argument for doing away with the death penalty.

    How would you define them then?

    I actually don’t think the present definitions are all that bad, but I’m open to being convinced otherwise.

    • #16
  17. Shawn Buell (Majestyk) Contributor
    Shawn Buell (Majestyk)
    @Majestyk

    Joseph Stanko (View Comment):
    It seems to me that justice demands that the death penalty be the standard punishment for all cases of first degree murder.

    I actually agree with that.  How premeditated murder doesn’t deserve it invites such questions.

    Joseph Stanko (View Comment):

    Are some murders more “truly horrific” than others? I’ve long thought the criteria for which murders merit the death penalty seem rather arbitrary.

    “Aggravating factors” are typically things like multiple homicides committed simultaneously or serially and cruelty or an especially wanton character involved in it.  I don’t dispute that the application of the death penalty has been disturbingly uneven.  However, I would seek to make that application far more regular and consistent.

    For instance, from your example, is it more horrific to kill a family member rather than a total stranger? And yet, the stranger also has a family who will mourn his loss and demand justice. If this argument is valid:

    In the case mentioned above, this is a person whom we can never trust in society again.  Given that fact, why should he continue to keep his life while his victims are cold and dead?

    The relative horror involved really doesn’t matter to me.  It’s a question of fundamental justice.

    • #17
  18. JosePluma Thatcher
    JosePluma
    @JosePluma

    Misthiocracy, Joke Pending (View Comment):
    Since I don’t personally feel like I’d have the cohones to pull the lever on a condemned man, I don’t think it would be morally right for me to delegate that task to a bunch of government officials. If I’m not willing to do something, I shouldn’t ask the government to do it.

    By your argument, the government shouldn’t be doing anything:

    I can’t bring myself to clean sewers, therefore the government shouldn’t do it.

    I don’t have the stamina to care for abandoned, neglected and abused children, so the government shouldn’t do it.

    I don’t have the courage to go down and recover a rotting body from a storm drain, so police detectives and techs shouldn’t do it.

    I don’t have to guts to put on a badge and patrol the most dangerous parts of my community, so police officers shouldn’t.

    I’m too cowardly to fight wildfires, if it’s the government doing it, I say “let ’em burn.”

    I’m too scared to enlist, let’s get rid of the military.

    • #18
  19. D.A. Venters Member
    D.A. Venters
    @DAVenters

    Valiuth (View Comment):

    Frank Soto (View Comment):

    There is no part of me that likes the death penalty. Yet I find all arguments against it to be unconvincing.

    Yet, are the arguments for it anymore convincing? Killing the man described in the OP will not undo his crime, nor can it really compensate for it in any real way. It might create a temporary sense of satisfaction. He killed them we kill him. But Christian morality has always been in opposition to this kind of thinking and reasoning. By jailing him you prevent future danger to society from him, thus he no longer becomes a threat. With the threat neutralized what justification do you have for killing other than petty emotions? By letting him live you give the criminal the opportunity for repentance. Isn’t that a higher good overall? From a Christian perspective?

    Let me ask this question. It is not in dispute that during an active shooter situation the police are perfectly justified to use deadly force to stop the shooter. I assume even Pope Francis would agree with this. But imagine if you will a technological development that allows us to use bullets (no higher cost than regular ones) that will just incapacitate their target for several minutes (thus allowing police to stop but not kill their target). If functionally they were the same as bullets (range, ease of use, cost, etc.) would there be any moral justification for police to use deadly ammunition against an active shooter vs. the none lethal kind?

    These are good points.  My only quibble is the reference to “petty” emotions.  I would say the longing for justice, or even call it vengeance, felt by the loved ones of murder victims, is not a petty emotion, unless all emotions are petty.  It’s a mysterious emotion, I would say, but one that people have always taken seriously, and which seems to mean a great deal to them, and one which is not going away any time soon.  It’s why forgiveness is such a big deal, and why people who manage to forgive murderers of their family members are so admired.

    • #19
  20. Jager Coolidge
    Jager
    @Jager

    Joseph Stanko (View Comment):

    Are some murders more “truly horrific” than others? I’ve long thought the criteria for which murders merit the death penalty seem rather arbitrary.

    For instance, from your example, is it more horrific to kill a family member rather than a total stranger?

    Yes some murders are more horrific. I don’t know that it is more horrific to kill a family member or stranger. I do think it is more horrific to kill pregnant women and little children. 

    • #20
  21. Joseph Stanko Coolidge
    Joseph Stanko
    @JosephStanko

    Frank Soto (View Comment):

    Joseph Stanko (View Comment):

    Frank Soto (View Comment):

    Joseph Stanko (View Comment):
    Are some murders more “truly horrific” than others?

    Yes. If you are arguing that we don’t define these well enough in law, than that is a good argument for defining them better, not a good argument for doing away with the death penalty.

    How would you define them then?

    I actually don’t think the present definitions are all that bad, but I’m open to being convinced otherwise.

    I guess my question is: is there any underlying logic to them, or is it just based on feelings?

    • #21
  22. D.A. Venters Member
    D.A. Venters
    @DAVenters

    Shawn Buell (Majestyk) (View Comment):

    Joseph Stanko (View Comment):
    It seems to me that justice demands that the death penalty be the standard punishment for all cases of first degree murder.

    I actually agree with that. How premeditated murder doesn’t deserve it invites such questions.

    In many murder cases, even ones where juries convict the defendants, there’s never really any good explanation of the motives, or what really led to the act.  The prosecution is not required to prove motive (though obviously that helps), and need not explain every act of the murderer to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt.  In many cases, we simply never get a clear explanation of why.  This is particularly true where there was some other crime involved – drug deal gone wrong, or whatever.  Nobody who knows the real motivation ever steps forward.  So the system is left to punish the murderer without a clear idea of what was going on in his mind.

    • #22
  23. Stad Coolidge
    Stad
    @Stad

    Frank Soto (View Comment):

    There is no part of me that likes the death penalty. Yet I find all arguments against it to be unconvincing.

    So true.  I don’t like it either, but I find it a moral necessity for a just society.

    I agree, all arguments against the death penalty are unconvincing.  I lose it when some anti-death penalty advocate, with his self-rightous attitude, thinks a man who rapes and murders a ten-tear-old girl, then chops up her body and buries her in a shallow grave deserves to live.

    This is when I find my own position unconvincing, which is the death penalty should be adminstered as quickly and as painlessly as possible . . .

    • #23
  24. Frank Soto Contributor
    Frank Soto
    @FrankSoto

    Joseph Stanko (View Comment):

    Frank Soto (View Comment):

    Joseph Stanko (View Comment):

    Frank Soto (View Comment):

    Joseph Stanko (View Comment):
    Are some murders more “truly horrific” than others?

    Yes. If you are arguing that we don’t define these well enough in law, than that is a good argument for defining them better, not a good argument for doing away with the death penalty.

    How would you define them then?

    I actually don’t think the present definitions are all that bad, but I’m open to being convinced otherwise.

    I guess my question is: is there any underlying logic to them, or is it just based on feelings?

    All morality has our feelings laced into them.  There is a sense of justice that cannot be objectively defined that we all sense.

    Here is what I will say.

    During a home invasion a man kills the father, and rapes the mother and daughter before killing them (yes, this is based off of a real death penalty case I remember), that crime is more horrific than plenty of other murders.  There are ways in which it is objectively more horrific, such as the number of victims, and the rape of the women before their murders.

    This is a crime that deserves death.

    A woman finds out her husband of many years has been cheating and in a moment of rage kills him.

    This crime does not deserve death.

    Between those two points are all sorts of hard decisions to make, but I think these two ends of the spectrum require that some murders be killed and others not.

    • #24
  25. Shawn Buell (Majestyk) Contributor
    Shawn Buell (Majestyk)
    @Majestyk

    Frank Soto (View Comment):

    A woman finds out her husband of many years has been cheating and in a moment of rage kills him.

    This crime does not deserve death.

    To be fair, this could be considered a crime of passion, given that there was no premeditation involved.

    • #25
  26. RoyNonaka Inactive
    RoyNonaka
    @RoyNonaka

    Yes, the “their blood cries out” arguments are very persuasive. Anyone who disagrees is a heartless so-and-so, etc.

    You argue that the death penalty is necessary. How so? If all the states replaced their death penalty with life imprisonment, how would society fall apart? And how long would that take? And why hasn’t it happened in non-death penalty states yet?

    • #26
  27. Frank Soto Contributor
    Frank Soto
    @FrankSoto

    RoyNonaka (View Comment):
    You argue that the death penalty is necessary. How so?

    An inmate who is serving life in prison kills a guard.  What is your plan for handling this?  Bear in mind, long term solitary confinement is torture in any honest evaluation.

    • #27
  28. Frank Soto Contributor
    Frank Soto
    @FrankSoto

    RoyNonaka (View Comment):
    how would society fall apart? And how long would that take?

    • #28
  29. Shawn Buell (Majestyk) Contributor
    Shawn Buell (Majestyk)
    @Majestyk

    RoyNonaka (View Comment):
    Yes, the “their blood cries out” arguments are very persuasive. Anyone who disagrees is a heartless so-and-so, etc.

    Well, that was one line of the piece, but go on…

    RoyNonaka (View Comment):
    You argue that the death penalty is necessary. How so? If all the states replaced their death penalty with life imprisonment, how would society fall apart? And how long would that take? And why hasn’t it happened in non-death penalty states yet?

    As Frank pointed out above this is one giant straw man – an argument I didn’t make.

    There’s a lot to break down here though, and something which likely requires another piece to analyze.  Are the states which have higher crime/murder rates more likely to have the death penalty?  Are the two things related?  I’m not making those sorts of claims.

    We certainly don’t execute enough people to form a statistically significant basis upon which we can draw conclusions. I’m also not arguing that we ought to be executing people willy-nilly either.

    However: it is beyond doubt that the recidivism rate of those whom we execute is always zero. 

    • #29
  30. Frank Soto Contributor
    Frank Soto
    @FrankSoto

    Shawn Buell (Majestyk) (View Comment):
    We certainly don’t execute enough people to form a statistically significant basis upon which we can draw conclusions.

    This is extremely important to remember.  

    • #30
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