Assessing the Death Penalty

Do We Need Capital Punishment?

There is a long history of debate about the death penalty. People have used religious, moralistic and practical arguments both in favor and in opposition to capital punishment. They have argued over whether it has any deterrent effect on other criminals and they have argued over whether it is applied fairly and without causing needless pain or suffering. Sometimes, they have even used the same quotation from the Bible to support both sides of the argument.

But most of the time they have missed the point. There are only two justifications for capital punishment that really make any sense. Let’s call them “satisfaction of the need for justice” and “finality of action”. Let me explain.

In every age and society of man, there has alway been an expectation of justice. This seems to be a universal need that is amplified by our development of societies. Even in the most primitive of societies, there has always been some code of rules regarding which behaviors will not be tolerated and the sanctions that are considered appropriate for violations of the rules. And, in every society known to man there has been an understanding that there is always at least one violation that is considered to be the ultimate violation or the worst or most heinous of crimes. Not every society has agreed as to which crimes were the most heinous, but they have all agreed that the greatest crime demands the greatest penalty. In other words, the ultimate crime demands the ultimate penalty; i.e. the taking of the criminal’s life.

In this instance, the use of the death penalty actually reaffirms the sanctity of life, by emphasizing that it is the ultimate penalty that can be demanded and then only for the ultimate crime as defined by our society.

The “finality of action” concept is a more practical argument. This next point may come as a surprise for many people, but there is no practical way to legally ensure that anyone will actually stay in prison for the rest of their lives in any of the 50 states, even if they are sentenced to life without parole. As long as a person is alive in the United States, he (or she) actually stands a chance of being released from prison some day. There are literally hundreds of documented cases of convicted murderers being released from prison only to commit murder again.
Now, while I agree that capital punishment does not seem to deter other potential killers from committing murder, it certainly keeps the person being executed from killing anyone else!

Of course, I have to admit that the “finality of action” argument is also used in arguments against the death penalty. Opponents argue that it is impossible to release a prisoner who is found to be innocent after they have been executed. I am sympathetic to their argument, but frankly, the safety of my family is a higher priority for me.

Please note that I have not attempted to answer any questions regarding whether the death penalty is applied fairly or what method of execution is more humane. I have also stayed away from the religious arguments although I cannot pass up the temptation to make one comment. For all of those that quote “Thou shalt not kill” as an argument against capital punishment, you should also be aware that the same God that uttered that Commandment also uttered the commandment that the proper penalty for murder (and a whole host of other crimes) would be death. Its just not logically consistent to quote scripture to support an argument against the death penalty when the same body of scripture requires the death penalty in the first place.

Other opponents have even argued that “the State” does not have the right to take a human life. However, the oldest and most cherished moral and legal right I have as a person is to use deadly force in self defense and in defense of others that I have a duty to protect (i.e. my family and others under my protection). In a representative form of government, “the state” derives its rights from the approval of “the people”. If I have that right to begin with, then I can extend that right to “the state”.

And for those folks that say they are against killing any living thing; I have two questions. What are we supposed to eat? Plants aren’t living things?

In conclusion, we are often asking the wrong question when debating policy or social issues. The real question is do we need the death penalty? For the reasons stated above, I say yes.