The Death Penalty

In our system of justice, punishment is supposed to have a rehabilitative effect, and also a deterrent effect . “Justice” is not supposed to equal “vengeance”.

As penalties ascend, eventually the ultimate punishment a society is willing to inflict is reached. In America, we occasionally kill people when they’ve done terribly offensive things, at this point it is reserved almost exclusively as a penalty for aggravated murders, which causes some confusion amongst the “eye for an eye” crowd.

The problems with the death penalty are legion, beginning with the misunderstanding of its purpose. If you believe that killing someone is a way to stake out the high moral ground, indicating that killing people is wrong, you may miss the finer points of this article. Do not be distressed, I believe that the death penalty is the only resort left in some instances. I see the problems, and have no clue what a reasonable solution might be.

We do not want to see ourselves as barbarians, so we have always sought means of execution that are humane. The Guillotine was not only quick and efficient, it was humane. Hanging, performed properly, is humane, in that the neck is broken immediately, releasing the deceased from any sensation. Lethal injection is perhaps the most humane form of death possible, with the caveat “If performed properly.” Here we run into a problem. Lethal injection requires a physician, who took as his first oath “Primum non nocere” (doctors prefer Latin so you won’t know what they are saying) meaning “First, do no harm.” The contradiction of goals should be clear to anyone. Drug manufacturers who make the drugs traditionally used for lethal injection refuse to supply the drugs because they are opposed to the death penalty. Who really believes that a corporate sponsorship of an execution is a good idea?

This last week, the result of performing a medical procedure without medical advice came to its obvious conclusion. A man who had failed to kill a young woman by shooting her and then buried her alive was scheduled to be executed, and after the injection he lingered until his heart failed forty three minute after the injection. The State of Oklahoma was as clumsy as Clayton Lockett had been when he murdered Stephanie Neiman.

Clayton Lockett was not the poster boy for leniency. I don’t know how long his victim suffered, but that is not the point. Neither is the point that some people are found innocent after they are executed. My point is that despite a declining trend, over 16,000 people were murdered in America during the last year for wich the CDC has data. The odd execution is a meaningless deterrent, yet the odd botched execution stops us in our tracks, resulting in Charles Warner’s execution being suspended. Charles Warner was scheduled to be executed next, he had been convicted of raping and murdering an 11-month-old child two years earlier. On autopsy Warner’s 11 month-old victim was found to have a six-inch skull fracture (on an 11 month-old child, picture that), a broken jaw, three broken ribs, bruised lungs and a lacerated liver and spleen. Again, no poster boy for leniency.

Any single argument is inadequate. People like Lockett and Warner need to be removed from society. Nothing within our concepts of humanity will allow us to give them what most of us feel they deserve. Incarceration for life is in many ways an inhumane form of punishment, and the possibility exists they could kill other prisoners or guards, or even escape. Surgically or chemically altering their minds violates every standard of humanity. The death penalty is morally reprehensible to a large portion of society. No punishment will ever return the victims, but how do we protect society from the perpetrators?

Reasonable dating of historical events places Moses’ existence at around 1500BC. At that time, the law was brutal, the idea of “an eye for an eye” was a quantum leap in jurisprudence. 1500 years later Jesus taught “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” Many of us can not seem to accept that in the intervening 2000 years not everyone has evolved, but that is the way the world works. Some of us have developed ethically, and some never will.

The challenge we face as a society is how to do the dirty work that evolution has failed to do, without falling into the pit with the animals.





9 comments on “The Death Penalty

  1. MY feeling where the death penalty is concerned is that it’s not justice, it’s just vengeance.


    • kblakecash says:

      I do not get the impression that the majority of people see it as vengeance. After this botched execution (the patient expired but not as swiftly as desired) even some pro death penalty people were put off. That said, even some anti death penalty people acknowledged Lockett was undeserving of sympathy.

      Abhorrent behavior stretches peoples definitions of humane punishment, which make those punishments unusual, which is in violation of the eigth amendment of the constitution. It’s a massive circular argument, and the only good thing is the argument continues.


  2. I’m not a supporter of the death penalty- anymore. Maybe if someone I knew was brutalized I would be- again. The thing is that at that point it IS vengeance. I also don’t like the idea that a government can execute it’s own people- even if they should be dead. I once read a scholarly article from a group of researchers at some ivy league school, that had done a survey among the living victims of violent crime, and the families remaining of victims that had died. They were asked if executing the perp would give them closure. Overwhelming ‘No’. In fact, many stated that they didn’t want the emotional responsibility. It only ADDED to their burden. SO, if we execute monsters that even the families of victims don’t want to condone, then why do we do it? To give SOCIETY a false sense of security? So that I can sit in my kitchen and say, ‘Good. He deserved it.’? Aside from the circular argument that goes round-n-round about the ethics/morals of this form of punishment, the emotional toll has to be considered as well, I think. Nicely done KB.


  3. Nancy says:

    Many excellent points, on a very tough topic. One of the things that never ceases to amaze me is that it is generally the most rabid “pro-lifers” who champion the death penalty. It is a tough call for so many reasons, you’re right these individuals can never be rehabilitated, and belong in prison, which is certainly not a great place to live, and as lousy as their lives are society, or the communities in which they are incarcerated support them…
    I am amazed at people who seem so clear on an issue so complicated with such high stakes. People say,’if it was your wife/daughter/son who had been killed…’ and I am lucky to say I don’t know how I would feel, which is why victims’ families don’t serve on the jury.
    Anyway, sorry to ramble on, good post!


  4. Patti Delvillan says:

    Ok, I believe in self determined death penalty. Ask every prisoner to choose between locked up for eternity or euthanized on the spot, immediately after the sentence, no turning back. Interesting concept and one worth at least thinking about.


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