Capital punishment is in the news. Federal prosecutors have announced that they will seek the death penalty for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, one of the young perpetrators of last April's Boston Marathon bombing, which killed three people and injured more than 260.
Also, states that still permit capital punishment are having trouble finding the drugs that they customarily use to execute criminals. Their suppliers -- European countries that abolished capital punishment some time ago -- are reluctant to provide their products for purposes they disapprove.
As a result some states have executed criminals with novel combinations of drugs with sometimes unseemly results. In January, Dennis McGuire, condemned in Ohio for rape and murder, was executed with the sedative midazolam and the painkiller hydromorphone, a mix never tried in the United States before.
No one knows what was going on in McGuire's sedated mind during his prolonged demise, but authorities don't seem overly concerned. Assistant Ohio Attorney General Thomas Madden says, with interesting logic, that the Constitution may ban cruel and unusual punishment, but "you're not entitled to a pain-free execution."
Other states that are having difficulties obtaining execution drugs are looking to the past. Last month Missouri Sate Rep. Rick Brattin proposed reinstituting the use of the firing squad.
I've never been a big fan of capital punishment, even though I live in Texas, our nation's leader in executions. In fact, my state's 510 executions since 1976 are about five times greater than the number in the next state, Virginia, and are crucial to the United States' standing, according to Amnesty International, as the nation with the fifth highest total, surpassed only by Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Iran and the current champion, China.
But I don't find the deterrence argument for capital punishment very convincing -- despite the threat of death, we still have plenty of murders in capital punishment states. And we've never been able to figure out how to apply the death penalty equitably across lines of race and class.
Most disturbing, though, is the death penalty's irrevocability. The unfortunate upshot is that as long as we practice capital punishment, we will, from time to time, execute innocent people; clearly, we have done so and, undoubtedly, we will in the future. A sentence of life without parole provides an opportunity, at least, to correct our mistakes.
Really, we should join the rest of the Western world and abolish the death penalty.
But failing that, since some states are already considering reinstating the firing squad and electric chair, we should probably take one further step back to public executions. The last one was a hanging in Kentucky in 1936, and at least 20,000 people showed up to watch.
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev could be the first. We're probably not ready for a Saudi-esque beheading or an Iranian hanging. But I wouldn't be surprised by a strong local market and lucrative TV rights for a North Korean-style firing squad.
At the least, public executions would better test the theory of deterrence, as well as determine whether Americans really have the integrity to acknowledge and the stomach to confront the violence inherent in the death penalty.
ABOUT THE WRITER
John M. Crisp, an op-ed columnist for McClatchy-Tribune, teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. Readers may send him email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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The case for deterrence is solid.
OF COURSE THE DEATH PENALTY DETERS: A review of the debate.
MURDERERS MUCH PREFER LIFE OVER EXECUTION.
99.7% of murderers tell us "Give me life, not execution".
The case for justice is better.
MORAL FOUNDATIONS FOR THE DEATH PENALTY.
Immanuel Kant: "If an offender has committed murder, he must die. In this case, no possible substitute can satisfy justice. For there is no parallel between death and even the most miserable life, so that there is no equality of crime and retribution unless the perpetrator is judicially put to death.". "A society that is not willing to demand a life of somebody who has taken somebody else's life is simply immoral."
Pope Pius XII; "When it is a question of the execution of a man condemned to death it is then reserved to the public power to deprive the condemned of the benefit of life, in expiation of his fault, when already, by his fault, he has dispossessed himself of the right to live." 9/14/52.
The Death Penalty: Fair & Just.
John Murray: "Nothing shows the moral bankruptcy of a people or of a generation more than disregard for the sanctity of human life." "... it is this same atrophy of moral fiber that appears in the plea for the abolition of the death penalty." "It is the sanctity of life that validates the death penalty for the crime of murder. It is the sense of this sanctity that constrains the demand for the infliction of this penalty. The deeper our regard for life the firmer will be our hold upon the penal sanction which the violation of that sanctity merit." (Page 122 of Principles of Conduct).
Plato: “Longer life is no boon to the sinner himself in such a case, and that his decease will bring a double blessing to his neighbors; it will be a lesson to them to keep themselves from wrong, and will rid society of an evil man. These are the reasons for which a legislator is bound to ordain the chastisement of death for such desperate villainies, and for them alone”.
William A. Petit, Jr.: "Justice is the first virtue of social institutions," according to philosopher John Rawls. It transcends national borders, races and cultures. The death penalty is the appropriate societal response to the brutal and willful act of capital felony murder. Every murder destroys a portion of society. Those murdered can never grow and contribute to humankind; the realization of their potential will never be achieved. I support the death penalty not as a deterrent or for revenge or closure, but because it is just and because it prevents murderers from ever harming again. By intentionally, unlawfully taking the life of another, a murderer breaks a sacrosanct law of society and forfeits his own right to live. (In a home invasion, Dr. Petit was, severely injured, his wife Jennifer and their 11 year old daughter Michaela were raped and murdered. Both daughters, Michaela and Hayley were burned, alive.)
John Locke: "A criminal who, having renounced reason... hath, by the unjust violence and slaughter he hath committed upon one, declared war against all mankind, and therefore may be destroyed as a lion or tyger, one of those wild savage beasts with whom men can have no society nor security." And upon this is grounded the great law of Nature, "Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed." Second Treatise of Civil Government.
Saint (& Pope) Pius V: "The just use of (executions), far from involving the crime of murder, is an act of paramount obedience to this (Fifth) Commandment which prohibits murder." "The Roman Catechism of the Council of Trent" (1566).
New Testament Death Penalty Support Overwhelming.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau: "In killing the criminal, we destroy not so much a citizen as an enemy. The trial and judgments are proofs that he has broken the Social Contract, and so is no longer a member of the State." (The Social Contract).
3300 additional pro death penalty quotes.
1) Since the death penalty was reinstated, there has yet to be a proven claim that an innocent person was executed.
2) The majority of people removed from death row through the efforts of groups such as the innocence project, were actually not shown to be innocent, merely to have a lesser involvement in the crime than originally thought.
3) How many convicted murderers have escaped from prison, and how many of them have committed more murders while at large? Also, how many convicted murderers have committed murders within the prison systems?