I find it intriguing that there are folks who are adamantly for or against capital punishment as though there were some ironclad a priori causation for such views. Those for it, seem always to fall back on the “eye for an eye” rationale; those against resort to taking a life is God’s matter and not one of humankind to sit in judgment. In practice neither is valid; for there are innumerable variables in deciding the appropriate sentence. Nevertheless, what is a priori is that murder is wrong.
Premeditated murder seems justification enough to rule the death penalty if it can be proved beyond doubt. Yet murder is murder whether premeditated or not, as though there has to be some kind of conspiracy whirling in the mind in order to accomplish the foul deed. The random sniper who takes deliberate aim surely is intending to kill — the argument that he might have intended only to wound is invalid — and is just as vicious as one who has to plan for it. Saddam Hussein responsible for mass-murder is no more guilty than one who murders a spouse. Hussein cannot be executed a million times.
However much we would like the act of sentencing cut and dried as the above, there are violent circumstances that are extraneous, regardless of the outcome. The angry parent who violently shakes her child to death may not have intended to kill but surely to do damage and is perhaps as guilty. Yet ingrained in the minds of jurist and juror is the dread that as parents could themselves be in such a tragic situation that hopefully would be deemed accidental. This is no reason, however, to excuse the act; for the parent is a danger to the children of society. Drunken driving resulting in the death of others is a serious offense, even though not intended. Obviously it cannot be deemed purely accidental because the result would not have happened had it not been for intoxication. The same can be said for wilful careless driving resulting in death. It is questionable that these warrant capital punishment.
Retributive punishment of an eye for an eye is justified if there is absolutely no doubt about who is the perpetrator of the vile deed. There can be no leniency for the likes of a wilful murderer of a child or even a fragile octogenarian on the verge of death anyway. The absolutist of the death penalty should not argue like a utilitarian that it serves as a deterrent, for that only hedges the right of such a sentence. However, in light of recent DNA data wherein so many death sentences are proved wrong, capital punishment is on thin ice, not because of the right or wrong of the concept but the shoddiness of the court system.
This leads into the opposing view that humankind has no right to determine whether one should live or die since only God can judge; or that two wrongs do not make a right. The fallacy of this argument is that in “two wrongs” it is falsely equating sentencing to a brutal murder, and, further, that there is a contradiction in that a human did in fact take away a life, but that a consortium of humans may not, even though it fully espouses absolute due process of law. On the other hand, those against capital punishment under any circumstances also argue that retribution to fit the crime is primitive; for if a parent shakes a child till injured, should the sentence be that the parent be shaken violently until injured? A hit and run leaving one behind with loss of arm, should the culprit also lose his arm? And why is it that we are so sensitive that we hire professional executioners to fill the sentence, why not have the community turn out for a public stoning?
In summation, I am neither for nor against, but punishment is a necessary ingredient to a society run by appropriate justice which will always find ways to ease the harshness of judgment, particularly when there is some legitimate doubt — not the extraneous crap of OJ — yet not sufficient for outright acquittal and through appeal is either cleared up or proven guilty beyond a shadow of a doubt. Nevertheless, if by some odd circumstance or chemistry in my brain, I were to kill, I should hope I have the courage to accept death in return.
Copyright © 2004 Richard R. Kennedy All rights reserved. Revised: January 7, 2004.