PRO: A Moral Case for the Death Penalty

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Conservatives do not necessarily agree about when human life begins. But we do agree that human life has morally sacred value. This makes the death penalty a necessary controversy.

Still, with humility to its complexity, I support the death penalty.

It’s true, America’s record with capital punishment is checkered. Innocent men and women have likely been put to death over the years. The Death Penalty Information Center provides a troublingly long list to this effect.

This reality — and the immense cost of death penalty prosecutions — gives deserved opening to alternatives offered by death penalty opponents. There’s the option of life without parole sentencing. Alternatively, Fox News host and death penalty opponent Bill O’Reilly calls for a gulag-style facility in Alaska that would impose living misery on those who would otherwise be executed. Another option is life without parole plus custodial restrictions, including limited access to television and other forms of recreation.

Yet these substitutes pose problems. Most obviously, a life sentence affords a murderer that which he or she took: life. For victim families, such a moral dichotomy is often deeply distressing.

Most obviously, a life sentence affords a murderer that which he or she took: life. For victim families, such a moral dichotomy is often deeply distressing.

Families also fear that a murderer might one day be released or escape. Judicial activism against life-without-parole sentences in Europe underscores the risks of an unknown future. And ideas such as O’Reilly’s would almost certainly run afoul of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishment.”

Of course, the central concern here must be morality. Can it be morally justifiable for government to take life (outside of exigent circumstances such as a police incident or military conflict)? I believe it can be.

First, today’s death penalty is not the death penalty of the past. Increasing evidentiary expectations from juries (the so-called “CSI effect”), aggravating factor requirements (the infliction of unusual suffering against a murder victim, for example), mandatory appeals, pro bono representation from highly trained defense lawyers, and heightened judicial review all serve as contemporary safeguards in the system.

But I also believe that some murders are so individually brutal and societally destructive that only the death penalty can provide remedy.

Consider what Ricky Gray, executed just last month in Virginia, did to incur his sentence. Consider what Pablo Vasquez, executed in 2016, did to incur his sentence. Consider what Andrew Brannan, executed in 2015, did to incur his sentence. Or consider what Michael Taylor, executed in 2014, did to incur his sentence.

Speaking to Fox4KC news, a police officer described finding the body of Taylor’s 15-year-old victim, Ann Harrison. It’s vivid in my mind,” he said. “It’s vivid in the minds of my squad.” A childhood friend of Harrison added, “As a parent today, I still think back 25 years ago. Those kinds of things change your life forever and it’s not something you forget.”

We must heed to these sentiments when thinking about removing capital punishment from our criminal justice system. The friends and families of murder victims carry loss and suffering with them for the rest of their lives. For them, the sentence is life. But in this loss, they also spark an ensuing responsibility: to ensure that justice is sometimes absolute under the purview of democratic legal order.

It also matters to me that the death penalty has justifying roots in Judeo-Christian theology. As Christian scholar Joseph Boot notes in his book, “The Mission of God”: “…until the last few years, most Western countries retained the death penalty for treason, because the state is viewed as the foundation, if not the ‘god’ of the social order.” Boot’s point is, absent a societal sword against humanity’s worse impulses, social order will fray. But supporting the death penalty need not be a theologically vested moral concern: atheists have equal interest in a society that provides ultimate justice for ultimate sin.

Pat Buchanan takes this understanding further. “I still support the death penalty as the only just punishment for especially heinous crimes, as a deterrent, and as a statement of the moral law,” he told me. “Folks deny the death penalty deters, but why is the Godfather the safest man in the prison yard? Answer: With his death sentences, there is no appeals court and no 15-year delay.

Buchanan adds an important caveat: “Were I a governor, he said, and had the least doubt about the guilt of a man sentenced to death, I would commute it to life without parole.” I agree that the responsibility of doubt, as demonstrated by former Florida Governor Reubin Askew, is unwavering.

Our criminal justice system is imperfect, certainly. Too many Americans perceive racial prejudice from the judiciary, and too many police officers feel accosted for keeping us safe. Too many prisoners remain trapped in a revolving door of criminality and incarceration, and too many families of prisoners remain subjugated to authoritarian bureaucracies. We also need more defense lawyers so that every American gets his or her constitutional right to a fair trial.

Regardless, where the summit of crime meets the final authority of the state, I believe the death penalty remains the appropriate sentence for proven crimes of the most awful nature.

Tom Rogan is a columnist for Opportunity Lives and National Review, a former panelist on The McLaughlin Group and a senior fellow at the Steamboat Institute. Follow him on Twitter @TomRtweets. Email him at Thomas.RoganE@Gmail.com

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