Some Thoughts on the Death Penalty

I was for the death penalty before I was against it.

I was for it when our children were little and their care was my obsession. The world seemed so full of murderous and dangerous people.

Later when they were grown and responsible for their own care, I was against it.

And I’m still against it today.

Questions of such searing import deserve much consideration and reconsideration as we pass through the stages of our lives. Hopefully the perspective of years allows us to make wiser decisions.

Here’s the conclusion I’ve reached after many decades of struggling with the issue:

The entire system of the death penalty is not worth the wrongful execution of even so much as one innocent person (as we most likely saw yesterday with the Troy Davis execution).

Notice that this is not an argument over its efficacy as a deterrent or any such “practical” consideration. Rather, it’s a moral/ethical judgement.

Nor is it a sentimental argument based on an unrealistic view of the possibility of reforming every guilty criminal. The sad truth is that there are some genuinely guilty violent human beings who are beyond repair. It’s true that society would always be better off without such irredeemable people.

But here’s the question: Do you trust the state to unerringly determine who is innocent and who is guilty in every case, without exception?

I could support a death penalty that is perfect, but since it isn’t perfect and can never be perfect, I oppose it absolutely.

To understand this moral/ethical opposition, try the following “thought experiment:”

Think of someone you love more than you love your own life, someone for whom you would willingly give up your own life. Then ask yourself whether the entire system of the death penalty is worth the wrongful execution of that person, who has been wrongfully charged with a crime s/he did not commit?

If, after doing this thought experiment, you still support the death penalty, then you have some ‘splainin to do. Not to us, but to yourself. At the very least, arriving at such a perverse conclusion should make you want to review your own moral/ethical frame. How could it not?

You should at least consider whether there might be a different frame within which the abolition of the death penalty returns a benefit to society far beyond any ever gained by the “justice of retribution,” and is in that sense even more practical. “Restorative justice,” we might call it.

I agree with Mario Cuomo, whom I once heard say about the death penalty something like this: “I may wish for revenge personally in any given case, but our laws should reflect our highest and best impulses as human beings.”

His statement binds together what is ultimately most practical with what is most moral and ethical, and rises above the natural lust for revenge and the remnant tribal religious impulses that continue to drive support for the death penalty.

My strong personal reaction to the killing of Troy Davis yesterday was sadness and revulsion.

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4 Responses to “Some Thoughts on the Death Penalty”
  1. depelton says:

    Wouldn’t you expect that opposition to the death penalty would be strongest among those who most loudly whine about how “government can’t do anything right?”

    And yet I have the impression that this is the very same group that most strongly supports the death penalty.

    What’s the deal with that?

  2. gregzaller says:

    The “deal” is that most people base their opinions on what appeals to them the most and then pick and choose their “facts” to support it. Apparently this is called confirmation bias. Good article in Wikipedia

    The question then becomes why do some people irrationally hate government and also hate abortion? My answer is that we hate external symbols that we project onto denied or hated parts of our inner selves. I connect the two, government and abortion, because in both cases they symbolize a selfish lack of empathy for others.

    In other words, when we judge we are really judging ourselves.

  3. Todd Juvinall says:

    The fact that a murderer is executed is in fact a deterrent. Simply, he or she is no longer able to murder. I would suggest you compare the stats from say, the 20’s and 30’s and see if the penalty was a deterrent to others murdering. You might be surprised.

  4. depelton says:


    Thanks again for your comment.

    I would be interested in stats on deterrence from the 20s and 30s. Can you give me a reference so I can look at that issue?

    I do see the logic that if you execute someone, he is forever deterred from more crime. In fact, that used to be my favorite defense of the death penalty when our kids were little, and I used to support it.

    In the meantime, of course, my position has evolved to the point where now — according to my current values — the entire system of the death penalty, including whatever merit it may or may not have as a deterrent, is not worth the cost of even so much as a single wrongful death from that system.

    So, in my view, this is not a case of one of us being right on this issue and the other being wrong.

    It is more a case of us having different value systems.

    We’re both right, in a sense, if we stay true to our values, no matter how much they may differ.