Monday, September 07, 2015

A debate on the death penalty

Note: The following is an exchange between myself and the author of a conservative blog who went by the name "Alamo Commando" in which we debated the death penalty. It was done sometime in 2004.

Arguments against the death penalty

The death penalty is a barbaric relic of our ancient past. 

The fact that it is still practiced today is a measure of just how far we still are from being a truly mature society.
There are two ways in which the death penalty can be debated - a secular argument and a religious argument. Neither holds up very well for death penalty proponents.
First, and perhaps most significantly, are the countless studies that show that the death penalty is not a deterrent against crime. The United States is one of the last Western industrialized nations in the world to have a death penalty and we still have the highest homicide rate in the world.
Since most murders are so called “crimes of passion” committed in the heat of the moment, the consequences of such action play little if any role in the outcome.
Then there is the arbitrary and unfair manner in which the death penalty is applied through our justice system which gives those with means an advantage over those without.
It has also been shown that the death penalty is more costly to carry out than life imprisonment.
“In Texas the cost of capital punishment is estimated to be $2.3 million per death sentence, three times the cost of imprisoning someone at the highest possible security level, in a single prisoner cell for 40 years (Dallas Morning News, March 8, 1992; Dieter, R.C. 1994. Future of the Death Penalty in the U.S.: A Texas-Sized Crisis. Death Penalty Information Center. Washington, D.C.).”
Some of this cost is due to the lengthy appeals process which prompts death penalty proponents to advocate eliminating appeals and speeding up the time between conviction and execution. But this would only exacerbate the potential for making mistakes that would result in killing innocent people.
Executing the innocent is the biggest drawback of the death penalty because its finality leaves no room for error - and we do make errors.
So why do we risk killing innocent people to maintain a type of punishment that is more costly than life imprisonment and has no deterrent effect on crime?
There is only one answer to that question and it is the only thing that death penalty proponents have to hang their hats on. The answer is ‘vengeance.’ We want revenge and that means taking a life for a life. As the Old Testament states - “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth...”

So that brings us to the religious side of the debate.
There is no question that the death penalty was practiced in Biblical times. The Old Testament lists more than a dozen crimes for which a person could be put to death including everything from murder and kidnapping to speaking blasphemy and breaking the Sabbath. The executions were then carried out using some of the most cruel and painful methods ever devised including stoning, impaling and burning at the stake.
Then of course there was crucifixion - a horrific form of capital punishment - which was used to kill Jesus Christ and most of his disciples.
Indeed, it was Jesus - a victim of state-sponsored execution - who adamantly rejected the Old Testament adage about an eye for an eye and instead preached about mercy and forgiveness: Turn the other cheek, forgive those who persecute you, do unto others as you would have them do unto you...
Does this sound like the teaching of someone who would be in favor of the death penalty?
In the one clear instance where Jesus came upon an execution about to take place he stopped it from happening. He did not inquire about the guilt or innocence of the person - in this case Mary Magdalene. He didn’t care that her crime - prostitution - was legitimately punishable by death according to the laws of the time. He said “whoever among you is without sin, let that person cast the first stone.”
How is it that Christians today can still support the death penalty?
Ultimately, I believe we are conditioned to support capital punishment by our constant exposure to violence on television and in the movies. Most people have never been witness to a murder, and yet we all feel like we have because we have seen them so many times in the movies and on television. In those cases, you are right there when the act occurs. You see it happen and there is no doubt who the perpetrator is. Then for the rest of the movie we are left with this need for closure until the hero finally satisfies that urge by offing the bad guy in some satisfyingly gruesome way. “Go ahead. Make my day.”
But real life is not like that. There are rarely any reliable witnesses to a murder and we are left grasping at circumstantial evidence to try and determine who the guilty party is. Even scientific tests are not always 100 percent accurate so it often boils down to who can make the better argument before a jury - a prosecutor whose political career is often boosted by the number of capital convictions they achieve, or the often overworked and underpaid court-appointed defense attorney.
But even if you are certain about a person’s guilt in a case, I believe it is still wrong to carry out the death penalty. What right do we have to determine that God has no further use for someone? There are many sad examples of death row inmates such as Karla Faye Tucker and James Aldridge who turned their lives around while on death row and would have devoted the rest of their lives to ministering to other inmates while serving out their life sentences. Instead, we killed them.
What purpose is there to being here on Earth if not to do God’s work by spreading love and compassion to all of his people? Why do we doubt God’s ability to transform the lives of even the most hardened criminals and bring about some good in them before they die? Take the case of the Apostle Paul who authored so much of our New Testament. Before his conversion on the Road to Damascus, he was a chief persecutor of Christians during that time. While there is no direct reference to his actually committing a murder, we do know that at the very least he stood by and held the coats of those who took part in the stoning of Saint Stephen. And yet God chose this man to be one of the chief architects of the Christian faith.
We shouldn’t be in the business of limiting God’s choices. 

Support For The Death Penalty

Wow, it certainly looks like you have done your homework. You make several credible arguments, unfortunately they are the wrong arguments for this debate.

I will first take a look at the issue of deterrence even though it has nothing to do with the death penalty. You have said that the death penalty is not a deterrent to crime, especially those classified as a crime of passion. There is proof to the contrary. Is her testimony before the House Judiciary Committee, Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homelandy Security (April 24, 2004) Joanna M. Shepherd of Clemson University said the following: "Modern studies have consistently shown that capital punishment has a strong deterrent effect, with each execution deterring between 3 and 18 murders. This is true even for crimes that might seem not to be deterrable, such as crimes of passions." But as I said earlier I don't necessarily support the death penalty because of it's deterrent effect. I support the death penalty because it serves justice; that is the end that it serves. There are some crimes that are so heinous that justice demands the life of the perpetrator. The English philosopher John Stuart Mills said "Does fining a criminal show want of respect for property, or imprisoning him, for personal freedom? Just as reasonable is to think that to take the like of a man who has taken that of another is to show want of regard for human life. We show, on the contrary...our regard for it, by the adoption of a rule that he who violates that right in another forfeits it for himself and that while no other crime that he can commit deprives him of his right to live, this shall." So Mike, it has everything to do with justice and respect for life, and nothing to do with vengeance or even deterrence.

Let me now address the issue of cost. I agree with what you say, it costs more to put a person to death than to keep them in prison for life, but since when did we put a price on justice? Let me put it another way. Let's say we decide to abolish the death penalty because, as you say, the cost is prohibitive. Can we then also start skimping on the money we spend for incarceration? Would you mind if in the future prisons were simply a large, walled compound where the inmates slept in tents or even on the ground? We don't do incarceration on the cheap and therefore it stands to reason that we will not to justice on the cheap either. In addition, the appeals in a capital case are necessary to insure that only the guilty are put to death.

Finally, for now, let me address the issue of Christianity and the death penalty. You specifically cite the case of the prostitute who was about to be stoned, and Jesus said "Let him without sin cast the first stone." but this story was not an indictment of the form of punishment; rather Jesus was talking about hypocrites. Take a look at Matthew 7:1-5 "Judge not, that you be judged. For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you. And why do you look at the speck in your brother's eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, 'Let me remove the speck from your eye'; and look, a plank is in your own eye? Hypocrite! First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye."

Mike, that is all I have for now. I look forward to your response. 

The Quality of Mercy

If the death penalty is not about deterrence, or cost, or any of the other multitude of issues at hand, but is simply a matter of justice, then what exactly defines justice?
John Stuart Mill's simplistic notion of justice as taking life for life to show respect for life falls short on many levels. If the death of one person requires another death to achieve justice then what about mass murders? Can justice ever be achieved in a case such as Timothy McVeigh's where one man was deemed responsible for the loss of hundreds of lives?
And what of mercy? Are mercy and justice mutually exclusive? Can we not have both? Life imprisonment without parole offers us both the opportunity for justice and mercy. While it is clear that mercy was not present when the killer comitted their crime, it needs to start somewhere and that should be the role of a mature and just society - to show mercy to the criminals while also protecting society from future harm.

I am not surprised that you are able to find someone working at a conservative think tank who will argue that capital punishment is a deterrent, but I just flat don't believe it. I've seen far too many studies that come to the opposite conclusion. Plus, if it were truly the case that every execution deterred 5-18 more homicides then Texas should have the lowest homicide rate in the nation - and instead we have one of the highest.

Finally, while Christ did come down hard on hypocrites, I don't think that was his sole point in the parable about Mary Magdalene. Otherwise, why didn't Christ cast the first stone himself? Instead he forgives her and tells her to sin no more. Sounds to me like someone who didn't think the death penalty was a just form of punishment. He chose mercy and so should we. 

Mercy & Justice - You Can Have Both

I guess the only things we will agree on are that you have experts that agree with you and I have experts that agree with me; you have studies that back you up and I have studies that back me up. So now what? I think all that is left is the broader philosophical debate that we have now arrived at: what is the relationship, if any, between the death penalty, mercy and justice.

Let me try to answer that. In your first post you mention that some condemned killers accept Christ while they are on death row. I say praise God, but that does not negate their obligation to answer for their crimes while here on earth. If praying the sinners prayer should get somebody off the hook for the death penalty where do we draw the line? If somebody is caught stealing and during trial they find religion do we stop the trial and let them go? No.

And this brings is back to Jesus and the prostitute. The story has everything to do with hypocrisy and nothing to do with mercy because if only the sinless can punish sinners then everyone goes free! So, what I take from the story is that people can still face human justice for crimes they have committed, but only God can judge their souls. So what does this have to do with our debate? Well, it goes back to why I support the death penalty: justice. Let me give an extreme example. If Dr. Billy Graham were to be found guilty of murdering somebody tomorrow he could still be sentenced to death, and I think we would both agree that he would still go to heaven if he asked for forgiveness.

The ultimate rejection of mercy

First let me say that I am not advocating that criminals who repent of their sins and accept Christ should get off the hook. Punishment should still be meted out for their crimes regardless of their religious convictions. What I am saying is that the death penalty is an unjust and unmerciful form of punishment that should be replaced with life without parole for all offenders regardless of their religious affiliations or lack thereof.
The death penalty is the ultimate rejection of mercy because it deprives that person of any future opportunity for getting right with God or turning their lives around. I believe that God wants everyone to have that opportunity. I agree with you that we can have both justice and mercy at the same time, but we cannot have both the death penalty and mercy.
The example of Karla Faye Tucker was to say that she might have served a good purpose for other inmates while carrying out her life sentence, not that she should have been let off with no punishment.
What I am saying is that we do not have to murder a murderer in order to achieve justice. Locking them away in prison should satisfy that ideal for all but the most vengeful sorts. Consider how we measure out justice for other crimes. If someone breaks into your house and steals your TV, they are likely to get a fine and jail time. The judge does not say, OK, now you get to break into their house and steal their TV.
As for your final example, I do not believe the death penalty is promoting justice regardless of who the perpetrator is - be it Billy Graham or Scott Peterson. If we have the option of life without parole, then there is no excuse for executing someone.