Capital punishment and justice
Opponents of capital punishment often put forward the proposition that it doesn't deter murder. That proposition is unprovable. But more than that, it disregards the reason for capital punishment persisting throughout history: the need for retributive justice.
Inasmuch as a concern to prevent crime is noble, it being the reason for not executing murderers minimises the gravity of murder; and it denies the survivors of victims the psychic satisfaction that condign punishment has been suffered for their loss. To me, that isn't justice.
So what is justice? Russel Kirk, writing for the Heritage Foundation in 1993, gave this as the classical definition of justice: "The classical definition, which comes to us through Plato, Aristotle, Saint Ambrose, and Saint Augustine of Hippo, is expressed in a single phrase: suum cuique, or to each his own."
As this is put in Justinian's Corpus Juris Civilis, "Justice is a habit whereby a man renders to each one his due with constant and perpetual will." (The meaning of justice).
This means that justice must be constant, being 'a habit'; and it is about punishing the offender, not deterring crime or rehabilitating the offender. That kind of justice is obvious and retributive. It validates the enduring maxim from Chief Justice Lord Hewart that, "It is not merely of some importance, but of fundamental importance that justice should not only be done, but should be manifestly and undoubtedly seen to be done."
Those who insist that executing a man for murder doesn't deter other men from committing murder, because murders continue despite executions, should tell us why we should punish people for any crime. For crimes continue despite punishment. People are punished every day for theft, child abuse, and a host of other crimes, yet other people continue to do them, well knowing of the punishment.
To argue that the death penalty doesn't deter murder, and insist on giving life sentence instead, implies that life sentence is a deterrent; but despite life sentences, murder continues. Since life sentence is a deterrent in the view of those who oppose execution on the ground that it isn't a deterrent why don't we just catch a bunch of people and lock them up for life, to prevent murder?
C.S. Lewis, British thinker and apologist, said of the deterrence argument: "If deterrence is all that matters, the execution of an innocent man, provided the public think him guilty, would be fully justified."
Another argument against the death penalty is that it is cruel and unusual punishment. That is, it is too severe for a human being. But is it cruel and unusual for a man who has taken the life of another human being, in a most brutal fashion, as is murder, to be given the same or equivalent treatment he gave to his victim?
I believe there is an element of mercy in the application of the death penalty, especially today in the Western world. Convicts are no longer drawn and quartered, devoured by animals, crucified, burned at the stake, stoned, and have their heads chopped off by the guillotine. Lethal injection and electrocution are clean and efficient methods: the convict gets his dessert in minutes, not suffering the agonising ordeal to which he subjected his victim or victims.
And a man who knows he will be executed at a set time has the opportunity to make things right between himself and his Maker before his execution. In light of this, execution could be an instant passage into eternal bliss.
Contrast that with having a man in prison for life, sometimes for decades, in the most inhuman conditions, where he is denied contact with the outside world. That is cruel and unusual punishment.
Finally, to those who insist that DNA has shown that sometimes innocent people have been executed, I say that since DNA is so precise, it means the chance of executing an innocent person, where DNA evidence is available, is almost nil. That is even more reason for executions.
Following the reasoning that since innocent people have been executed we should not have capital punishment, we should then dispense with all types of punishment, for innocent people are mistakenly punished for crime every day.
n Ewin James is a freelance journalist living in Longwood, Florida. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.