I don’t see any moral imperatives here based on the sanctity of life. The fact is, there are many situations when we say taking another life is ok, many of which have been noted in this thread – war, self defense, reasonable force in law enforcement, etc.; it simply isn’t true that taking another life is ALWAYS morally wrong. I think the better question is whether capital punishment “fits” in our criminal justice system. I’m not sure it does.
Any punishment, of course, must first be proportionate to the offense; capital punishment in the U.S. today is reserved for only the most serious murders, so it would seem to be ok on that score.
Why do we punish people who commit crimes? What do we hope to accomplish by punishment, generally? Several things, actually:
* Rehabilitation of the offender;
* Education (of the general public; when we set stiff penalties for DWI, for example, or drug crimes, or whatever, we are, in part, sending a message to everyone in society that we are taking these offenses very seriously);
* “General”” deterrence (make other people think twice about committing crime in the first place);
* “Special” deterrence (lock up the offender so he won’t do it again);
* Vengeance or retribution.
Does the death penalty meet any of the goals of punishment?
With capital punishment, rehabilitation, of course, is moot. (Typically, though, with the kind of crimes we’re talking about, rehabilitation is a fantasy anyway.)
Education is rather a wash; while capital punishment certainly tells society that we take capital crimes very seriously, it perhaps sends a rather mixed message by taking another life, and one wonders how necessary it is in the first place to educate the public that heinous murders are bad.
Studies have shown over and over again that it does not serve as a general deterrent.
As a “special” deterrent, capital punishment is quite effective, to say the least. On the other hand, so is life without possibility of parole.
And then there’s vengeance. Vengeance, of course, is a very real human emotion, and there is some merit to the argument that vengeance is best left to the government, which can attempt to check and control that emotion through a judicial system following legal precepts of due process and protecting the rights of the accused. Others have noted, however, that those very principles of due process and the rights of the accused (as well as the “civilized” manner in which the death penalty is carried out) make it almost impossible to achieve the cathartic benefits of vengeance, which requires punishment to be swift, bold and certain.
Looking at it this way, I’d say capital punishment is a very mixed bag, certainly little more effective in serving the aims of punishment than a sentence of life in prison without possibility of parole.
There is the very practical matter – which cannot be entirely ignored – that capital punishment saves the law-abiding, upstanding taxpaying citizens the not inconsiderable expense of lifetime incarceration. This, I think, is a very valid point.
There are other practical matters, though, stemming from the fact that our legal system is run by human beings and therefore by definition is, and always will be, imperfect. As Brad notes, innocent people are sometimes convicted – not often, but it does happen – and with capital punishment, of course, the mistakes cannot be remedied. Moreover, study after study has shown that the death penalty is fraught with racial and socio-economic bias. Looking at the universe of capital cases in any jurisdiction, studies have shown that guilty minority and poor defendants are many, many more times likely to receive the death sentence than a guilty white or wealthy defendant. Ineffective assistance of public defenders is a serious problem, and not just with capital cases – the issue deserves real attention – but I for one am not optimistic that it will ever be adequately solved; ditto on the racial biases of juries. Because of these fairness issues, then, if nothing else, I’m against capital punishment as a general principle in our criminal jurisprudence, especially when the only function of punishment that the death penalty clearly serves – special deterrence – can also be served quite adequately with life/no parole. In McVeigh’s particular case, the fairness issues are largely absent, and I won’t lose any sleep weeping for the man. But as a general principle, capital punishment in the U.S. has serious problems that we shouldn’t ignore.