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Sapere aude - dare to be wise
Thursday, May 13, 2004
Posted 6:07 PM by Joshua Claybourn
Capital Punishment
Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens has sparked a healthy debate on capital punishment throughout the blogosphere. It's a re-hash of all the old arguments you've been hearing for years, but they're intelligent and gifted writers so it's worth checking out. Here's Joshua Davey's original post, a clarification, Joe Carter's thoughs, Jeremy Frank's opinion, a view from Emily Zimmer, and Joshua's repsonse to Emily. These bloggers, many of whom are law students, are also all Christian. You'll find a good diversity of opinion though.

Anytime a discussion arises concerning capital punishment, it must be made clear that there are two very separate arguments against it. The first is a moral one. The second is that the state has a right execute some people, but that the system is somehow flawed (innocent are punished, etc.). Often those opposed on moral grounds will use the second argument in combination with the first. Both arguments can be persuasive, and no matter where you stand on the issue, I think you can agree that it's a very sensible position to have.

A fact that is often lost in the shuffle is that capital punishment is more expensive than life in prison. In fact, it's four to six times more expensive than life imprisonment1. It doesn't take a genius to understand why. Court costs, judicial time, appeals, and the costly nature of "death row" facilities all make the process expensive. It would be less costly to give an eight-teen year old life imprisonment without parole, rather than give him the death penalty.

Since the above bloggers are Christian, I'll note that the Christian and Jewish Holy texts clearly endorses the death penalty in numerous places. God instituted the death penalty through His covenant with Noah (Gen. 9) and made it a centerpiece in Mosaic law (Exodus 21). Although the sixth commandment says "thou shalt not kill," it's literal translation is "thou shalt not murder" (an important difference). Further, one could make the argument that Jesus endorsed the punishment (Matthew 15:3-9) and that the apostle Paul, who was wrongly sentenced to death, agreed he should be executed if he did indeed commit the crime (Acts 25). In spite of all this, the Holy text is also quite clear about the possibility, potential, and utter importance of changed hearts and saved souls. Given that it's cheaper anyway, discarding its use must be considered. In sum, I think the Christian Bible permits its use in certain circumstances, but a whollistic reading does not command its use.

As for one of the most controversial arguments, deterrence, I really have trouble trusting any sort of evidence that claims capital punishment does or does not deter crime. Studies of that nature can't be carried out ceteris peribus, rendering deterrence a nominal argument. Related to this point, for many capital punishment is an easy way out. I would much prefer them to sit in a cell block for the rest of their years to ponder what they've done. But here I must offer a caveat. I have not been inside prisons much at all, save for a brief school tour once of the county jail (although I did work in a probation department for quite some time). People often tell me that they've become too comfortable. If this is true, and I haven't really seen solid evidence to suggest it is, then we might need consider repealing some conditions, such as satellite television, etc.

Another argument also used against the penalty's use is its supposed inequitable use among the races. African Americans account for only 12 percent of the U.S. population, but represent more than 40 percent of those on death row and one in three of those executed. Yet blacks were over 7 times more likely than whites to commit homicide in 2000 (and that's a year when black murders were nearly half their previous levels). So given the difference in murder rates, one would expect blacks to make up a higher percentage of those on death row. In fact, given these numbers, capital punishment does indeed appear to be racist - against whites. I know that some may call me racist for pointing out such a thing, but I believe the initial accusation to be racially charged on half-truths that don't tell the whole story.

Nevertheless, I find the case against the death penalty to be more persuasive than for it, both on practical and principled grounds. This certainly isn't cut and dry, and both "sides" of this issue have very sensible arguments. My apologies that this post is overly simplified, but such is the nature of blogging.

1 McLaughlin, Abraham. "98 Executions in '99 Re-ignites a Capital Debate." The Christian Science Monitor. 27 December 1999.

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