Opinion Columnists Katelyn McCarthy and Emmanuel Simon debate whether or not capital punishment should remain a form of justice. McCarthy argues in opposition of the death penalty, Simon argues in support.
Pro: The Place for Mercy, An Argument in Opposition to the Death Penalty
Although some crimes could warrant a sentencing of death, capital punishment is not the best decision to achieve lasting and humane justice.
By Katelyn McCarthy
The death penalty, when applied to duly-convicted criminals guilty of heinous crimes, is perfectly just. It is not a “wrong” decision. But that does not mean that it is the best one.
While not an intrinsic evil, the death penalty no longer serves a pragmatic purpose. In present-day America, criminals can be housed and the public kept safe at the same time. According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 2013 there were 10.5 escapes from prison for every 10,000 prisoners. That’s a rate of .105%. Applied to the entirety of the prison population in America, that’s about .24% (and almost none, if not none, will be prisoners who are on death row). 1.93% of those who have been sentenced to death since 1973, on the other hand, have been innocent (Voice of America News). A person brought to court, then, is more likely to be wrongly sentenced to death than is a prisoner to escape from jail.
The death penalty, moreover, does not seem to be a deterrent to crime. Of the 18 states (including Washington D.C.) with the highest murder rates (of 6.2 or more deaths per 100,000 people), four have abolished the death penalty, while 14 retain it. Of the 11 states with the lowest murder rates (of 3.1 or fewer deaths per 100,000 people), 8 have abolished the death penalty, one has a moratorium on the practice, and 2 retain it. The homicide rates in most states, regardless of their stances on the death penalty, are, however, relatively even across the board, suggesting that there are other factors than the existence or lack thereof of the death penalty that impact them.
Some argue that, because the state has the right to administer justice, the penalty of death is one that can be decided for certain crimes. This argument presupposes the existence of an infallible justice system. According to a recent study, “[O]f every death sentence handed down since 1973 – more than 9,600 in all...185 death row inmates had been exonerated after being wrongfully convicted, 11 more than previously known.” (Voice of America News). In a time and place in which an innocent person can be spared while a guilty one can be securely locked in prison, due concern for the dignity of human life might suggest that the death penalty be discarded for a more prudent option.
Others argue that the taxpaying public ought not to have to provide for the sustenance of a criminal and that, should his crime fit the bill, he should be executed so as to relieve them from their expenditure. One can never justify the taking of a human life, even if one lived monstrously, on monetary grounds. The life of even the lowest criminal could not be given up for the sake of all of the money in the world. No person is a means to an end, no matter if that end be fiscal gain. Similarly, one can never execute a criminal out of vengeance. Doing so makes the executing party little better than the convict.
There are crimes, however, for which death is a fair punishment. There is a proper place for justice. But does that mean that there is no place for mercy? The judicial decision as to what sentence to hand down to an outlaw should not be seen as one between the two options of death and serving time. Rather, it is a decision between justice and mercy. That is not to say that criminals should get off scot-free, but that the harshest punishment they receive should not be execution. It is entirely true that a genocidal maniac deserves to die. But can we not take a higher course of action than giving to him what he deserves, especially seeing as the prison system of today is effective? Life imprisonment without the possibility of parole in a system that can dole out such a sentence securely seems a just punishment.
It would be ludicrous for an opponent of the death penalty to argue that the justice system ought to try to turn criminals into teddy bears. Perhaps—and hopefully—this will be true in some cases. But, as the public is no longer at the risk of danger from prisoners, whenever possible, those convicts who might otherwise be executed should be seen as souls to be saved rather than as outlaws to be disposed of.
After having built up a system that can house convicts effectively, perhaps we ought to look into better methods of reforming those criminals who can be reformed and withhold execution from those who otherwise would receive it, not because they deserve to have their life spared but precisely because they don’t. Our infrastructure has made the protection of the common good and mercy for the wrongdoer simultaneously achievable. A humane society should jump at the opportunity.
For more information regarding the research of this article please visit the links below.
Con: The Appropriate Justice for the Most Violent Crimes, A Defense of Capital Punishment
For the most violent and horrific crimes committed the death penalty is the only form of justifiable punishment in order to achieve justice for the victim and protect society from the perpetrator.
By Emmanuel Simon
On the evening of November 21, 1996, a man named William Mitchell abducted a 38 year-old woman from a parking lot after being released from prison for stabbing a woman to death. Mitchell drove the woman under a bridge, where he beat her with blows to the head, strangled her, and even sexually assaulted her vaginally and anally, causing severe damage to her vagina and anus. With the woman still alive, Mitchell ran over the woman several times with his car, crushing her skull, finally murdering her. In March 22, 2012, the State of Mississippi executed Mitchell a little over 13 years after his sentencing. Did Mitchell deserve the death penalty?
It is my position that the civil authority may lawfully exercise capital punishment on malefactors where this is truly necessary to preserve the existence of just order in societies, and thus the death penalty ought not be abolished. Preserving the just order within society can be done by means of punishment.
There are at least three aims or purposes of punishment. The first is retribution, where, for example, the state inflicts on an offender harm proportionate to his or her offense. Another purpose of punishment is correction, where the offender may be rehabilitated. Finally another purpose of punishment is deterrence, so that either the criminal and/or other people may not commit the same crime.
It can be said without controversy that punishments ought to be proportionate to the crime. For example, a rapist and murderer like Mitchell ought not to merely pay 10 dollars in order to pay necessary dues for his crime. Given this to be the case, it follows that some crimes are more grave than others, and therefore greater punishments ought to be administered to greater crimes, and lesser punishments to lesser crimes. But here, we must ask a question. Are there crimes that are so grave that only punishment through death is befitting?
Let us first examine the facts. There are crimes that are as grave as death, or even graver. In the case of Mitchell, not only did he abduct the 38 year-old woman after getting released from jail for stabbing a woman to death, but he also beat her, raped her, and finally, smashed her head over with a car until she died. What punishment is proportionate to such a crime? A year in jail? Five years? Ten? Maybe a lifetime? Well, if we are to take seriously one of the purposes of punishment, retribution, the answer is none of the above. In this particular case, the proportional punishment of the crime is death, and any other punishment fails to take seriously the principle of proportionality, making it merely arbitrary. Furthermore, such punishment may also be an occasion for deterrence, so that criminals who love their life more than crime know that they have been warned. Examining all this, we find that Mitchell’s case has nothing to do with how strong the American infrastructure of jails and prisons are, and everything to do with preserving the common good of a society. Abolishing the death penalty is therefore an attack on the common good.
Yet still there are those who want to abolish the death penalty. Let us look at some of the opposing arguments to see what they have to offer.
Some argue that because the state is not infallible in its judgments, it follows that the death penalty ought not to be administered, since innocent people can be wrongfully executed. Putting aside the ironic truth that those who propose this argument are also not infallible, and can therefore be mistaken in their judgment about the death penalty, such an argument merely calls for a prudential state, and not a call to abolish the death penalty itself. Thus, even if proponents of the death penalty concede to this argument, it does not follow that one ought to abolish the death penalty. Furthermore, if objectors to the death penalty wish to be consistent, then they must also apply this particular view of theirs to other forms of punishment, such as incarceration. For example, since the state is not infallible in its judgments, should we keep criminals in jail for a long time if they could be innocent? A society which accepts this way of reasoning quickly finds its way to insanity.
Other objectors might hold that because our prison system is so secure, there's no need to administer the death penalty, since a criminal can spend life in prison. Thus, the death penalty should be abolished. But these same objectors who wish to abolish the death penalty cannot, as already shown, take seriously one of the many ends of punishment, retribution. Thus, the principle of proportionality can only be arbitrary for these people, which, taken to its logical conclusion, leads to absurdities. For in this view there is no way to measure the grave matter of any crime. Furthermore and with great irony, Pope Francis himself writes in his Encyclical Fratelli Tutti, “I would link this to life imprisonment… A life sentence is a secret death penalty.” For the Holy Father, keeping a criminal in prison for life is practically the same as administering the death penalty. Such a view puts many advocates who wish to abolish the death penalty in an awkward position, since they would be substituting the death penalty for the death penalty.
Again, some argue to abolish the death penalty by arguing that it fails to permit rehabilitation or deterrence. Though this is not always true, especially in regards to deterrence, let us assume for a moment that the opposing view is right. So what? Because there are at least three ends to punishment, retribution being the most prominent for this debate, it does not necessarily matter whether punishment through the death penalty permits rehabilitation or deterrence, as long as at least one end of punishment is fulfilled. A magistrate who exercises the death penalty justly most certainly fulfills at least one of the ends of punishment, retribution. Thus, objectors who wish to abolish the death penalty must show that capital punishment does not fulfill any of the proposed ends of punishment.
Finally, there are some well-meaning Catholics who call for the abolition of Capital Punishment on the grounds that it is up to God, the most just judge, to keep a man alive or to take his life away. The state therefore should not judge whether a criminal ought to live or not. Thus, so the argument goes, the death penalty ought to be abolished. Yet these same people who make this argument fear to take it to its logical conclusion. If it is ultimately God’s decision as to whether a man ought to live, and neither man nor the state ought to interfere, why not do away with doctors and medical care? For all we know, doctors, according to the logical conclusion of this pro-abolition argument, are hindering God’s will, keeping a man alive when God potentially wants the man dead! But surely, Catholics with even an ounce of reason know that God does not work in this way. In most cases, God works through his people, and thus we have doctors who care for the life of the patient. Similarly, God can work through the state, and for this reason, St. Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, notes that the magistrate is the minister or deacon (διάκονός) of God, not bearing the sword in vain, thereby refuting those who wish to abolish the death penalty. Thus, just as a good doctor brings about health to the body through medicine, so too may a just magistrate bring about health to the body politic through punishment. It is for this reason that the Author of Life writes, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for man is made in the image and likeness of God.”
Though I currently take the negative position on abolishing the death penalty, I too wish that one day, we no longer need to use the death penalty. Indeed, I can only hope for a time where there is no longer injustice, where love of God and neighbor reign in the hearts of men. Yet that is not the world we live in today, and until we do, the death penalty remains as an admissible form of punishment.
For more details of Mitchell’s history, murder, trial, and prosecution, see
Ryan Ford '23,