Last Rites for Capital Punishment?

Model of a late 19th century French guillotine

On September 10, 1977, France raised the 88-pound blade of its guillotine one last time and let it drop on a Tunisian immigrant who had sexually tortured and murdered a young French nanny, lopping off his head in just a fraction of a second. After that, a cry of “off with their heads” heard anywhere in the Western world would likely suggest little more than a taste for metaphor, not a thirst for blood. And soon, all manner of executions, not just the heads-roll variety, would be declared illegal throughout Western Europe. In due time scores of countries elsewhere—from Mexico and the Philippines to Cambodia and Rwanda—would put away their death penalty statutes. Only the rare developed nation would kill to show that killing is unacceptable.

The United States would be rare. Lethal injections, electrocutions, and other means of judicial death would offer an eye-popping display of American exceptionalism. The death penalty is still all too with us in America, and only eight other countries, with not a democracy among them, executed more than two or three people last year. That said, in recent years we have become less exceptional on this score.

The latest case in point is Connecticut, where lawmakers voted yesterday to abolish new death sentences. Governor Dannel Malloy, a Democrat, has vowed to sign the measure, which will make Connecticut the fifth state in the past five years to forsake punishment by death. (The others are New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, and Illinois; California voters will probably have their say at the ballot box in November.)

The biggest story, however, is not about the handful of states that are shuttering their death houses altogether. It’s about the slow death of capital punishment throughout the country, though I’d lay emphasis on slow. The numbers of executions as well as new death sentences have been falling steadily in recent years. In 2011, 43 people were executed nationwide, a 56-percent drop since 1999, according to the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington.

Even Texas has been less eager to administer the heart-stopping potassium chloride and other lethally injected drugs. Texas extended the death protocol to 13 inmates in 2011, compared to 24 two years earlier. That’s just one way of sizing it up, though. Another way is to note that if Texas were a country, it would rank eighth in reported executions worldwide, right behind North Korea and the rest of the United States, but way ahead of countries such as Somalia and Afghanistan.

Moral Principle, Political Reality

For decades many in the United States have opposed capital punishment on moral and religious grounds. Such a culturally conservative force as the American Catholic hierarchy has repeatedly denounced the practice as a violation of the sanctity of human life. To me, one of the most cogent moral arguments against the death penalty came from Pope John Paul II. He argued time and again that the only possible justification for capital punishment (or any use of deadly force) would be strict self-defense—which rules out the death penalty in almost every conceivable circumstance. That’s because, as John Paul noted, there are many other ways of protecting society against a killer, ways known collectively as the modern penal system.

As someone who dislikes capital punishment for more or less those reasons, I’d be happy to give the credit for its decline to the abolitionists and their excellent principles. But I’d be kidding myself.

It’s not moral revulsion against the whole idea of capital punishment that has thinned the execution ranks. It is the well-founded fear of executing the innocent, a real possibility brought to light not by moral arguments but by the evidentiary wonders of DNA, which has led to multiple exonerations in recent years. Polls show that most though a declining number of Americans still support capital punishment at least in theory, and the basic reason is that most inmates on death row are not innocent. They’re guilty as hell.

So, Americans haven’t yet had a moral conversion on this issue. And that’s okay. In a pluralistic society, citizens—even those on the same side of an issue—will bring diverse values and considerations to the table of public conversation. When it comes to the death penalty, some worry about faulty procedures that could lead to wrongful execution or simply about the costs of seemingly endless appeals. It’s the job of others including the theologically motivated to add moral principles to the mix, and to do so with humility and what the Declaration of Independence refers to as a “decent respect” for the opinions of humankind. It’s fair to say that many different opinions have coalesced to put the greatest pressure on capital punishment in decades.

Counting on Conservatives

What might eventually tip the scales toward abolition is not liberal outrage but conservative caution. True, many conservatives have taken the untenable view that government—which, in their minds, is incapable of adequately performing a simple task like creating a construction job or an affordable housing unit—is somehow so adept and infallible that it can be trusted to make ultimate decisions about life and death. This logic is no longer flying with increasing numbers of Americans, however. And they include many who lean right.

The last words here go to Richard Viguerie, a father of what used to be called the New Right, now known as the Tea Party.

Conservatives have every reason to believe the death penalty system is no different from any politicized, costly, inefficient, bureaucratic, government-run operation, which we conservatives know are rife with injustice. But here the end result is the end of someone’s life. In other words, it’s a government system that kills people (his emphasis)….

The death penalty system is flawed and untrustworthy because human institutions always are [my emphasis]. But even when guilt is certain, there are many downsides to the death penalty system. I’ve heard enough about the pain and suffering of families of victims caused by the long, drawn-out, and even intrusive legal process. Perhaps, then, it’s time for America to re-examine the death penalty system, whether it works, and whom it hurts. …read more