Capital Punishment is a topic that I have personally struggled with most of my life. If a person were to deliberately take the life of one of my loved ones would I want vengeance? One of my core values is to do not harm which conflicts with vengeance. Another is compassion which encompasses forgiveness which also conflicts with vengeance. But vengeance would likely be my initial gut reaction to such an unimaginable crime.
In our society of measured or overwhelming response to violent crimes forgiveness is often viewed as a sign of weakness. So much of our culture and justice systems are embedded with ‘An Eye for an Eye‘ which is biblical Old Testament justice. In a time when there were few if any prisons or justice systems punishment was swift and cruel by our standards but quite effective. Punishment was often worst than the crime. If one stole a loaf of bread they lost their right hand. If one committed murder they were executed. There were no appeals. Punishment was performed immediately or soon after judgment was rendered.
But the new justice of the New Testament says “Vengeance is mine… saith the Lord” (Romans 12:19) implying that man has no right to his own vengeance. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you...” (Matthew 5:44). God is now portrayed as the God of Grace and man must follow a new order. This is strange talk coming from an agnostic such as I, but I am much a product of my Christian upbringing and believe in many of its values.
The word Capital Punishment is in itself somewhat oxymoronic. Capital implies death whereas Punishment implies that one pays for their crime while living. The only part of Capital Punishment that is true is the suffering of the prisoner in anticipation of his/her execution but that is not the intent of the law. For that reason it is cruel and very unusual punishment. The finality of Capital Punishment is primarily a vengeful act that may or may not bring closure for any of the victim’s loved ones. It also rids society of a convicted murder and any chance that the crime will be repeated by this person. I would hope never to be a victim’s surviving family member faced with such circumstances but if I were I would hope that I would be able to overcome my bitterness and show compassion and forgiveness to the killer. I use the word killer instead of murderer because murder is such a vengeful word implying intent, something that is far more difficult to forgive.
Even though I am not a Christian I often use Biblical arguments to connect with my Christian readers. I may seem a hypocrite but my arguments and many of my values coincide with many Christian core values. Love, compassion, forgiveness, and charity, all these and more are at the core of my values. It is my belief that Christ did not subscribe to vengeance and the intentional taking of another life for any reason, even in war, with the single exception of out of love as for example in the siege of Masada when the besieged Jews killed their family members as part of a mass suicide in order to avoid capture by Roman Legions or in my opinion euthanasia of a suffering loved one as we would a loved pet.
I believe that for most modern day religions in this world the taking of another life out of vengeance is wrong. It is based upon hate and has elements of evil in it even if it is done as a matter of social and legal justice. It does not leave the victim’s loved ones any better off. They will feel bitterness towards the killer even after execution. It brings little real closure, instead leaving behind much sadness and enmity.
Letting the legal system make the killer pay for the crime in prison and forgiving and showing mercy for the killer is a far more positive and healthy attitude. It does bring closure and peace to the victim’s loved ones and gives a chance for the killer to perhaps eventually learn to repent for the crime and become a better person. There have been cases where a victim’s loved one has visited a convicted killer in prison and forgiven him resulting in the killer turning his life around due to the overwhelming compassion shown. Such an outcome is possible only if the killer lives and the victim’s loved ones forgive.
There are of course cases where people have been executed and later found to be innocent as well as people who have been acquitted and later found to have been guilty but due to double jeopardy cannot be retried for the same crime. Our justice system is flawed with bad prosecutors who will use any trick to bring in a conviction and clever defense attorneys who are extremely good at their job of bringing in an acquittal. Juries are easily confused and swayed. So even if justice claims to be blind, justice is not always served. Most people convicted of capital crimes are poor minorities who must depend upon a public defense attorney who often gets no pay (pro bono) to defend them, so there is little incentive to go all out to do a good job of costly and time consuming investigating to build up a good case.
Fortunately there is a lengthy appeals process in many states supporting Capital Punishment but reversing a conviction is extremely difficult especially if the prisoner is a poor minority. Statistics have shown that the execution rates are disproportionately higher for Blacks, Hispanics and other racial minorities compared to Whites. So there seems to be a bias built into the legal system against minorities. This does not seem just especially in capital crimes where death cannot be reversed.
So there are many good arguments against Capital Punishment. That is why most developed nations now have no Capital Punishment. It is often difficult to extradite an accused killer from one of these countries back to the States if there is a possibility that the prisoner will be executed. Capital Punishment is also not practiced in all states. So in many ways states that support Capital Punishment have an antiquated legal system for dealing with capital crime.
Does Capital Punishment even act as a deterrent? States with Capital Punishment still have high rates of homicides. Southern states which carry out the vast majority of executions also have the highest homicide rates so Capital Punishment does not effectively serve as a deterrent. The vast majority of people who commit capital crimes believe that they can get away with it and many do. There are sadly many unsolved homicides (cold cases).
Capital Punishment is not punishment and is wrong for so many reasons. I feel we need to be a more compassionate people and stop doing unto others as they have done unto us. Vengeance does not heal. It makes people bitter and hateful. Love, compassion, and forgiveness bring closure and lasting peace. These are virtues we need to learn and apply in our lives, not only for such heinous crimes but in our every day life situations. There is much information that supports the argument that the cost of trials and appeals for Capital Punishment crimes are far higher than incarcerating convicted killers for life. So executions do not even save the state any money as one might think.
The rational as well as New Testament biblical arguments against Capital Punishment seem quite compelling to me. Capital Punishment serves little tangible purpose other than as a form of antiquated and barbaric vindictiveness. It is somewhat better than lawless vigilante justice which is not really saying very much.