As the correspondent who asked this question knows, this column was a long time in coming. Let me break out this complex and troubling question into separate components:
The first aspect is the MORAL imperative, which all religions that I know about and all human societies subscribe to: THOU SHALT NOT KILL.
That's clear and absolute. In a perfect world, we would all obey and no further question would arise. That we live in an imperfect world is shown by the qualifiers that some otherwise religious people would put on this absolute moral imperative. It's okay, they say, to kill the rabid dog that is about to bite you or your child or some helpless person near you. Killing in self-defense or the defense of another is allowable, if there is no other choice. Lots of other qualifiers are also bruited about: that it is not wrong to kill animals for food and sustenance or that is acceptable to kill other human beings in war. Note those other points for now and let's focus on the idea of self-defense, because I think that is central to the proponents of capital punishment.
What about human beings who kill other human beings? On an individual level, once again, all major religions agree that it is not acceptable. On the collective level, society in the abstract and government in the practical has the might (i.e. the weapons and legitimacy) to do what no individual should do and call it "justice".
The argument for that goes like this: SOME PEOPLE JUST NEED KILLING.
All justifications of capital punishment eventually boil down to this Texas bumper sticker. Defining the "SOME PEOPLE" is the difficulty. What actions make a human being into the equivalent of a rabid dog that must be put down to secure the safety of society? Long lists of crimes which invoke the death penalty have been seen in early legal codes, but the trend is for fewer and fewer crimes to be so considered. The death penalty for sex crimes or theft or political rabble-rousing or talking on your cell phone in public can actually hinder prosecution as an ethical person might/should hesitate to bring charges. The crime of murder is one in which the death penalty seems symmetrical--if someone intentionally takes a life their own life should be forfeit. Seems fair, right?
As I examine my own heart I find that I fully agree with the moral imperative THOU SHALT NOT KILL. My sense of self-preservation hopes that society will protect me from predators. Once I have assigned that duty to a government, I must be ruled by the consensus that creates the law by which justice is defined and meted out. I can understand the bitterness of friends and family of the victims; I can consider the agony the victim might have experienced. And even if the deterrence value is weakened by the delay in administering the penalty, it holds some weight to deter the rational offender. In other words, if society requires the execution of murderers, then I don't argue.
But when I look at the actual dispensing of justice in modern America, I don't always see it. What should be a justice system is JUST PLAIN MESSED UP. The courts as constituted do not provide equal treatment under the law. T. Cullen Davis and O. J. Simpson are names that spring to mind of wealthy men who beat the rap of murder. Confessed murderer Shane Ragland goes free because of his father's money. If you are a millionaire, you can command the legal talent to argue that the evidence against you is flawed.
This can be seen for all crimes at all levels of the American justice system: in cases such as that of Dominique Strauss-Kahn and the dismissal of the sexual assault charges against him. It was considered a great coup for American justice that Strauss-Kahn was even arrested, but then it was found that the hotel maid who said he sexually assaulted her had fudged something in her background to get refugee status and misrepresented some circumstance to get housing. DSK admitted the sex, and the woman's bruises and other physical evidence at first convinced the prosecutor to yank the man off the plane and put him in handcuffs. But once the lawyers had succeeded in ferreting out and putting the worse possible implication on the hotel maid's legal forms, the prosecutor concluded that he couldn't put the case to a jury. Only a perfect woman, a combination of Mother Teresa and the Virgin Mary, could bring such charges against such a wealthy man and have the prosecutor follow through.
The justice system is supposed to accept the release of the guilty to protect the innocent wrongfully accused. But the wealthy always seem able to obtain 'reasonable doubt'. Being innocent and poor will increase the likelihood a defendant will be convicted. In Illinois, the Innocence Project examined the cases of 25 inmates on Death Row about nine years ago and discovered serious flaws in 13 cases.
So even if you subscribe to the principle of SOME PEOPLE JUST NEED KILLING, it's rather hard to argue that the justice system is doing a good job of defining who those folks are. So that brings us back to the moral imperative: THOU SHALT NOT KILL. Given that, suspending all executions in this country to allow for a nationwide Innocence Project is something that I can support. Show me that the system can be fixed. Suggest ways to presume innocence for the rich and the poor and make justice blind to wealth.
Downstate IL Innocence Project
The Innocence Project