On the fence about the death penalty

The opinions stated in this article are solely those of the author and not of the Davis Clipper.

Like most couples, my wife and I tend to agree on major political principles.  We seldom cancel out each other’s votes on the election ballot, and we rarely have a split decision when discussing the morning’s newspaper headlines.

But we are not totally aligned on the use of the death penalty.  She adamantly opposes it, figuring any civilized society should move toward more humane justice and away from blood atonement.  She’ll say, “Every person is better than the most horrible thing they have done.”

Sorry, but I’m not quite there yet.  I am troubled by the increasing numbers of “death row” and “life until natural death” prisoners  now found innocent due to shoddy, apathetic, and, at times, racist policy and legal work.  Several law enforcement studies estimate that some 10 percent of inmates convicted of capital murder are not guilty.  (For a good example, read “The Sun Does Shine” by Anthony Ray Hinton, one of the many wrongly-convicted men freed by The Equal Justice Initiative.)

Our own Utah legislators are having second thoughts on the efficacy of the death penalty, narrowly defeating a ban in a recent session.  On one hand, you have legislators like Rep. Paul Ray who have never seen a firing squad or an Old Sparky he didn’t like; on the other hand, legislators like Rep. Steve Handy have concerns about the actual cost to taxpayers.  Numerous reports show that it’s less expensive to house a prisoner and feed him meatloaf than to stretch out the appeals process on the slow and meandering path to execution.

The issue arose again last week when Pope Francis declared that capital punishment in any instance is wrong, a subtle change but major shift in Catholic teaching.  He drew the line in the sand: the death penalty, even in the case of monsters, is an “attack on the dignity of human beings.”

Since I don’t have the spiritual underpinnings of Pope Francis, I cannot comment on his amendment to his church’s official Catechism.  It will be interesting to see how his pronouncement impacts the decisions of Catholic judges, lawmakers, and juries.

However, I have a “blind spot” when it comes to seeing the so-called “human dignity” of some of the worst human beings.  Would I have felt bad if Adolph Hitler were hanged in a public square?  Nope.  Would I have cheered?  Maybe. 

Read “Under the Banner of Heaven” and show me where there is any humanity in a renegade religious zealot who slits the throats of his sister-in-law and her 15-month old daughter.  Frankly, I don’t care about Ron Lafferty’s mental illness. 

How about Stephen Paddock, the Las Vegas gunman who killed 58 people and injured more than 800 others at last year’s outdoor country concert?  If he had lived, would I want to pay for his nightly pork chop for more than 20 years?

And, of course, we have Ted Bundy. I’m not sure he was ever “better than the most horrible thing he had ever done.”

This isn’t to say I’m not sympathetic with my wife’s views on the subject.  She is more consistent than I am, and many victims’ families claim the execution process is an open sore that flares up months and years after the conviction. When it comes to executing an innocent man, a life sentence provides a lifeline.  As Thomas Jefferson wrote to George Washington, “Delay is preferable to error.”

I guess it comes down to this…If your spouse, your son or daughter were brutally murdered, could you stand up in court and mercifully plead to save the attacker’s life?  I admire you if you could, but I question whether I could do the same. 


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