In human discourse and forensic discussions, words and terms are important. When it comes to putting criminals to death “capital punishment” has a far less ominous sound than “the death penalty.” Those who are for executing people most probably prefer the former; those who are against it probably prefer the latter. In any case, the end result is that someone dies at state expense.
So, I shall, at the outset say that I am in favor of capital punishment. On the other hand, the term “death penalty” also has an especially nice “come-to-Jesus” ring for deserving violent criminals. Although killing those people may not be a deterrent for others, it certainly deters the person who is executed.
To be fair, there are arguments against the death penalty, which should be recognized and disputed. According to one of my favorite columnists, Ann Coulter:
1. Innocent men will be executed. Well, apparently not. Has anyone ever produced the case of where an innocent man has been executed in this country? I believe we would have heard of such a thing long before now. In any case, those who fear that ten criminals getting off is preferable to one innocent person being executed might want to explain why they don’t object to one innocent person being knocked off by one of those ten wrongly released criminals.
2. The death penalty does not deter. (See above.) How do we know that? The New York Times’ noted a declining murder rate in the U.S. since the death penalty was reinstated after the 1972 Supreme Court ruling the death penalty unconstitutional. In fact, BEFORE that ruling in the 40’s and 50’s, murder was quite rare in our country. (In any case, nowadays when condemned prisoners are more prone to die of old age, according to Ms. Coulter we might want to tweak the deterrent aspect a tad.)
3. Life in prison is worse than death. Really? Murderers on death row regularly fight their executions to the last. Anyway, if life in prison is worse than death, isn’t death the humane thing here.
4. Capital punishment isn’t administered at the same percentages along racial lines. Probably not if certain races are more prone to commit more murders.
5. The death penalty is a primitive act of retribution. No it isn’t. In our society we arraign, formally charge, try, and convict by a jury. If the conviction is upheld on appeal and the criminal is executed in a more humane manner this his victim, what’s primitive here? Sounds like a deliberate, sane act of a society that needs to protect itself to me.
6. We’re the only modern democracy with the death penalty. My gal Ann believes that this should be “treated as a selling point. Come to the United States for the economic opportunity, stay because we fry our Ted Bundys!'”
I once saw a defense lawyer on a TV news show justifying an actual case of a released murderer who killed again. The lawyer referred to the unfortunate victim as a “martyr” for everyone’s rights. Apparently, the lawyer regards our Constitution as something of a suicide pact.
To me, the bottom line is this: There are some crimes in our society that are so horrendous and horrible that only the death of the perpetrator is the appropriate punishment. I once served on a six-week long trial of a young man who in a jealous rage killed his fianc with a baseball bat after he raped her. We found him guilty and determined that he should not be executed. His case didn’t meet the same standard as, say, Ted Bundy, who thankfully was executed in Florida.
Godless The Church of Liberalism’ by Ann Coulter, Crown Forum, New York, 2006