Is the death penalty applied too easily? – The Vermilion
Last week, I warned that Donald Trump would be a mess for non-Christians. And I was right: during Sen. Jeff Sessions’ confirmation hearing, he affirmed that he believed secularists aren’t as good at understanding the truth as religious people. But Trump’s awfulness is, sadly, old news, despite a new outrage every day. So what’s a more interesting way to examine humanist principles than wading into the political gutter again?
A year and a half ago, Dylann Roof entered a church and murdered nine people, simply because they were black. At the end of his trial, Roof has been sentenced by a jury to die. The death penalty, or capital punishment, is controversial in our country. Most other democracies have abolished it, though a majority of people live in countries with capital punishment (such as China, India and the U.S.)
The Eighth Amendment to our Constitution prohibits “cruel and unusual punishments,” and the Supreme Court affirmed the death penalty is constitutional when applied in accordance with several principles (Gregg v. Georgia, 1976). So much of the debate over it revolves around whether it continues to be neither cruel nor unusual.
What makes Roof’s case a good thought experiment for the death penalty is that you can’t find a more deserving person. He killed multiple people in a church. He has admitted to doing it. He did it while wearing racist iconography and said he hoped to start a “race war.” He said he was of sound mind, refused to use an insanity defense and has expressed zero remorse for his crimes.
His case holds none of the ambiguities that usually plague the modern capital-punishment system. There’s no possibility of his innocence, and he isn’t a victim of racial bias in the justice system. In fact, the swift universal condemnation of Roof is a sign of racial justice. Previously, suspects in lynchings and church bombings might remain unprosecuted. It’s great that almost everyone agrees his actions were unquestionably evil.
There’s a Polish film, “A Short Film about Killing,” which is about a man who commits a brutal murder and is arrested, sentenced to death and hanged. The clinical, mechanistic way the murderer’s life is ended so disturbed the country that the Polish government cited it as a reason they abolished the death penalty.
The most important aspect about death to keep in mind is that this is our only life. This is all we will ever have. No afterlife; no reincarnation; nothing. To kill a person is to irreversibly remove everything they can be and can do in the future. Every death is a removal of potential and possibility. Taking a life is not something to be done lightly.
I think the death penalty is used too often. How many reformed criminals have we killed? How many innocent people? How often has it been unfairly applied? What other potential are we losing? Conversely, what do we do when faced with clear, unrepentant criminals, like Dylann Roof or Timothy McVeigh, who have no remorse or future? If the death penalty must be applied (something about which I’m still skeptical), then I’d argue that it should only be applied in the most stringent and exceptional of cases.
Perhaps the hand-wringing is unnecessary, killing Dylann Roof is the simple and correct answer and all this moralizing is just to make myself feel better. That’s a fair criticism — I’m hardly of one opinion on the matter. But I do think the death penalty is currently applied too easily. The taking of a life should not be casually decided.