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Sentiment as Social Justice

The Ethics of Capital Punishment

by J. Daryl Charles



Historically, the church has affirmed the right of the civil magistrate in matters of capital justice. Contemporary culture, in contrast, is permeated with arguments against capital punishment. Even among those professing Christian faith, there is widespread opposition to the death penalty. As a trend, the ever-increasing role of the media in manipulating public sentiment in the face of pressing ethical debates promises not to subside. While we may grant that the Christian community is divided over this issue and while we take no delight in its clarification, the church -- in keeping with its earthly mandate -- is to instruct the state in matters of justice.


The highly publicized 1992 executions of Robert Alton Harris (California) and Roger Keith Coleman (Virginia), for better or worse, injected a new level of urgency into the debate over capital punishment. In both cases the extent to which the American public was treated to a numbing display of sentimentality by media pundits was nothing short of breathtaking. A more recent case involving a disabled murderer, Charles Sylvester Stamper, further fueled the death penalty debate on a national level. Stamper, who killed three people in a restaurant robbery, became the first person in a wheelchair to be put to death since the Gregg v. Georgia Supreme Court ruling in 1976 that reinstated capital punishment.

Debates about capital punishment usually play to the emotions. Contemporary Western culture is saturated with arguments that call for its abolition. These arguments take various forms -- for example, purported Eighth Amendment immunity, the fallibility of the criminal justice system, "excessive" governmental power, the insufficiency of revenge as a motive, a purported lack of statistically verifiable deterrence, the possibility of executing an innocent person, a purported racial imbalance in executions, and among some Christians, the annulment of Mosaic Law.

In addition, the media play an ever-expanding role in shaping the contours of ethical discourse. Film and television exert an inordinate influence on our perception of reality. Television alone packs an enormous psychological punch. In reporting on capital punishment cases, TV will not engage the public with a reasoned exchange of viewpoints; rather, it uses powerful visual stimuli to impart the impression that executions are repugnant and morally reprehensible. In the end, debates over the death penalty are more a spectator sport than a quest for truth and justice.

Post-enlightened culture has grown increasingly intolerant of meting out criminal punishment that smacks of being "cruel" or "barbaric." (This was not the case, however, in 1791 when both the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments were enacted. Since the death penalty was not "unusual" in the late eighteenth century, the Eighth Amendment cannot have been intended to apply to capital punishment per se.) This loathing, strangely, is often in the context of increasingly barbaric criminal acts themselves. Not infrequently this moral confusion manifests itself in a pretext of compassion, in much the same way that abortion advocates who decry graphic films such as The Silent Scream attempt to obscure moral culpability and redefine the notion of victimhood. Meanwhile, society is stripped of its most fundamental right -- protection from violent criminal acts.

Protection, for example, from the likes of "Little Man" James. Released in late 1991 on a mere $1,000 bail for four counts of assault with intent to kill, James was cruising with several friends on the outskirts of Washington, D.C. when he announced he "felt like killing someone."[1] Rolling down his window, James fired a shot into the passenger side of the adjacent vehicle. The blast from point-blank range instantly crushed the skull and snuffed out the life of a 36-year-old mother.

Or take child abuser Westley Allan Dodd (Washington State), who after being caught told authorities, "I will kill and rape again and enjoy every minute of it." Dodd had raped and fatally stabbed two brothers, ages 10 and 11, in a park in September of 1989. A month later he abducted a four-year-old boy from a school playground, molested and tortured him, then hanged him. When his death sentence was handed down in court, Dodd did not hide the pleasure with which he committed the crimes. "I liked molesting children and did what I had to do to avoid jail so I could continue molesting," he told the state Supreme Court in 1991. "I think I got more of a high out of killing than molesting."[2]

What is particularly excruciating for families of murder victims is that many convicted killers are found to be out on parole following previous violent crimes. The November 1993 kidnap-murder of a 12-year-old girl in Northern California is a case in point. The slayer, Richard Allen Davis, had two previous kidnap charges to his record before abducting Polly Klaas from a slumber party at her home and driving her to her strangulation-death 40 miles away.[3] Even as recent as May, 1994, 16 years after John Wayne Gacy was convicted of no fewer than 33 murders, it remained uncertain whether justice would be served. The day before Gacy's scheduled execution, his lawyers dredged up every conceivable excuse for a stay of execution.[4]


Curiously, more concern by the pundits is given to the (potential) abuse of political power by fallible civil servants than to ensuring that people like the 36-year-old mother from Washington can drive safely on the beltway. In truth, genuine abuse of the system is illustrated by the fact that while judges engage in moral vanity, the death sentences of premeditated murderers -- when not revoked -- are delayed for years due to legal technicalities. Legal experts, who by citing a lack of available statistics contend that capital punishment has not constituted a measurable deterrent, have strangely overlooked the obvious -- namely, that at the very least it deters murderers by guaranteeing no possibility of parole or escape, hence precluding new crimes committed by repeat murderers.

What in fact has watered down the death penalty deterrent is the manner in which much-publicized cases such as those of Harris and Coleman have dragged on over the years, thereby reflecting a wholly inconsistent approach to criminal justice. Absent of moral standards, the courts and the criminal justice system languish under the whims of activist judges and the psychotherapeutic elite, at the utter expense of bona fide social justice.

The extent to which death penalty abolitionists have rendered justice impossible is graphically illustrated by one social critic. Estimating about 265,000 murders in the U.S. from 1976 (the year of the Gregg v. Georgia decision) until 1990, William F. Buckley, Jr., calculated that within this 14-year period there was one execution for every 2,137 murders committed across the nation. This reticence to do justly has resulted in the longest judicial foreplay in history.[5]