Wednesday, April 23, 2008

"Against Capital Punishment" by Rev. George Clifford

I found this article to be thought-provoking and so helpful, do also read the comments after Rev. George Clifford's article. ~ Rev. Peter M. Carey

Against Capital Punishment

By George Clifford

The Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, John Roberts, in his majority opinion in Baze v. Rees, No. 07-5439, the recent Kentucky death penalty case challenging the constitutionality of execution by lethal injustice, wrote:

Simply because an execution method may result in pain, either by accident or as an inescapable consequence of death, does not establish the sort of ‘objectively intolerable risk of harm’ that qualifies as cruel and unusual [under the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment].

A premise underlying Roberts’ comment – that the death penalty is not a kind, gentle act – seems commonsensical to me. Unfortunately, modern culture often lacks an adequate supply of the precious commodity we call commonsense. Why would anyone think that capital punishment, however administered, is not painful?

Societies impose the death penalty on convicted criminals for three reasons. First, a society may intend the death penalty to deter people from committing crime. Deterrence obviously proved ineffective with respect to the criminal justly convicted of a crime. Both death penalty proponents and opponents point to research that supposedly supports their argument that the death penalty deters, or does not deter, crime. From my ethical perspective, the research is irrelevant. My ethical problem with justifying the execution of one individual to deter other persons from committing crimes is that this reduces the one executed to a means to an end, thereby denying that person’s inherent dignity and worth as a child of God. Christians should never view a person as simply an instrument for achieving a goal, no matter how laudable the goal. The Gospel of Luke’s account of the crucifixion portrays Jesus assuring one of the criminals crucified with Jesus that the two of them, that very day, will be together in Paradise (23:39-43). Jesus clearly regarded the criminals crucified with him, who both acknowledged their guilt, as persons worthy of dignity and respect in spite of their crimes. In Luke’s narrative, one criminal experiences transformation, the other does not.

Admittedly, Scripture’s witness on the issue of deterrence, like the research on deterrence, is inconsistent. Some Biblical passages recognize the value of deterrence:

• “Stone them to death for trying to turn you away from the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. Then all Israel shall hear and be afraid, and never again do any such wickedness.” - Deuteronomy 13:10-11 • “All the people will hear and be afraid, and will not act presumptuously again.” - Deuteronomy 17:13 • “The rest shall hear and be afraid, and a crime such as this shall never again be committed among you.” - Deuteronomy 19:20

Other passages suggest that retribution belongs to God, undercutting the rationale for deterrence:

• “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people…” - Leviticus 19:18 • “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’” - Romans 12:19 • For we know the one who said, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay.’ And again, ‘The Lord will judge his people.’” - Hebrews 10:30

I discuss retribution, the third rationale for the death penalty, below. Suffice it to say, the Deuteronomic passages supporting deterrence reflect a more rigid legalism and less robust understanding of personhood than I find in Leviticus and the New Testament. These latter passages point to a developing awareness of the demands of loving as God loves. Not surprisingly, the Baylor Institute of Religion survey, American Piety in the 21st Century, published in September 2006, confirmed that individuals who have an authoritarian image of God are more likely to support the death penalty than individuals who have a benevolent image of God.

Second, society may impose the death penalty intending to prevent a person convicted of a serious crime from further harming anyone else. As a Christian, I have two ethical problems with this rationale. Capital punishment is a final solution that allows no second chance. What if new evidence becomes available that the person executed was, in fact, innocent? Worse yet, what if the executed person is innocent but nobody ever finds the exculpatory evidence? At least in the first instance, society can release and compensate the convicted person discovered to be innocent. No evidentiary standard, no matter how high it is set, can guarantee that absolutely everyone given the death penalty is in fact guilty.

Even more morally troubling to me, the death penalty makes a large number of people – legislators, police, judges, lawyers, jurors, prison officials – complicit in the death of each person executed....

read the rest HERE.

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