Generous Orthodoxy  




Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Cruel and unusual punishment?

The New York Post is not my favorite newspaper, but it sometimes has a way of saying what a lot of liberals are thinking to themselves but not saying out loud. The death penalty debate, which has been relatively quiescent for a few years now, if not actually drifting toward the left, has suddenly reappeared in the news lately because of the badly botched execution in Oklahoma. Every right-thinking person is shocked, shocked.

Jonah Goldberg, however, in his column today, argues that the “botched” (his quotation marks) execution was nevertheless deserved. His point of view will be shared by many, like it or not. This was not Karla Faye Tucker, the pretty axe-murderer whose exemplary life as a repentant and devout Christian touched many during her years in prison. This was not some poor soul who was actually innocent but unable to produce the exonerating DNA evidence. There seems to have been no doubt about the guilt of Clayton Lockett. He apparently abducted two teenage girls, shot one, and ordered his accomplices to bury her alive; he was also a rapist and armed robber. The crimes of Charles Warner, the man who was to be executed the next day (the process was halted after the mess-up) were even worse, if possible; it appears that he raped an 11-month old baby girl who died from her injuries, as well as another young child (who fortunately did not die). It really is very difficult to justify taking pains to prevent such people from suffering for a few minutes. The Post says it out loud with its headline: “The ‘Botched’ Execution Was Still Just.” As for the Internet, it spills over with posts, not all of them crazed by any means, saying essentially the same thing.

There probably is no method of executing criminals in a “humane” way. If we want to debate it, how about a firing squad? I would choose that in a minute in preference to hanging or electrocution. At least death by firing squad allows a person to stand upright. Is being strapped to a gurney a dignified death? Isn’t this an absurd debate, actually? Someone suggested, at the time of the trial of Timothy McVeigh (the Oklahoma City bomber), that he be cloned 168 times and then executed 168 times. That seems an excellent commentary on the disproportionate nature of executions and the impossibility of adjusting the punishment to fit the crime.


What is the purpose of executing people? Justice? Revenge? Deterrence? “Closure”? It has long been argued that the worst punishment would be lifelong imprisonment without parole. If there really were an evenhanded “lock up and throw away the key” outcome in all capital cases (with provisions for the possibility of new evidence, like incontrovertible DNA), it would save megamillions of dollars, and no one would have to be called upon to be an executioner. (The one countervailing factor which should be considered is the possibility of danger to prison guards.) These endless controversies serve no humane purpose except to inflame those who relish executions. It would be such a fine thing if the death penalty were simply outlawed in America as it is in Europe—partly because some on Death Row may yet be proven innocent, partly to save government money and court time, partly to avoid racial bias and the imbalance between prisoners with resources (Matthew Skakel, Ethel Kennedy’s nephew, as case in point) and those without, partly to reduce the number of occasions for rejoicing in death, but most of all as a Christian acknowledgement of the value of human life in spite of human deserving.