Capital Punishment: Yes


Few questions of public policy stir the passions the way the death penalty does. The idea of deliberately taking a human life elicits strong visceral reactions. The vast majority of Americans tend to focus on the act of the murderer and therefore favor capital punishment. A sizable minority, however, concentrates on the act of the state, rejecting it with equal fervor.

Still, those who honestly reflect on the arguments of the other side cannot help but be disconcerted, if not swayed. Although they may return to their original position, they will do so better equipped to distinguish between the crucial and peripheral issues.

Prevention and deterrence, although frequently stressed in news coverage of the death-penalty debate, turn out to be of minor relevance. Capital punishment obviously has some impact on future murders, if only by stopping those who are executed from killing again. But that direct effect could in principle be achieved through lifetime imprisonment without parole.

As for the death penalty's indirect effect on crime, opponents note the dearth of evidence to support the intuitively appealing notion that the prospect of execution discourages potential murderers more than the possibility of a life term would. Advocates respond that deterrence would be stronger if the death penalty were imposed more consistently and carried out more promptly. Since murderers are not very likely to face either execution or life imprisonment, it is difficult to settle this debate.

Moreover, it's unnecessary. In the final analysis, the argument for capital punishment rests on the proposition that in cases of unprovoked, premeditated murder, justice requires it. This assertion is often supported, imprecisely but not inappropriately, through anecdotes intended to provoke moral outrage.

Consider the case of Robert Alton Harris, who was scheduled to be executed by the state of California until he was recently granted a stay. Harris was convicted in 1979 of kidnapping and murdering two teenagers whose car he stole to commit a bank robbery. The act was cold, callous, and calculated. He killed his victims after telling them they would not be harmed, shooting one as he walked away and the other as he begged for mercy. Afterward, Harris laughed about the murders and finished the boys' lunches.

Does such a man deserve to live? Most people would say no, but they might still question whether the state may therefore take his life. They might ask how the state acquires such a right. They might also argue that even if the government may rightfully execute someone like Harris, it should refrain from doing so because such legally sanctioned killing demeans human life.

One way of responding to the first point is to ask what would happen in a state of nature following a murder. In the case of other crimes, the victim or the victim's agent would have the right to punish the aggressor. Could an offender avoid punishment by killing the victim? Surely not; the right of punishment would pass to relatives or friends of the person who was murdered. If so, they could legitimately transfer that right to an agency, such as the government, that assumes the function of punishing aggressors.

But should the punishment be death? Isn't this simply revenge? To respond, "No, it is retribution, and therefore just and proper," might seem to be semantic evasion. But what distinguishes revenge from retribution is the motive. The execution of a murderer makes a statement. It says that people like Robert Alton Harris have committed a crime so grave that they have forfeited their right to live; it elevates human life even as it ends the killer's.

Some people accept this view of the death penalty while retaining pragmatic objections to capital punishment. The most compelling is the fear that an innocent person might be executed. Of course, the possibility of unjust punishment exists with or without the death penalty, and while people who are wrongly imprisoned can be released, nothing can restore the years they have lost. Still, the finality of execution requires that accused murderers be given every reasonable opportunity to challenge their convictions. Stricter limits on appeals are nevertheless appropriate in cases, such as Harris's, where the facts of the crime are not in dispute.

Another practical issue is the inconsistent application of the death penalty. To pick just one notorious example, isn't it unjust to give Hillside Strangler Angelo Buono—who kidnapped, tortured, and murdered nine women—a life sentence, while sending Harris to death row? Yes, but the injustice is not in executing Harris; it's in failing to execute Buono.

It is fashionable in some circles to view capital punishment as a barbaric institution that is destined to fade away. Watching some of the macabre pro-death-penalty demonstrations attracted by pending executions, one is tempted to agree. But the true mark of civilization is the extent to which a society upholds the rights of its members, especially the right to life. There is only one appropriate penalty for the willful, unprovoked violation of that right. By imposing this penalty on those who dare to break the most basic rule of existence, we affirm the dignity of every other individual.