It's looking increasingly likely that Robert Bowers—who's accused of murdering 11 people at Pittsburgh's Tree of Life synagogue on Saturday—could face the death penalty.
In the hours after the massacre, President Donald Trump was the most prominent public figure to call for the suspected shooter's execution. "When people do this, they should get the death penalty," Trump told reporters. "Anybody that does a thing like this to innocent people that are in temple or in church…they should be suffering the ultimate price, they should pay the ultimate price."
Prosecutors appear to be in agreement. Earlier today, Justice Department spokesperson Marc Raimondi told Fox News that Scott Brady, the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania, has begun the process of seeking the death penalty for Bowers. Brady still needs the approval of Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Capital punishment is currently legal under federal law, thanks to the 1976 Supreme Court ruling in Gregg v. Georgia. It's also allowed in the majority of states, though some (most recently Washington state) have outlawed state-sponsored executions.
In Pennsylvania, capital punishment is legal in certain circumstances. Bowers is facing federal as well as state charges, since he was allegedly motivated by anti-Semitic sentiments. It's a problematic issue in and of itself that his fate could be decided in a federal court rather than a state one. As Reason's Jacob Sullum observed following the 2015 Charleston church shooting, the feds were able to charge Dylan Roof under the federal hate crime statute since Roof was motivated by racism. "It is an unconstitutional attempt to federalize a crime that South Carolina's courts are perfectly capable of handling, for the sake of sending a message that the criminal law should not be used to send," Sullum wrote. Similarly, Bowers now faces federal charges due to his anti-Semitism.
But whether Bowers is sentenced by a federal or state court doesn't change the fact that he shouldn't be executed. To be clear, his alleged crime was nothing short of heinous. To gun down 11 people, some of them elderly, while they were worshiping is despicable. If found guilty, he should spend the rest of his life behind bars.
That being said, the government should not be in the business of executions. Civil libertarians and classical liberals have long argued against capital punishment. "The death penalty is uncivilized in theory and unfair and inequitable in practice," the ACLU argues. "Well-publicized problems with the death penalty process—wrongful convictions, arbitrary application, and high costs—have convinced many libertarians that capital punishment is just one more failed government program that should be scrapped," Ben Jones writes at Libertarianism.org.
For one thing, there are numerous questions over the death penalty drugs administered to death row inmates. As Reason has documented in the past, states often operate in the shadows when it comes to these drugs. In one instance, Texas even sought to procure banned drugs from a shady company overseas. There have also been questions regarding how humane death by lethal injection really is.
From a practical standpoint, the death penalty is simply too expensive. Studies from various states suggest it's more expensive for the government to put someone to death than it is to keep them behind bars for life, according to Amnesty International.
But the main reason Bowers shouldn't be put to death is simple: It's not the government's job to put its own citizens to death. As Reason's Nick Gillespie wrote in 2014:
The state's first role—and arguably its only one—is protecting the lives and property of its citizens. In everything it does—from collecting taxes to seizing property for public works to incentivizing "good" behaviors and habits—it should use the least violence or coercion possible.
No matter how despicable murderers can be, the state can make sure we're safe by locking them up behind bars for the rest of their—and our—lives. That's not only a cheaper answer than state-sanctioned murder, it's a more moral one, too.
Again, all the evidence suggests Bowers is a monster. But killing him won't bring back the 11 people whose lives he's allegedly responsible for ending. Revenge is not the same thing as justice, and in this case, justice is best served by imprisonment, not more death.