Tag Archives: death penalty

Jesus and the death penalty

I’ll take a break from procrastinating with video games to procrastinate with a quick blog post. On The Atlantic, Jonathan Merritt writes,

We must be careful not to put words in Jesus’ mouth or lazily ascribe modern positions to the ancient rabbi. But the more I reflect on this issue, the more I agree with the majority of Americans. Though I can’t say for certain, I have a feeling that the executed first-century teacher would not support the death penalty or want his followers to.

Here’s a similarly formulated argument:

We must be careful not to words in Lincoln’s mouth or lazily ascribe modern positions to the great President. Though I can’t say for certain, I have a feeling that, given the circumstances of his death, he’d be in favor of gun control. 


This lead to the following Twitter-log:

We must not lazily ascribe positions to Jesus, @JonathanMerritt writes before lazily ascribing a position to Jesus. http://t.co/6hTZV2Skya

My point is simple: there’s been a lot of stuff written about Jesus and a lot of words attributed to him. No need to guess his position on this issue based on the circumstances of his death.

Merritt’s response to me is also odd. It’s basically, “Hey, I got published on The Atlantic, and they don’t publish bad arguments.” I wish I had known that was a reasonable defense when I was discussing my Atlantic pieces. The problem is that while The Atlantic has really solid politics, culture and business editors (the only ones I have worked with and can attest to) that can generally call out your bullshit, as far as I know, they don’t have a dedicated religious editor. That means noted sentimentalist Brandon Ambrisino can write things like this:

If Raushenbush is right [that being against gay marriage makes you anti-gay], then that means my parents are anti-gay, many of my religious friends (of all faiths) are anti-gay, the Pope is anti-gay, and—yes, we’ll go here—first-century, Jewish theologian Jesus is anti-gay.

Leaving aside my normative problems with this statement, I thought most people knew that Jesus didn’t saying anything about homosexuality. But I digress.

Back to the Merritt piece. Merritt doesn’t make any attempt to distinguish between the historical Jesus or the Jesus of the gospels and Christianity. Assuming he means the latter, the answer is pretty unequivocal. But after citing a pretty definitive quote (“turn the other cheek”), we get a discussion of the famous adulterous woman passage. Given that most conservative scholars will tell you this is apocryphal, I have no idea why this is even mentioned, if we’re trying to get at what “Jesus” believed.

There’s some meandering including an odd digression about the Old Testament, we get to this sentence:

Many Christians strangely believe that Jesus wouldn’t support the death penalty even though they do.

But this is the key question, and one that Merritt dances around in his piece but never really digs into. Christians have to be part of a larger society. Earlier, Merritt notes that,

He was teaching that only a perfect being—only God—should have power over death and life.

With Jesus’s stark words and example, no wonder early Christians opposed military service and the government-sanctioned killing of anyone for at least 300 years.

Obviously, this is a nice idea, but as it happens, if a nation-state wants to continue to exist and make actually enforceable laws, it has to exert violence, often lethal violence. Whatever Christians believe about their private actions, we must also make decisions about the role of the state. That’s why a lot of Christians would never have an abortion, but believe it should be legal. So in the end, we’re left nowhere. We know Jesus’s teaching – that Christians should not be violent. We also know that the death penalty is an awful, horrible thing. But murder is too. We know that the state must use violence to protect its citizens. How much, to what extent and under what circumstances are questions that Jesus doesn’t really have much to say about. This is where the actual debate is happening. Merritt ignores this and says something about Mother Theresa.   I’ve limned some thoughts elsewhere that I think stand up.

I want to make three final points about the death penalty debate:

1) There’s an awful moralist sentimentalist strain in this argument that needs to go away. Stop talking about the value of human life, and its sanctity. We know. Human life is important, and should be valued. But most of us live in a world where are values come into conflict. There isn’t evidence for the proposition, but let’s imagine it’s true the death penalty deters crime. Well then you have to weigh the lives of potential victims with the life of the murder. Is one life more sacred? The problem with sentimentality is how easily it’s countered by more sentimentality.

2) Conor Friedersdorf argues that the state can never kill anyone ever. He drops a sentimentalist bomb:

I can imagine one objection: that the guillotine is barbaric. But to me, that’s a point in its favor. Let’s have no illusions about what we’re doing when the state carries out the killing of captive prisoners.

Were there people who thought the death penalty involved giving little boys and girls ponies? Remember what I said about sentimentality? I could do the same thing here.

Let’s have no illusions about what those criminals did when they raped, killed, etc. They are barbaric and deserve no mercy, etc.

Most people know what the death penalty is about, and treat it seriously. If there were a stronger deterrence argument and less of a racial bias, I’d have to rethink my argument. Modern society exists because of the threat of, or the use of violence. All society does. The goal is to make that violence selective, rational and toward a just end.

3) I don’t think most murders are rational, and I’m convinced that developments in neuroscience are going to continue to shatter our silly moralization. I’d prefer a system based on rehabilitation for those who can helped, deterrence for rational rule-breakers and incapacitatation for those who cannot be released into civilized society (retribution is a vulgarity). But as Conor notes,

locking a man away for decades with no hope of ever being released is arguably a more severe punishment than death.

I see no need for senseless human suffering, so the best solution is to offer death row inmates the right to choose suicide. There should be a waiting period of two years and those who choose suicide should be offered the best legal defense society can give them, but then they should be allowed to end their life. This seems to be the more humane justice system. It’s slightly ironic that under this system we would treat death row inmates more humanely than the elderly, but so be it.

Should Dzhokhar Tsarnaev Face the Death Penalty?

The acquittal of Zimmerman has taken up most of the news coverage this week. But with the constant desire for some trial to fill the news cycle, we’ll soon be engulfed in discussion about Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. The first and most important question will be: should he face the death penalty?

Tsarnaev is incredibly young, and give the slow development of the prefrontal cortex (key to rational decision-making) the Tsarnaev in prison at age 60 may be an entirely different person than the Tsarnaev that we incarcerate. So there may be room for rehabilitation. On the other hand, we could argue that Tsarnaev may commit another crime from within the prison system, or that his age means the cost of locking him away for life would be exorbitant. One could argue that the problem of false conviction is absent in Tsarnaev’s case, given the overwhelming evidence. We may even wonder whether making a 19 year old rot in prison for life is really more humane than just getting it over with.

The trial raises important questions for our criminal justice system and I think that a robust case against the death penalty is still possible in the case of Tsarnaev. It’s worth noting that his case is exceptional. Most cases aren’t so clear-cut. That’s why the state of Alabama has exonerated 1 convict for every 5 executed. Florida has exonerated 26 death row inmates. It’s likely we’ve killed an innocent man.

When I write about the death penalty, one of the responses I get the most is “what about cases where the defendant is certainly guilty?” Since the United States should only be sentecing defendants guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt,” an argument like this can lead to a slippery slope. Remember that by using the best arson investigation techniques of the day, Cameron Todd Willingham was guilty. Similarly, nine eyewitnesses originally fingered Troy Davis as the man who shot a police officer. Seven recanted their testimony. Further, since the death penalty has little merit as a deterrence there is no reason to use it unless it is more successful at incapacitating or rehabilitating the prisoner.

This leads to the another objection I hear frequently: can’t an inmate in prison for life still kill, either in prison or, through a criminal gang, outside? Am I too quick when I argue that incapacitation can be just as easily achieved through the prison system? George Lee Hill for instance, had a life sentence for killing his girlfriend and then killed a fellow inmate. Two responses. First, the death penalty doesn’t entirely eliminate this problem. Most inmates spend 14 years on death row, and speeding executions up will only result in more wrongful executions. But secondly, I think that this reflects the awful state of our overcrowded prisons, more than a case for the death penalty. Prisons are understaffed and massively overcrowded with non-violent drug offenders. They are also incredibly underfunded. All of this sets up a system with less oversight and more confrontations that could lead to conflict. With better enforcement and oversight, the risk that a death row inmate could kill inside or outside the prison would be negligible.

There is also the question of cost. In fact, this argument flows against the death penalty. Death penalty cases are incredibly expensive because the legal proceedings are dragged out for 14 years. However, even if the death penalty were cheaper, I still think that this argument is foolish. If the death penalty is immoral, then we shouldn’t use it even if we save a few bucks. If it is moral, and justice requires it, then sparing the money is worth it.

In Connecticut, I wrote a letter to the editor about the Cheshire home invasion case. While I was researching for my letter, I found a statement one of the two killers, Stephen Hayes, had made saying he’d like to die. His accomplice, Joshua Komisarjevsky has expressed a similar sentiment. It’s an interesting quandary. Could it be that death would be the most humane option for the killers? I’m open to the possibility that those serving for life in prison might choose to commit a physician-assisted suicide. My only fear is that an innocent man might commit suicide rather than rot in prison. This could be mitigated with a two-year waiting period, along with a consultation with a lawyer and an independent organization that works on DNA testing, to determine whether the prisoner could be exonerated.

Finally, there is the question of Tsarnaev’s age. With a man as young as he is, and possibly influenced heavily by his brother, are we truly putting in prison the same man who will be alive in 40 years? That’s a question I’m incapable of answering. Maybe Tsarnaev will truly rehabilitate, to the point that he can again be released into society. However, putting him to death leaves no room for that possibility. Death would not be a deterrent, it would not further incapacitate Tsarnaev. It would only satiate our desire for revenge, rather than justice and rehabilitation.The state should not seek the death penalty.


The Death Penalty Has No Good Purpose — Practical Or Moral

The United States needs to abolish the death penalty. It’s archaic, costly, ineffective, and most importantly, unjust. The first place to start with the death penalty may be philosophical. The purpose of our criminal justice system is to deter crime, rehabilitate convicts, and incapacitate hardened criminals. Philosophically speaking, life in prison serves these functions better than the death penalty. Life imprisonment is certainly a deterrent — in fact, it may be worse than death itself. Life in prison allows for rehabilitation, whereas death is final. And with supermax prisons, escape is no longer a real possibility, so incapacitation is served equally well by both.

Therefore, any argument for continuing the death penalty is not an argument about criminal justice, but rather one based on some other preference, usually one which we would have to sacrifice justice to achieve. That is, the death penalty ultimately twists the purpose of the criminal justice system and makes it about: 1) Institutionalized revenge, 2) Emotional closure, 3) Racial violence, or 4) Monetary cost.

Since the death penalty is not actually about criminal justice, that leaves one possible argument in its favor — some sort of deterrence. Sadly, this idea is forwarded by a few Chicago school economists who try to explain all behaviour (even criminal) in terms of homo economicus, and their arguments have been thoroughly discredited. The reason is obvious: Murder isn’t rational, so why expect a rational response to incentives? Further, is the death penalty a significant disincentive compared to life in prison? The reason for confusion has generally been the lack of a significant enough sample for any real empirical work.

However, while it brings no benefits, the death penalty does seriously undermine the the criminal justice system for three reasons: racism, false incrimination, and revenge.

Germany is one of the many countries that has abolished the death penalty. Their reason: After the crimes of Nazism, the very idea of the state putting individuals to death is too much to countenance. Consider the justifiable outcry that would ensue if Germany reinstated the death penalty and Jewish inmates were far more likely to receive the death penalty for the same crime as a German inmate. Consider if, although Jews made up less than 15% of the German population, they made up a large portion of those executed. And consider if the chance of a Jewish prisoner getting the death penalty was far higher if there were no Jews on the jury. There would be widespread accusation of racial preference. And yet, without fail, this is the case with America’s criminal justice system. As Richard Pryor notes, “I went to see justice, and that’s what I saw — just us.”

A study commissioned by the governor of Maryland found, “Defendants who killed white victims were more likely to advance to a penalty trial and are more likely to be sentenced to death than those who killed a black.” Of those on death row, 42% are black, but blacks make up less than 15% of the population. The GAO analyzed 28 studies on capital punishment and found:

“In 82% of the studies, race of victim was found to influence the likelihood of being charged with capital murder or receiving the death penalty, i.e., those who murdered whites were found to be more likely to be sentenced to death than those who murdered blacks. This finding was remarkably consistent across data sets, states, data collection methods, and analytic techniques.”

Brian Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, argues that if the victim is white, the defendant is 11 times more likely to receive the death penalty than if the victim is black. If the victim is white and the defendant is black, than the likelihood of death penalty sentence is 22 times higher. Further, all-white juries are more likely to hand down a death sentence then a jury with African-Americans.

I used to argue, when defending the death penalty, that if someone could show me a single instance of an innocent man being executed, I would concede. I knew that this would be tough. After all, most murder investigations end when the accused is killed by the state. But there is ample evidence that we have already killed an innocent man. Consider Carlos DeLuna. OrCameron Todd Willingham. Or Troy Davis. With the number of death row exonerations in triple digits, it’s likely we would have killed many more. In Alabama, there has been one exoneration for every five executions.

The justice system, if it is anything, must be greater than institutionalized revenge. The death penalty turns the justice system from a mechanism of controlled force aimed at eliminating violence, to a system of violence itself. Rather than move our society towards mutual cooperation and understanding, we have institutionalized the very “eye for an eye” justice we have sought to end. We would do well to note which other countries our commitment to death aligns us with: China, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, North Korea, Somalia, Afghanistan, and Yemen.

The death penalty undermines the very purpose of our criminal justice system. Since the death penalty does not serve any purpose that cannot be served through the justice system without it, and any potential benefits (already shown to be illusory) would serve ancillary ends, it should be abolished – again.

This piece originally appeared on Policymic.com

Contact Sean: seanadrianmc@gmail.com