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Against the Death Penalty


.............Hi Fellow opponents of the Death Penalty,

.............Hi The following article was sent to me by a visitor to my site who was seeking argumentation against the positions as stated in it which are, purportedly, describing a Christian viewpoint on the death penalty. I have kept the article and will attempt to respond to or refute its statements paragraph by paragraph. The original article has its text in red, my response is in blue. The black text at the beginning and end are not arguments but indicate source material or references relating to it.

.............Hi Before proceeding on, keep in mind that I read and responded as I went. This is meant to be an outline of what one might say when confronted with the arguments the writer used. I would check facts and figures in the writers arguments, and consider, carefully, if you agree with or understand my own before using them in a debate or research paper. Thanks for looking in and reading, Dan


Sentiment as Social Justice The Ethics of Capital Punishment by J. Daryl Charles

.............Hi Copyright 1994 by the Christian Research Institute. Editor-in-chief, Elliot Miller. Used by permission. For more information on the Christian Research Institute, go to

.............Hi From the Christian Research Journal, Spring/Summer 1994, page 16. The Editor-in-Chief of the Christian Research Journal is Elliot Miller.


.............Historically, the church has affirmed the right of the civil magistrate in matters of capital justice. Contemporary culture, in contrast, is permeated with arguments against capital punishment. Even among those professing Christian faith, there is widespread opposition to the death penalty. As a trend, the ever-increasing role of the media in manipulating public sentiment in the face of pressing ethical debates promises not to subside. While we may grant that the Christian community is divided over this issue and while we take no delight in its clarification, the church in keeping with its earthly mandate is to instruct the state in matters of justice.

.............Historically the church has not affirmed the right of the civil magistrates in matters of capital justice. Certain periods stand out, the Spanish Inquisition for example where the church had the power to over rule any local temporal authority, save, perhaps kings. The church at various times during the middle ages in Europe conducted trials and exacted capital punishments for a variety of acts associated with witchcraft, or Satanism in any form. The temporal authorities deferred to them in these matters. The church was able, at various times, to execute those who it felt threatened its world view and the those who preceded Galileo felt the church's wrath.

.............Interesting that the first sentence in the paragraph states that "the church affirmed the right of the civil magistrate in matters of capital justice" and the paragraph ends with stating that the "church ... mandate is to instruct the state in matters of justice". Two statements that are somewhat at odds with one another. If the state is affirmed then what is the purpose of instructing it? Affirming means to validate or confirm, not instruct, advise, or discuss. It cannot be had both ways.

............The highly publicized 1992 executions of Robert Alton Harris (California) and Roger Keith Coleman (Virginia), for better or worse, injected a new level of urgency into the debate over capital punishment. In both cases the extent to which the American public was treated to a numbing display of sentimentality by media pundits was nothing short of breathtaking. A more recent case involving a disabled murderer, Charles Sylvester Stamper, further fueled the death penalty debate on a national level. Stamper, who killed three people in a restaurant robbery, became the first person in a wheelchair to be put to death since the Gregg v. Georgia Supreme Court ruling in 1976 that reinstated capital punishment.

............. I will not say that the role of the media has in any way been educational, clarifying, or supportive of creating a well informed public capable of deciding or forming a cogent opinion on this or many other issues that concern Americans. Rather the opposite is more likely true. I say this because it is generally the view I hear from both conservative and liberal intellectuals when matters relating to the media's coverage of news, trends, issues, or elections are being discussed, although, as in this writer's case, it is usually concerning coverage which is at odds with their beliefs.

            Debates about capital punishment usually play to the emotions. Contemporary Western culture is saturated with arguments that call for its abolition. These arguments take various forms for example, purported Eighth Amendment immunity, the fallibility of the criminal justice system, "excessive" governmental power, the insufficiency of revenge as a motive, a purported lack of statistically verifiable deterrence, the possibility of executing an innocent person, a purported racial imbalance in executions, and among some Christians, the annulment of Mosaic Law.

............. Interesting that the person writing this simply dismisses arguments that are valid, there is a racial imbalance in executions, innocent persons have been executed, deterrence has never been proven in the U.S., revenge is an insufficient motive, to many governments abuse their power to execute, and the justice system is flawed and fallible. Those are the facts of the matter. That this writer dismisses them indicates that he has no intention of arguing logically, or from an established position, but rather is anxious to present his point of view, regardless of the truth.

            In addition, the media play an ever-expanding role in shaping the contours of ethical discourse. Film and television exert an inordinate influence on our perception of reality. Television alone packs an enormous psychological punch. In reporting on capital punishment cases, TV will not engage the public with a reasoned exchange of viewpoints; rather, it uses powerful visual stimuli to impart the impression that executions are repugnant and morally reprehensible. In the end, debates over the death penalty are more a spectator sport than a quest for truth and justice.

............. I could not bear to say that the media treat this fairly, nor do they seem to treat most any issue fairly. The lack of reasoned discourse, discussion, or debate on issues of concern is lacking, but not only on television. Radio is rife with both conservative and liberal activism. The writer goes on to comment that "television uses visual stimuli to impart the impression ... that executions are repugnant..." Well, all I can say in response to that is that they are repugnant, check out your dictionary, the word means to "excite distaste or aversion" Watching someone die is a horrible experience that one would tend to avoid, it is not something you'd go on a family outing to see, or take ones children to is it?

            Post-enlightened culture has grown increasingly intolerant of meting out criminal punishment that smacks of being "cruel" or "barbaric." (This was not the case, however, in 1791 when both the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments were enacted. Since the death penalty was not "unusual" in the late eighteenth century, the Eighth Amendment cannot have been intended to apply to capital punishment per se.) This loathing, strangely, is often in the context of increasingly barbaric criminal acts themselves. Not infrequently this moral confusion manifests itself in a pretext of compassion, in much the same way that abortion advocates who decry graphic films such as "The Silent Scream" attempt to obscure moral culpability and redefine the notion of victimhood. Meanwhile, society is stripped of its most fundamental right protection from violent criminal acts.

............. I guess the writer longs for the "good old days" when there were over 700 different offenses for which capital punishment was allowed, or so it would seem from what he says. Yes back in 1791 the death penalty was not unusual but times do change, the constitution changes, people change, we do evolve, do we not? So, although it may be correct to say that the eighth amendment may not have been intended to eliminate the death penalty, it very well could be now. Else the writer would have to go about the Augean task of retracting all interpretations of the Constitution and the laws that have been based upon them which are reflective of our now kinder and gentler age, in order to return to those wonderful earlier days.

............. That said, we come to the disparity between the vicious violence of the criminal's actions and the seemingly "kindly" approach to the perpetrators themselves. That some people who oppose the death penalty do express themselves in terms of compassion is not news and it is also not wrong. This is a democracy and in as much this is an issue of public debate anyone can support their view with any argumentation they desire, reality based or not. Ultimately voters elect policy makers and information, debate, the media et al, sway those who vote. To say these peoples compassion is misplaced is to deny them their humanity. The writer calls it "a pretext of compassion" as if all the persons who express that opinion are deceivers and are insincere. This is no more likely to be true than saying that those who support the death penalty are cold hearted, vengeful, misanthropes.

            Protection, for example, from the likes of "Little Man" James. Released in late 1991 on a mere $1,000 bail for four counts of assault with intent to kill, James was cruising with several friends on the outskirts of Washington, D.C. when he announced he "felt like killing someone."[1] Rolling down his window, James fired a shot into the passenger side of the adjacent vehicle. The blast from pointblank range instantly crushed the skull and snuffed out the life of a 36-year-old mother.

            Or take child abuser Westley Allan Dodd (Washington State), who after being caught told authorities, "I will kill and rape again and enjoy every minute of it." Dodd had raped and fatally stabbed two brothers, ages 10 and 11, in a park in September of 1989. A month later he abducted a four-year-old boy from a school playground, molested and tortured him, then hanged him. When his death sentence was handed down in court, Dodd did not hide the pleasure with which he committed the crimes. "I liked molesting children and did what I had to do to avoid jail so I could continue molesting," he told the state Supreme Court in 1991. "I think I got more of a high out of killing than molesting."[2]

............. And the writer complains in prior paragraphs about how the media "does not engage the public with a reasoned exchange of viewpoints; rather it uses power visual stimuli to..." and here he does the same thing. The quote is especially powerful stimuli, even though it is not visual per se. So let us hear about him complaining of senseless sensationalism in the press and take it to heart. We can ignore his sensationalism, therefore.

           What is particularly excruciating for families of murder victims is that many convicted killers are found to be out on parole following previous violent crimes. The November 1993 kidnap-murder of a 12-year-old girl in Northern California is a case in point. The slayer, Richard Allen Davis, had two previous kidnap charges to his record before abducting Polly Klaas from a slumber party at her home and driving her to her strangulation-death 40 miles away.[3] Even as recent as May, 1994, 16 years after John Wayne Gacy was convicted of no fewer than 33 murders, it remained uncertain whether justice would be served. The day before Gacy's scheduled execution, his lawyers dredged up every conceivable excuse for a stay of execution.[4]

           This is excruciating. There is no doubt that many reasonable persons would wonder just how an out of control maniac could be put out on the loose when all you have to do is kill him or her. What is the problem here? The problem is that evidence has been biased, tampered with, and persons have been killed for crimes that they did not commit and, thanks to DNA testing, whistle blowers, good luck and a touch of the miraculous, we have found out that the innocents have been killed. While I would not want to compare the suffering of an innocent child under murderous abuse with that of an adult being faced with certain death for a crime that he or she did not commit, it is something to consider. Neither fate is pretty. The obvious inference here is that we should execute all such criminals. What would that mean? Well, we have thousands of hand gun murders, thousands of persons who have bludgeoned, stabbed, run over, electrocuted, and poisoned in order to murder for all the reasons imaginable so we might see thousands of executions per month not the hundreds per decade as it might be right now. I ask who is ready for that? Who is ready to answer for the innocent who are put to death in that manner?


............. Curiously, more concern by the pundits is given to the (potential) abuse of political power by fallible civil servants than to ensuring that people like the 36-year-old mother from Washington can drive safely on the beltway. In truth, genuine abuse of the system is illustrated by the fact that while judges engage in moral vanity, the death sentences of premeditated murderers when not revoked are delayed for years due to legal technicalities. Legal experts, who by citing a lack of available statistics contend that capital punishment has not constituted a measurable deterrent, have strangely overlooked the obvious namely, that at the very least it deters murderers by guaranteeing no possibility of parole or escape, hence precluding new crimes committed by repeat murderers.

           And here we do have a refreshing attempt at logic, faulted though it be. Clearly the implication is that the justice system should be more concerned with the victims, who were not in control of the situation for which redress is sought, and less should be given to the already troubled process of determining if the guilty party is in fact the one in custody, a process that we do have control over. The procedures are careful and painstaking so that hopefully we do not violate an innocent persons right to life liberty and the pursuit of happiness when already some one else has lost theirs.

           And the long awaited "well, once the man is dead he can't kill anymore and we won't have the problem" argument. How wonderful it is that our justice system is currently so infallible as to be certain that we never convict or execute the wrong person. And where does one draw the line? Is murder murder? Always? I would like to know where the writer stands on the tobacco settlement. There were people who knew that cigarettes were addictive, poisonous, and linked to millions of cancer deaths, yet, I do not hear this person mention what should be done with mass murderers on this level. We should have a whole Nuremberg Trial morally speaking on this issue, but this person is silent on that. Preferring to focus on the horrid little tales he seems to be so fond of. And, while we are at it, would he take on the brewing companies, and other companies known to have knowingly produced products that murdered people?

            What,in fact , has watered down the death penalty deterrent is the manner in which much publicized cases such as those of Harris and Coleman have dragged on over the years, thereby reflecting a wholly "inconsistent" approach to criminal justice. Absent of moral standards, the courts and the criminal justice system languish under the whims of activist judges and the psychotherapeutic elite, at the utter expense of bona fide social justice.

           Let us examine what is being implied here. Clearly, the writer is saying, it is the fact that the trials go on so long which removes any deterrence effect that capital punishment might have, so the solution, obviously is to speed up the process, make it consistent, saying in effect that have the justice system execute all those convicted of murder. The writer cleverly inserts the idea that this foregoing implication is the real basis for a moral legal system. Then of course he goes on to bash "activist" judges, a certain elite, before reinforcing and concluding by not only panning the justice system as it is by stating that it is not bona fide.

           The problems with this persons statement, outside of the obvious, are many, first that if each murderer was then murdered we'd have several thousand executions a year. If the justice system is as good as it is now and only one percent of those killed are innocent we'd be sending hundreds of innocent persons to their death each year. But wait, the trials will need to be shorter, so that there is a deterrent, so perhaps all the cases where someone was proven innocent of murder after being placed in jail would have to be included in the percentage of those who under the proposed system would be dead before being proven innocent. Perhaps we'd have two percent of our executions be "in error". What would be an acceptable error rate anyway?

           I am not going to say that I am satisfied with the current system, by any means. But the proposed changes are something worse than what we already have. I have proposals that I feel are better, however, I do not feel that this is the place to mention them. I feel that Capital Punishment needs to be challenged and defeated on its own ground, not a difficult task considering its central irrationality.

           Also I'd like to know where the writer stands on organized killing, like that of cigarette companies, and other producers of goods and services when death is a result of their knowing negligence? The recall of tires recently, described in the press recently, concerning Bridgestone/Firestone, had it that some 200 deaths were attributable to the defective tires. Should the company be broken up? Destroyed? Should some of the executives or engineers be executed? Or should it be pay the fine and have business as usual? What about drunken drivers?

           The writer would have us remove any judges "whim", be consistent in administering bona fide justice and execute criminals as quickly as possible and to do so by the thousands if necessary. There, apparently would be no "excuses" no elite to defend the accused either. The law would be rote and there would be no slack in the rope.

            The extent to which death penalty abolitionists have rendered justice impossible is graphically illustrated by one social critic. Estimating about 265,000 murders in the U.S. from 1976 (the year of the Gregg v. Georgia decision) until 1990, William F. Buckley, Jr., calculated that within this 14-year period there was one execution for every 2,137 murders committed across the nation. This reticence to do justly has resulted in the longest judicial foreplay in history.[5]

            The Harris episode is particularly instructive. After 13 years of procedural roadblock, California was finally able to execute Harris, who, lacking a car for a bank robbery in 1978, kidnapped two 16-year-old boys sitting in an automobile eating hamburgers, drove them to a deserted canyon, and shot one. The other ran, screamed for help, and tried to hide, but Harris pursued and killed him as well. Harris appealed to the California Supreme Court, which under the guidance of Chief Justice Rose Bird overturned 68 death sentences before she was voted out of office in 1986. (Harris's conviction was one of four that Bird let stand.) As Robert Bork pointed out, Harris's case alone received nine separate reviews.[6]

           As the writer continues so do I, interesting that with 265,000 murders from 1976 to 1990 over 24 years, would average about 11,000 a year, or thereabouts. That would, accepting current estimates of a 1 percent error rate, and accepting the writers desire that each of these cases should have been concluded with an execution, result in some 100 or so innocent deaths per year due to simple errors in the system. The writer is just about silent on this issue, what should society do about the innocent that it puts to death? What recourse does an aggrieved individual have, what recourse?

            On the day before Harris's scheduled execution, his lawyers filed one state habeas petition, one federal habeas petition, and one federal court action claiming that execution in the gas chamber was cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment. Mercifully, the Supreme Court put an end to the excruciating volley of last-minute attempts at stay of execution, noting that Harris had filed a total of four prior federal habeas petitions and five state petitions, yet was unable to explain why he never before raised the cruel-and-unusual-punishment claim. The Harris case perfectly illustrates the wisdom of the preacher, uttered nearly three millennia ago: "When the sentence for a crime is not quickly carried out, the hearts of the people are filled with schemes to do wrong" (Eccles. 8:11).[7]

           And what will be the sentence for those who, in accordance with law, execute those who are subsequently found innocent? Who should pay for that, morally speaking? The judge, and jury, perhaps the lawyers involved and those who maintained that their proof was certain? What is the societies moral responsibility to those innocents who have been executed by society? Certainly something is due them, or their family, why shouldn't they be interested in deterring poor police work, a haphazard justice system and what better way than use the ultimate punishment for their breaking of the social contract?


............. In an April 24, 1992 column in The Washington Post, Charles Krauthammer voiced a prevalent argument against the death penalty ñ the lack of available statistics to verify deterrence. He wrote: "If capital punishment could be demonstrated to deter murder, I might be persuaded...But there is no convincing evidence that the death penalty deters."

            The problem with the argument based on "convincing" statistics is that no person who is "in principle" opposed to capital punishment will be sufficiently convinced by "any" statistics that are suggestive of changing trends in criminal justice. This was graphically illustrated some years ago at a symposium on criminal justice held at Arizona State University. Two distinguished abolitionists, Professors Hugo Bedau of Tufts University and Charles Black of Yale Law School, were asked whether they could be persuaded to change their convictions if in fact statistics brought conclusive proof that the death penalty was serving as a strong deterrent. Both replied that this would not change their views. Asked if they would remain abolitionists even if homicides in this nation ballooned to a dizzying 1,000 percent, they responded in the affirmative.[8]

          Clever thinking to the author here, but no cigar, sorry. The attempt to eliminate the importance of statistical evidence to this debate on the basis of what a couple of "elite" persons said about the validity of such evidence is nearly humorous. It is the capital punishment cheering section that cannot find convincing supportive evidence that the death penalty is a deterrent.

            The truth is that an abolitionist will remain an abolitionist based on passionate "ideological commitments". Statistics will not change any bias that is rooted in deep-seated convictions. Above and beyond any statistical verification, abolitionists choose to ignore the obvious implication of the death penalty namely, that it eliminates the possibility of the convict repeating his capital offense. This consideration is fully aside from the $600,000 cost of imprisoning a convict for life.[9]

           And this too, is humorous. The "kill them quick" crowd, by implication here, apparently is claiming to be calm and serene even while proponents scream and holler, rant and rave, and cheerily salute executions. Further, stating in the foregoing paragraph, that saving 600,000 dollars is reason enough to expand a system, which currently executes innocent persons, two thousand fold! By that I mean If, the author has Mr. Buckley quoting accurate figures, that now only 1 in some 2000 murder cases result in executions, then expanding the kill rate to 100 percent would be increasing the killings by two thousand fold?

            It is remarkable how insistent abolitionists can be in denying the likelihood that punishment can deter criminals. Sadly, this often occurs at the expense of time-tested wisdom and common sense. Perhaps the most comprehensive analysis of the criminal mindset was done some years back by Drs. Samuel Yochelson and Stanton Samenow in their landmark work, The Criminal Personality. This study was based on 16 years of observing 255 criminal patients at St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Washington, D.C. Yochelson, a respected neuropsychiatrist who died in 1976, started the Program for the Investigation of Criminal Behavior in 1961. He was joined by psychologist Samenow in 1970. The two researchers' conclusions proved to be controversial: criminals were found neither to be victims of society's problems nor of "character disorders"; they acted with deliberation and were in control of their behavior.[10]

           It is remarkable how insistent Death Penalty proponents can be, parroting the claim that punishment deters and that therefore capital punishment also deters, it does not, has not, and there is no proof for such. But let's move on to the other interesting set of statements. Let us look at them. The writer clearly means to have us accept that patients studied in a hospital setting behave as they might on their own and unsupervised. How likely is that? Answer, not very likely. Society does have problems, and some of those problems impact different segments of the population more or less severely. To say that social conditions have nothing to do with crime rates is ridiculous. Poverty, while not a certain cause, can be a factor. Racism, while not a cause, can be a factor, as can nutrition, family stability, a persons immediate environment, and health status. All of these can conspire to bring out the worst in some people. Besides one must also take into consideration the fact that criminal behavior can be a result of chronic multi generational circumstances that prey disproportionately on the poor or dispossessed.

            The authors also concluded that the fear of death was very strong, persistent, and pervasive in the criminal's life. Some crimes, it was observed, were ruled out because of these fears. It is indeed ironic that abolitionists claim the burden of proof for the efficacy of capital punishment as a deterrent rests on the shoulders of its advocates. Most human beings, after all, are inclined to avoid situations or circumstances that are likely to produce unpleasant, painful, or fatal results.

           One wonders where this persons mind is at in order to present such leavings as an argument. The patients were studied in an artificial situation, not at all like their environment. The majority of murders committed are done at the height of emotional distress, when clear thinking is non existent, and so the idea that a person, in a rage, will deliberate about the consequences of killing is nonsense. There may be fear of death among many criminals, but that does not hamper them from murder if they believe that by killing they can make a good escape. Nor does capital punishment prevent those who plan their murder, they figure in and attempt to circumvent the laws anyway. I believe it is wholly rational to have proponents of an unproven, unsafe, unjust, and poorly administered program to provide good reason for citizens to accept it.

           I have to go over the last couple of sentences in this paragraph in detail because they are so incredible in their wrong headedness. As to the burden of proof mentioned, we have a certain legal system as regards capital punishment, the writer would have it be changed, so, logically, the burden of proof is supposed to be on him or his allies since they want to change the way things are. They do have to prove that what they have to offer is better, else why would anyone want to change from what we have? Sorry buddy, the burden of proof is on you since you are advocating an large scale increase in the application of the death penalty. And for the last sentence many executions are done by lethal injection and it is akin to falling into a drugged sleep, not at all painful or terribly unpleasant. Unless, of course the writer is implying that the means used to execute become painful, say be torture.

            Does the fear of death deter? Hoodlums in Washington, D.C. and other cities around the nation know the answer. Given the growing dilemma of witness intimidation in murder cases, law enforcement authorities note that the refusal of witnesses to testify, for fear of being eliminated themselves, is making it difficult to prosecute murder suspects. "It's undoubtedly one of the biggest problems we face," concedes the chief of the U.S. attorney's office in the nation's capital.[11]

           What a terrible thing it is to waste a mind, as this writer apparently has. Stating that since a witnesses fear of intimidation deters them from testifying demonstrates that a fear of death should deter any action a criminals might take is laughable. The two situations are completely incomparable. On the one hand you have a vulnerable person fearful of performing his or her civic duty, on the other you have the criminal who is a risk taker, a kind of gambler really, willing to try his or her hand against the odds that are set against them.

            If capital punishment does not serve to deter the potential murderer, the abolitionist will thus need to acknowledge the grim reality that neither will any other form of punishment. (Thus, any punishment is arbitrary.) If, for the sake of argument, capital punishment is implemented under the mistaken notion that it deters, the lives of convicted murderers are lost. If, on the other hand, capital punishment is abolished due to the mistaken belief that it does "not" deter, then innocent lives indeed, "many" lives both within and without the prison system are lost.

           Clearly the writer has a small imagination or has impaired thinking ability. He seems to think that capital punishment is the worst possible consequence and that since it does not deter then nothing will. While I have ideas about what might be used to take its place, that is not in the scope of this analysis. I have said before that rather than argue the merits of differing kinds of consequences, I would rather focus on the illogic of capital punishment as being an effective way of dealing with murderers.


............. Murder constitutes the initiation of lethal force against an innocent person; it is also the ultimate despising of divine authority. The murderer thereby forfeits "his" right to live by violating, with an intent to kill, the victim.
When will the person understand his own vocabulary? Murder constitutes the successful conclusion to the use of lethal force against an innocent person. Interestingly enough there is a glimmer of agreement, I agree that a murderer, as defined above, forfeits his right to live in society, upon committing such an act. Although I would add other commentary, that would introduce the comparing of consequences.

            When in the defenso of an innocent victim or preservation of moral order the authorities execute a premeditated murderer, no inalienable right is being violated. The moral rationale lying behind the life-for-life mandate is rooted in the efficacy of the Noahic covenant in Genesis 9. This imperative is directed at man as man and thus is universal in scope. Accordingly, deliberately killing a human being created in the image of God is tantamount to killing God in effigy.[12]

           Interesting, what part of the definition for the word "inalienable" does the writer not understand? One definition that I have is: "incapable of being alienated, surrendered or transferred". Now, as I see it someone who is put to death certainly has surrendered his or her life, is alienated from the world as we know it, and has been transferred, according to theologists to various places depending on their beliefs.

            The ethical directive in Genesis 9 of a life-for-life policy exacted "by man" for premeditated murderers is validated in the New Testament by explicit statements from the apostle Paul with regard to the civil authorities. These authorities, irrespective of their inherent fallibility or moral character, exercise authority derived from God and are under obligation to extend protection to society at large from violent criminals. This they do by means of the deterrent ("Would you fear..?") of the magistrate's "sword," the jus gladii.

           Well the writer has opened up the proverbial can of worms, and rotten worms they are, to be sure. He is stating that he is in agreement with something he says the apostle Paul stated or promulgated that "civil authorities ... rrespective of their inherent fallibility or moral character exercise authority derived from God..." Clearly this is a blanket statement and as such covers various notorious governments such as Stalinist Russia, NAZI Germany, the Ottoman Turks of the late 19th century, Ghengis Khan, Idi Amin, Pinochet, and a host of others.

            Government, if it is performing a legitimate role in society, restrains by force those who are a violent and criminal threat to society. The implication of the Romans 13 text is that by failing to apply the sword as punishment the authorities "praise" evil and negate what is good. The death penalty is not an initiation of force as is murder, rather it is a response to force a supremely calculated and necessary one. And whereas private vengeance is proscribed by the apostle in Romans 12, a legitimation of the state's administration of the death penalty for a murderer follows in the immediate context. (Rarely is this literary context taken into consideration.)

           Here the writer must have realized his error in his last paragraph and qualified his or Paul's statement by limiting his comments to governments that perform a legitimate role in society, but he then adds that they are allowed to use force to restrain those who are violent or a threat to society. I thought this was about murderers? Be that as it may. The writer again generalizes and so, in response, can I. Throughout history capital punishment has been applied to many who have never killed anyone. History is rife with mass executions, the killing of ethnic groups, protesters, unionists, scientists, religious factions and many many more and for a wide ranging variety of reasons. Many time the governments were performing what they and their supporters felt was an appropriate response to a real or imagined threat.

            Christian opponents of the death penalty frequently cite the lifting of the Mosaic code (which sanctioned the death penalty) as evidence of the nonbonding nature of all Pentateuchal legislation (including Genesis 9). The affirmation of a life-for-life policy with regard to premeditated murderers in Genesis 9, however, predates the Mosaic code and commands universal respect for the sanctity of human life; it is not limited to theocratic Israel.

           Here I would rather let those familiar with biblical passages hash out just exactly where the biblical position on capital punishment is. I would only suggest to them that instead of scouring the entire text for references to it that any such conclusion be reached by reading only those passages attributed directly to God and Jesus Christ. I would tend to think that in looking at just those passages that some conclusions could be reached. I would only add that perhaps, for Christians that they would weigh the commentary of Christ more heavily in that they claim to be speaking in his name.

            While not all manslaughter required the death penalty indeed, safeguards against abuse of the system were meticulously built into the Mosaic code the Hebrew Scriptures nonetheless assume the moral accountability, in the present life, of the offender. The argument by ethicists that the New Testament abrogates the legal standard set forth in the Old Testament has little to commend it. Nowhere do we find an annulment of capital punishment for premeditated murder. To the contrary, the New Testament affirms that the civil authorities play a crucial role in maintaining social order in a moral universe. The social injunctions of law remain universally normative for a stable society.

           Ah, another minor glimmer of agreement, it is so refreshing. Where the writer states: "Hebrew Scriptures assume the moral accountability, in the present life, of the offender", I am glad to see that there is precedent for my line of thinking when it comes to discussing what should be done with those who commit murder and are convicted of that offense. I believe, in 25 words or less, that the offender should make a kind of restitution redressing the grievances and be made to payback their debt to society.

            Because a holy God cannot reside in a polluted land without judging its inhabitants, Israel as a nation was to take pains to ensure the purity of the land by dealing with blood guilt when it occurred. Inasmuch as blood pollutes the land (cf. Deut. 19 and 21), its consequences are most serious. If a man was killed, it was the duty of the nearest male relative to avenge that death.

            Mosaic Law made very clear distinctions between premeditated murder and accidental manslaughter (for which the cities of refuge were mercifully provided).[13] It should be noted that this proscription applied not only to native Israelites but to foreigners and sojourners as well. Even wholly secularized legal authorities in modern culture acknowledge the difference between involuntary manslaughter and premeditated murder. Thus they demonstrate more discernment than some Christians who in their theological shallowness glibly observe that the Mosaic code has been "abolished," without considering the abiding moral regulation.

           I believe that the distinction between premeditated murder and accidental manslaughter is an important one. However, in terms of making reparations to the victims there would still be an obligation of some kind on the part of the person responsible. Such situations would bear extremely close examination and very careful deliberation on the part of all involved.

            People should start reflecting on the sanctity of life before a murder is committed and not after. The clear goal of capital sanctions is the preservation of human life. This sanction, it should be repeated, transcends theocratic Israel.

           How convoluted can a person's alleged thought processes be? How can capital punishment be about the preservation of life when in fact it causes nothing be death? Again there are alternatives, productive ones at that, but again this would be to change the course of debate from being about the inefficacy of capital punishment to a discussion of what would best supplant it.


............. Opponents of the death penalty are quick to cite the potential for executing an innocent person. The fact that potential for error exists in the criminal justice system is undeniable. Yet no domain of our legal system is predicated on a zero-percent chance of error; the system is indeed fallible. This is not to say, however, that the system is not workable. Fallible people work nevertheless for just results. Sadly, it is rare that abolitionists confront "the other side of the story." Fifteen years, 30 years, or life in prison inevitably afford the murderer the possibility of escape, pardon, or parole, and more tragically, the chance to kill again whether inside or outside the prison. Abolitionists appear unwilling to concede that innocent deaths resulting from released or paroled criminals are far more frequent and tragic than the rare instance of an innocent convict dying. If the risk that an innocent person will die is present with or without the death penalty, why not devise the system in favor of society and not the convict?

           The writer states that the system is fallible, that its fallibility is undeniable and that despite this it is a workable system. It is OK to kill innocent individuals as long as the paper work is in order? Is that what he is saying? If his earlier proposals, of being strictly consistent in applying the death penalty to all those found guilty of murder then we'd be executing many many innocents. I cannot believe that that is what he wants, yet his words and meanings are clear.

           I do not advocate the release of persons guilty of murder. I am against parole for persons how have so egregiously abrogated the rights of others. It simply is not fair.

           He asks, plaintively, why not devise the system in favor of society and not the convict? I agree with him, why not devise a system that favors society, does not kill any innocent, and prevents the release of murderers back into society? It would not take a rocket scientist to figure out how to do that.

            Another difficulty with the abolitionist argument of erroneous execution is the degree to which the media inevitably discount or obscure forensic evidence against a convict evidence of which the general public has little or no knowledge. Consequently, a shift occurs in death penalty cases from adducing and evaluating forensic evidence to the exploiting of public sentimentality.

           A fairly Luddite kind of comment here. Long passed is the time when the common pool of potential jurors could understand many legal argumentations, procedures, and fine distinctions that are present in such cases. Now there is a vast array of technical and scientific data that must be comprehended in order for a juror to make sense of the available evidence. For some long time now jurors have been swayed more by the persuasiveness of an attorney, the appearance of a plaintiff or defendant, a phrase or accent on anyone's part, or the credibility of a witness for any side in a trial, so many of the "vital" factors that go into a particular juror's decision are what I call "soft" by which I mean they are not being logical, reasoned, or rational.

           Then, when dealing with the media who report by sound bite and in 20 or, if they think it is important, 40 second "stories" you can see that very little hard information can be disseminated. I do not approve of the way even print media report out on such cases. Often, in mass media reports, the attitude of the writer/reporter has framed the presentation of the piece such that the conclusion you are led to is not foregone before you finish the first couple of paragraphs. On the other hand sometimes they do not present enough information to make any kind of evaluation possible.

            Compassion, when it is anchored in objective morality, is redemptive and restorative in nature. Historically, this has meant that compassion has been (necessarily) directed toward the victims of crime. "Compassion" that is directed toward the violent criminal, at the expense of the truly oppressed victim, is a moral-legal miscarriage (Isa. 10:1-4). For those, both inside and outside of the criminal justice system, whose sense of compassion is not guided by universally normative notions of good and evil, innocence or guilt, it is often the murderer who fully aside from corroborated evidence is regarded as the "victim."

           Ah, now it becomes clear what the writer wants. He wants objective morality. A set of values so clear and simple that everyone can agree with them so that then, all law, all behavior, all actions can have a meaning and life would be so much simpler. Clearly the writer has something in mind. I cannot believe that he would use the phrase "objective morality" and not define what he means. He is being a bit Socratic, of course if, in an idea world, we could formulate an objective morality then managing society would be so much easier. There would be no debates about capital punishment it would either be good or not, as would women's rights, minority rights, the waging of undeclared wars, destabilizing foreign governments, supporting murderous dictatorial regimes in the name of economic development, waging a surrogate war against communist movements, or allowing the sale of addictive and poisonous substances to the American people.

           The writer also wants the justice system to have a "normative notion of good and evil", that is so nice, and cute. And it would work to, if police were all honest, all evidence was handled carefully, expert testimony was retracted after someone had been executed, that judges and jury's looked at clear, understandable testimony with objective perspectives and everyone had only the best intentions. For those of you who believe that is possible Fantasy Flight number 113 is leaving from gate 12, in five minutes, be on board.

           That snide remark said, I to feel that the "perpetrator as victim" movement has gone farther than I would have thought it could. It is such that the victims of the crime must feel quite estranged from what they might have believed about the American jurisprudence system.

           I do not believe that enough is being done for the "collateral" victims of murderers. This is clearly one area where the law and society has been slack in responsibility. We spend 25,000 dollars a year to keep a murderer in prison yet cannot afford to give the victims wife job training, money for child care, house payments, grief counseling, the whole nine yards. The same would be true for the husband of a wife that is murdered, he'll need child care, counseling, and so forth. It may be that now the so called safety net is supposed to deal with the clean up, but I do not believe it is adequate.

            Carried to an extreme in this century, "compassion" for certain "poor" (e.g., Stalin and the Communists), abetted by "compassionate progressives" in the West, resulted in the murder of about 10 million "rich" in the gulags. Ethically speaking, when compassion supplants morality and truth as the highest value, the results are horrific. One political historian estimates that roughly 170 million lives worldwide have been deliberately sacrificed in this century alone because of political-ideological (i.e., nonmilitary) reasons[14] in the name of compassion, to be sure. As former Attorney General Ramsey Clark once noted, one person's terrorist is another person's freedom-fighter. When the notions of objective "good and evil" fall into disuse, moral judgments can be no more than personal opinions.

           We wonder if this person reads history or historical fictions for enjoyment. There is an implication that we had "compassion" for Stalin and communists and that compassionate progressives in the west led to the West as a whole be so soft on the Communist movement that many millions of persons died as a result. American forces were in St. Petersburg and Vladivostok after the Communist revolution in Russia and did not pull out until the early 20's. We, capitalist nations, spent good sums and underwrote a great deal resistance to the Communist movement. The Communist/Capitalist War of the 20th century was one of the longest wars in history, many millions died, and people from nearly every country participated on one side or the other. So since he is in stark error in his opening paragraphs his later estimate of 170 million lost lives is also in error. Also it seems our writer is still complaining that there ought to be an objective continuum of "good and evil" without which moral judgments become uncertain, and I can agree with him there.


.............Does the death penalty for premeditated murder constitute an "uncivilized" or "barbaric" response by society to crime, as many abolitionists fervently maintain? The answer depends fundamentally on how a society perceives the moral difference between crime and punishment. Those who contend that capital punishment is barbaric are incapable of morally distinguishing between punishment and criminal acts themselves. To abandon the criteria of righteous and just punishment, as C. S. Lewis pointed out, is to abandon all criteria for punishment.[15] Thus, punishing the innocent can be justified, since it has nothing at all to do with desert. Moreover, in a moral vacuum, retribution and restoration are indistinguishable from revenge.

           Where does he come up with his material, I wish Berle were still with us, he would laugh. I do not agree with capital punishment and I can distinguish between punishment and criminal acts. The writer assumes that the abandonment of capital punishment is tantamount to the abandonment of righteous punishment, seemingly convinced by his previous harpooned arguments that they are one in the same, when they are not. I will not put up an argument with the principle that righteous and just punishments are beneficial or that morality should be a just as important a component in a society's legal system. However, there are no doubt Christian nations who are far more unwilling to face the moral dilemmas created when a society is executing their citizens. So I would have to say that basing ones argument for capital punishment based on a Christian morality would have to be suspect.

            Contrarily, a view of life that acknowledges proportionality for crimes is not predicated on "barbarity" (a description that many abolitionists have curiously chosen not to use regarding abortion), but rather on life's inherently sacred character. To be punished however severely because we in fact should have known better is to be treated as human beings, endowed with dignity and moral agency. A society unwilling to impose the penalty of death upon those who murder in cold blood is a society that has deserted its responsibility to uphold the unique value of human life.

           How backwards can one become? To break it down into its simplest components, the writer is, in fact, repeating himself, saying that one way of upholding the unique value of human life is to end it.

            In the context of a moral universe, premeditated murder is unique in terms of significance and severity of consequence. By biblical standards, it is the one crime for which there exists no possible ransom or restitution (Num. 35). It is precisely the acknowledgment of the reality of "good and evil," as well as moral accountability in the present world,[16] that allows the Judeo-Christian framework of law to infuse the criminal justice system with moral guidelines of an enduring nature. The biblical teaching on punishment derives from a world view in which the absolute moral good of the Creator and the moral depravity of human beings cohere. While just punishment is scandalous to the secular mind, it is central to the biblical mindset. A foreshadow of divine judgment, punishment is the necessary restoration of morality and social justice.

           Now the writer has assumed there is a moral universe. How interesting for us to see. We have a few more Biblical references. A comment that instead of what the writer says Paul talks of, that of, essentially respecting the temporal powers because they operate under God's Aegis, we have the idea that Judeo-Christian influence should infuse the criminal justice system. And by the end of the paragraph we see the writer again equating the absolute moral good of the Creator with capital punishment's being necessary for the restoration of morality and social justice. He is repeating himself, albeit in a camouflaged fashion of conservative Bible Babble. None the less the theory that justice needs to be in tune with some absolute value or set of values is not a bad one. It is unfortunate that the writer seeks to apply such a fine ideal to a rationalization for capital punishment.

            Rendering life for life in the case of premeditated murder is not to be carried out in the context of personal vengeance. Social justice requires indeed demands uniform standards of sentencing. Certainly "due process of law," "equal protection under the law," and "equal justice for all" are meant to avoid the morally repugnant effects of unequal justice. However, a truly "civilized" society indeed will distinguish between mercy and justice. Civil authorities make a mockery of justice by considering the life of an offender of more value than the life of an innocent victim who did not have the luxury of even choosing life incarceration. A sense of "justice" that expresses undue sentiment toward the murderer, hailing him as a type of champion of "victims' rights," is a perversion of true justice and a travesty of monumental proportions.

           Apparently the writer thinks that we have uniform standards of sentencing, due process of law, equal protection and equal justice for all, would that that were true. That said he must realize that we re already suffering the very consequences that he wishes us to avoid, that being, "the morally repugnant effects of unequal justice" I just wonder what he means by that. And what happens to a land when it is poisoned by the shedding of innocent blood, by the state? Did not the writer make some statement to that effect some where earlier? I think so. He wrote: "blood guilt... pollutes the land (cf. Deut. 19 and 21), its consequences are most serious..." One wonders what such consequences may be. Some biblical scholar reading this might have the courtesy to advise me on that.

           It is not all that difficult to see why, perhaps an offender's life is treated quite carefully, that is because the state has complete control over it, as well as a power of life and death. Thus since this is controlled situation, a supposedly rational process, delivering justice it must needs proceed with the focus always on its charge in one way or another. What seems to upset the writer is that some villainous types get soft hearted sympathy from the press, or other groups. I can understand that, especially when the justice being delivered is inconsistent, sometimes seemingly irrational, and prejudiced.


............. Contrary to modern practice in most jurisdictions, punishment for a crime and restitution for the victim are interrelated concepts. In the case of premeditated murder, compensation is not available as an alternative; thus it should carry a mandatory death sentence, in recognition of the sacred character of human life.

           I would guess that these paragraphs are the long awaited applause getting "conclusions" based on the "evidence submitted so far. The writer insists that no compensation is available for the victims of premeditated murder. I would submit that it isn't available for an other victim of any kind of murder. If you are talking about temporal assistance to the victim, it is impossible in all cases of murder. However this is not really so. Some compensation can be garnered from the murderer, and this can only be done if he or she is alive. The writer completely ignores this possibility because of their blinkered Philistine thinking which prohibits even the most minimal of creative efforts in this regard. Suffice it to say that alternatives await those who dare to consider them.

           Arguments that seek to undermine the authority or binding force of the universal moral imperative found in Genesis 9 an imperative that is assumed throughout the whole of biblical revelation have little to commend them. Responsible involvement in this debate by the Christian community must proceed from a sober "consensus" reading of relevant biblical data a reading that, on the balance, favors retention of the death penalty.

           I guess he is summing up then. It sure sounds like it. He has not provided evidence to support this poorly thought out assertion that the Christian community must proceed from a "sober consensus" that biblical data tend to support the retention of the death penalty. First of all they do not, at least not on the basis of what the writer presents here. Second that even if they did, what real bearing does it have for the United States? Our laws have a foundation of principles in the Constitution. The morality of many of our people may well be based on variants of Christian faith, but we have the ideal of keeping church and state separate. Thus to argue that our legal system should be in harmony with any religious tenet per se, is to propose the dissolution of that distinction and violate, in no uncertain terms, one of the guiding principals of the American people. Ideally, justice is blind and a faith based system would not be.

            Contrary to modern abolitionist arguments, the inherent morality of the death penalty does not stand or fall on the fallibility of judges, jurors, and lawyers, or the government's ability to administer justice "fairly." Neither is it predicated on the use or abuse of Eighth Amendment provisions, the possibility of mistaken executions, or vengeance for the aggrieved. All these factors, powerful and volatile as they are in informing debate over capital punishment, are insufficient in explaining a moral standard of justice by which to measure and respond to violent criminal acts. Most notably, all are susceptible to excessive human manipulation. A framework for criminal justice can in fact administer justice only to the extent that a consistent, unchanging canon of justice is adhered to and advanced. The failings of the system lie not in the fallibility of the instruments who execute justice, but rather in our failure to acknowledge and implement an abiding moral standard.

           And the summing up continues, albeit with dismissing arguments that have not been dismissed, certainly not by him. His drumbeat seems to be that we need a consistent unchanging canon of justice that is adhered to and advanced. I agree with that. The principle is great. Of course where he falls down is when he claims that the failings "lie not in the fallibility of the instruments who execute justice, but rather in our failure to acknowledge and implement an abiding moral standard" I thought the writer claimed that the system was fallible, yes he did: "Yet no domain of our legal system is predicated on a zero-percent chance of error; the system is indeed fallible. This is not to say, however, that the system is not workable." Well, it seems that he wants a consistent unchanging canon, but admits the system is flawed, and thus we will have innocent blood on our hand and our land harbors blood guilt.

            Left in the hands of moral philosophers who exalt sentiment over substance, society's framework for criminal justice becomes devoid of moral accountability and inevitably turns on those who are to benefit from its protection. In its place is the triumph of the "Little Man." Well-meaning Christians only add to the ethical confusion surrounding the debate by calling for abolition to the death penalty in the name of some "higher" Christian ethic.[17] To suggest that the ultimate human crime should not be met with the ultimate punishment at the hands of the civil authorities is not "compassion" as some would have it; rather, it is moral prostitution of the highest order. If a person cannot be made to answer for a capital crime, then everything in the world is arbitrary and nothing is certain.

           Wow, a ringing call for change if ever I heard one. This is where he'd expect the applause and then wait for a moment, after it stops to deliver, presumably the punch line below. But before we dissect that look at what he has written in this paragraph. I would not want the writer to think that I might be arguing against capital punishment because I think it is cruel, and or not compassionate. I am not arguing against it for those reasons. There are things worse than simple death, which can only be endured during life, a long, healthy life at that. One should, as I say, consider the alternatives to simple death. It is, after all, so limiting, really.

            Reducing matters of morality to private elitism, public opinion, or mushy religious sentiment will only obscure the pressing issues of our culture. How contemporary American society in the future will view the moral difference between crime and punishment depends to a great extent on the church's involvement in ongoing cultural debate and on the influence of CNN. Stay tuned.[18]

            Well the writer did not have that big a finish did he? And here I was expecting so much more. If the writer wants to have a moral basis for law, an absolute standard, consistently applied, then he will have to convince a great number of persons to come around to his view, of course everyone will have their say, the elites, the public, and those possessed by mushy religious sentiment. The writer seems to be determined to, to the best of his feeble ability, prove that a legal system based in an absolute morality which is consistent and just in operations and structure that we'd have a better society. And to that I say no doubt. To his assertion that capital punishment would be, by its nature, a part of such a system, I believe that I have provided ample food for thought that would tend to make one resist that notion.

About the Author

J. Daryl Charles is a Scholar-in-Residence at the Wilberforce Forum of Prison Fellowship in Washington, D.C. The views he expresses in this article do not represent the official views of Prison Fellowship. 


1 Michael York, "James Found Guilty of Freeway Murder," Washington Post, 4 June 1992, B1.
2 AP News, "Dodd's 'Conversion' Revives Eternal Tiff on Redemption," The Washington Times, 9 January 1993, C4.
3 Jerry Seper, "System Fails to Stop Repeat Offenders," The Washington Times, 15 December 1993, A7.
4 At his trial, Gacy's lawyer pled insanity; however, Gacy himself later rejected that plea. More recently, he claimed outright innocence.
5 W. F. Buckley, Jr., "The War against Capital Punishment," National Review, 25 June 1990, 62.
6 Robert H. Bork, "An Outbreak of Judicial Civil Disobedience," Wall Street Journal, 29 April 1992, A22.
7 The Preacher demonstrates basic insight into human nature. The certainty and swiftness with which punishment is meted out ñ coupled with proportionality ñ constitute the proper measure of justice. Thus seen, the U.S. system would require a major overhaul in order to meet fundamental criminal justice criteria.
8 E. van den Haag, Is Capital Punishment Just? (Washington, D.C.: Ethics and Public Policy Center, 1978), 403.
9 A 1991 Bureau of Prisons report calculated the average annual "operating" cost of housing someone in a federal prison at about $20,000. This figure excludes the costs of land, buildings, and facilities themselves.
10 The conclusions of Yochelson and Samenow departed radically from conventional behavioral thinking. At the time they were published, they drew responses ranging from high praise from those concerned with the bankruptcy of corrections to knee-jerk criticism from those whose "humanitarian" model was being devastated.
11 P. Duggan, "Witness Imprisoned by Fear; Man Goes to Jail Rather than Risk Testifying at Murder Trial," The Washington Post, 18 December 1993, A1.
12 Walter Kaiser, Jr., Toward Old Testament Ethics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983), 167.
13 It should be noted that the cities were intended to serve as an asylum for the involuntary manslayer, not the premeditated murderer. The congregation of Israel would have adjudicated with well defined criteria by which to distinguish between the two. In the case of the former, deliverance out of the hand of the avenger was facilitated, whereas in the latter the accused was to be put to death.
14 Zbigniew Brzezinski, "New World, New Disorder," Crisis, May 1993, 40.
15 Lewis's critique of "humanitarian" punishment, published in God in the Dock (Eerdmans, 1970, 287-94), originally appeared in the Australian Quarterly Review in 1949. The reason for this was simple, as he wrote to T. S. Eliot out of frustration: he could get no hearing for it in England. See also S. B. Babbage, "C. S. Lewis and the Humanitarian Theory of Punishment," The Christian Lawyer, 4 (1973): 4-10.
16 In his crucifixion narrative, Luke is careful to note just deserts. The one thief responds in defense of Jesus: "We are receiving the due reward for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong" (Luke 23:41). Legal sanctions exist for non-Christians and Christians alike, ranging from speeding to strangulation. Salvific redemption in no way eradicates the consequences of our actions, whether they are pre- or post-conversion.
17 Frequently misunderstood by Christians is the "eye-for-an-eye" (Exod. 21:24) maxim to which Jesus alluded (Matt. 5:38). As understood in Jesus' day, it meant restitution, not retaliation. If one blinds another's eye, one compensates the victim ñ in money ñ for the value of the eye. The Talmud says repeatedly, "Eye for eye means pecuniary compensation," and Jewish courts apparently never read physical punishment into the lex talion.
18 A more thorough discussion of the ethics of capital punishment can be found in J. D. Charles, "Outrageous Atrocity or Moral Imperative: The Ethics of Capital Punishment," Studies in Christian Ethics, 6,2 (1993): 1-14.

Copyright 1994 by the Christian Research Institute. Used by permission. For more information on the Christian Research Institute, go to  

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