Opinion: Moral justification of death penalties

    Concerning capital punishment in a just society, the theologian Thomas Aquinas observed that a person facing immediate death is more likely to repent to the benefit of his immortal soul and that others “may be deterred from crime through fear of the [same] punishment.” (Summa Theologica.) For almost 800 years his teaching on moral philosophy was recognized by legitimate governments as good and sound reason for criminal executions.

    Some would argue that all criminal penalties are uncivilized and a form of revenge.  But incarceration or execution are not revenge. This is because the victim of the criminal act, or his survivor, can neither decide the penalty nor carry it out. Rather, criminal cases are brought by the state on behalf of its citizens – all of them. A surviving victim is a witness (albeit, an important one) who is called by the state to testify in order to prove the government’s case.

    Traditionally, the death penalty has been limited to punishment for those convicted of the most ruthless crimes, such as armed robbery, kidnap, rape, and murder. However, over the years the Supreme Court has come to limit capital punishment to cases where the crime was intended by the perpetrator to result and in fact did result in the victim’s death. The court’s decisions limiting capital punishment are based on the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which prohibits “cruel and unusual punishment” and, among relatively recent additional reasons, “evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.”  On this basis, and other cases involving “social consensus” against the penalty, the death sentence given by a Louisiana court to a man convicted of raping his eight-year-old step-daughter was overturned in 2008. (Kennedy v. Louisiana, 554 U.S. 407 (2008).)  

    Despite “the progress of a maturing society” in determining just punishment, the innocent who have suffered violent crimes and the families of murdered decedents are and will continue to be living victims.

    Violent crimes are committed by violent people who do not stop being violent simply because they have been incarcerated.  Just punishment of the most violent is not always carried out in this state or, I would submit, anywhere else in the country. Those with connections to law enforcement or the court system and anyone who regularly reads the news (printed and electronic) know of cases where convicted capital offenders have been released from prison and gone on to commit violent crimes again, often including armed robbery, kidnap, rape or murder.

    Perhaps more than anecdotal, on August 11, 2022, the AP reported that a Louisiana man who had been convicted of two brutal murders and given a life sentence was released after 42 years. According to the news story, “He [had] avoided the death penalty in a plea deal, pleading guilty to two counts of second-degree murder in exchange for life without the possibility of parole.” Supposedly rehabilitated, one of the telling terms of the murderer’s parole included his “leaving Louisiana and not returning without permission of his parole officer.” 

    Painful to recall, in Memphis last month two young children lost their mother to murder committed by a man who had a criminal history of rape and kidnaping at gunpoint. He had been released from prison early.  From his DNA police discovered that rape of another victim had been committed by him last year. Nothing in reason can explain why that wicked man was living free.

    By today’s standards, it may be cruel and unusual punishment to execute those who commit atrocious, brutal, and callous acts. But, in another sense, is it not cruel punishment of the victims when the law releases despiteful monsters who have figuratively or literally taken those victims’ lives?

    Reports that appeared this past summer about the violent backgrounds of mass shooters from New York to California, Minnesota to Texas, Florida and elsewhere, show how misguided modern social and legal philosophies are about justice and punishment. Brutally dangerous people must be taken out of society permanently. I think, at least, that “permanently” means imprisonment with no chance for release . . . ever.

    It is up to the law and those who make the law, those who enforce the law, and those who uphold the law by their judicial decisions to do their duty and protect people who live within the law. Pray God grant them the wisdom to do so.

    Chip Williams is a Northsider.

    This content was originally published here.

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