How Do You Justify the Death Penalty?

I’m not being judgmental or rhetorical with that title. I’m curious how other people deal with capital punishment.

Here' my story:

Once upon a time, I advocated for the death penalty. Loudly. Shrilly, at times.

In the 1980s and into 1990s, I read a lot. Philosophical. Religious. Legal. Historical. Lots of angles, but few perspectives. You see, I sought out confirming information. I searched high and low for perspectives that would justify my own.

I learned that insulating oneself in a blanket of confirming data works. By blocking out thoughts and arguments that differed from my own, I was happily consistent with myself.

The problem with the confirmation approach, though, is: what if I’m wrong?

Drinks and Death Penalties #

The death penalty came up in a conversation with a friend on Friday. Two libertarian-ish conservatives talking over drinks felt comfortable enough to admit to unorthodox views on the subject. Unorthodox, that is, within Missouri’s center-right world where support for capital punishment is taken as a given.

When I woke up this morning, I found that subject still bouncing around in my mind. All of this led me to read some old blogs on the subject. I was surprised to find that I’d written on this topic before and no one has threatened me with tar and feathering. Maybe my ideas are not as unorthodox I thought.

In December 2004, for instance, I wrote:

I still haven’t reached a new decision on the death penalty.  I’m in a no-man’s land where I want the death penalty to be available to juries, but I don’t [think] that I could ever condemn a stranger.  I could kill someone who needed to be killed for the safety and welfare of myself or society or family.  But I would have a very hard time voting to kill someone.

My thinking has not really evolved in the decade since. I’m still where I was then. Which is, I believe, an unorthodox conservative view.

In that 2004 post, I linked to a blog from After Abortion that nicely describes my principal reason for ambivalence:

Even though my Catholic faith allows for capital punishment “only if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor” (think Hannibal Lecter, to use a fictional character example), my faith also teaches that **capital punishment **“definitively takes away from him the possibility of redeeming himself." 

Redemption. And it all comes back.

Watching the Old Barn Fall #

On February 27, 1999, I dragged my three boys (ages 11, 8, and 6) to Forest Park’s Aviation Field. With a few thousand

The Arena

The Arena: clipped from

others, we went to watch The Arena go down in flames. That rancid organization, Civic Progress, condemned the building to prevent City Museum’s founder, Bob Cassily, from buying and renovating the structure. Civic Progress did not want competition for its shiny, new Kiel Center

Between 1969 and 1994, The Arena was my home away from home. I saw St. Louis Police circuses and rodeos, Warner Brothers on Ice shows, and other events. But my first love was St. Louis Blues hockey. I don’t know how many games I saw in The Arena, but I’m sure it was over 300. To say, “I grew up in The Arena,” would not be an exaggeration.

My boys were miserable that afternoon. It was cold and muddy in Forest Park. In its haste to destroy The Arena, the city failed to arrange decent viewing spots, so the building’s lovers had slog through muddy clay. One man brought a trumpet to entertain the crowd. News helicopters circled overhead. Conversations were quiet, rare, and respectful, except for occasional outbursts of laughter at something someone shouted.

It was like waiting for a funeral service to start.

Finally, some activity. I don’t remember what it was, but we knew something was about to happen. Did they shoot off fireworks?

Anyway, a few minutes after the call-to-attention, explosions shook the muddy ground beneath our feet. Flashes, one by

The Arena Coming Down

one, began a march around the base of the building I loved since my first memories. Black smoke rose from the far side of The Arena. As the flashes reached halfway around the west side of the building, the south side began to collapse.

As The Arena’s iconic dome sank, I shouted, “NO!”

My futile protest sprang from my throat as involuntarily as my heart beats. People turned to look at me, and I became self-conscious. I’d been totally unaware of my being for a few seconds. But my wail brought me back to the present. I realized my nose was running and my eyes were wet. My son, Patrick, then just six years old, looked at me, worried. He wasn’t used to seeing me cry.

What happened when my voice erupted with that plaintive “NO?” A thousand ideas flashed through my mind. Every thought involved arguments defending the death penalty. And one image sat atop these arguments: a mother watching her son die for his hideous crimes.

We walked back to my car in silence. Me, my boys, and the thousand or so people around us. The ten-minute mud walk gave me time to sort through what I’d just experienced.

“Have I been wrong all along?” I thought.

“What’s wrong with me? What kind of idiot questions the death penalty because a building got destroyed?”

Remaining In the Gray #

While I’ve never sat down and scripted out a new position on the death penalty, I know I’ve cast off my old one–the one that practically celebrated society’s decision to kill one of its own. That position, I know, was wrong. For me, at least.

I don’t buy the idea that the death penalty is no deterrent. I don’t buy the notion that the death penalty should be banned. I think the availability of such a punishment serves its purpose. William F. Buckley said something to the effect, “I can understand society’s occasional need to execute someone, but never to hurt his feelings.” And I don’t like government putting limits on things in general.

I do worry, though, about the ease with which some people sentence others to death in America. I wonder if they protect themselves from disconfirming thoughts about capital punishment, just as I did for almost 40 years. I feel terrible for everyone who’s ever been on a jury and voted for death. I think, “What if, one day, those jurors are confronted with a challenge like I was? How will they live with themselves?”

I also feel for the families of the condemned, just as I feel for the families of the victims. Imagine watching your child being strapped into a death chamber. Imagine the guilt.

Still, the one thought that I can’t get out of mind is the permanence of the execution. Once the demolitionists set off those charges, The Arena lost all hope of redemption. I could feel that finality in every cell of my body.

David Berkowitz, the Son of Sam killer, somehow eluded the death penalty. Because of that, he was placed with the general prison population. Because of that, he met an inmate named Rick who talked to Berkowitz about Jesus.

It took a long time, but Rick’s testimony and God’s grace finally reached the famous murderer. Via The Southeast Outlook:

“One night, as I was reading Psalm 34, I came across this verse, ‘This poor man cried, and the Lord heard him, and saved him from all his troubles,’” Berkowitz said.

At that moment, alone in a stark cell, everything hit Berkowitz at once.

“The guilt from what I did, the disgust at what I had become—I got down on my knees and began to cry to Jesus Christ. I told Him I was sick and tired of doing evil. I asked Jesus to forgive all my sins. I must have been there a long time. When I got up, it felt as if a very heavy but invisible chain that had been around me for so many years was broken.”

Today, Berkowitz is a chaplain’s assistant at Sullivan Correctional Facility where he counsels and prays with fellow prisoners. He has shared his testimony on “The 700 Club,” “The Coral Ridge Hour” with the late Dr. James Kennedy, “Inside Edition,” “A&E Investigative Report” and the Gideon’s Convention via videotape.

Some say Berkowitz didn’t deserve a chance at redemption. Maybe they’re right. I don’t know. But I don’t know how I could be the one who denied him his chance at redemption.

I don’t know how many souls have been redeemed because David Berkowitz–one of the most notorious murders of the 1970s–became a counselor and spiritual adviser to other prisoners. But I’d hate to be the one who prevented that outcome, too.

No, I don’t think I’d ever take away society’s right to execute its own. I just wish our society wasn’t so happy to pull that trigger.