There are two very high-profile capital murder cases in the headlines this week: one in Massachusetts, with the Boston Marathon bomber the defendant, and one here in South Carolina, with a former North Charleston policeman as the defendant. The cases are very different. Each provides us with the opportunity to rethink when, how often, and why we as a society condemn convicted murderers to death.
The argument in favor of the death penalty is much easier to make in the case of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the surviving Boston Marathon bomber. His crime was heinous. As of this writing, his trial for the crime itself is over; he has been found guilty on 30 counts, including killing 3 people and injuring over 250 others. Everyone with a television has been a witness to the act itself. The victims were utterly innocent, and the killers were politically motivated individuals whose sole purpose was to instill terror – and, in their minds, to have vengeance against the country who had in their eyes committed murder on a vastly larger scale, in the Middle East.
In this country, our laws do not allow for vengeance killings. The death penalty itself is allegedly not about vengeance, it is about justice and about deterrence. In our nation we profess to follow the Judeo-Christian teaching that “Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord.” Renounce “eye-for-an-eye” vengeance, our religion tells us.
It is a statistically proven fact that the death penalty does not deter murder. Terrorists are not deterred by the prospect of their own death; indeed, many terrorist killings are suicide bombings. The south has by far the most death penalty executions in the nation. All but 897 out of 2040 such executions since 1976 have taken place in the south, and 635 of those 897 took place in Texas and Oklahoma. The northeast has seen just four (4). And yet the murder rate in the south is higher, not lower, than in the northeast. If deterrence worked, the south would have the nation’s lowest murder rate, and we don’t.
Justice should be the answer. Justice, that is, seen as the greatest punishment for the crime. If I were to glance into the troubled psyche of the 21-year-old Tsarnaev, I would dread much more the prospect of spending some 70 years in prison than being put to death in a year or two. Should not justice take that into account?
Then there is the case of North Charleston’s Michael T. Slager, the former police officer whose act of murder – not yet come to trial – has also been seen by anyone with a television set. His act was much less heinous than that of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. He killed an unarmed man who was running away at the time. His crime took place in South Carolina, where there are currently 47 inmates in prison on death row – and not in Massachusetts, where none have been executed in over 30 years. Is the death penalty more appropriate for Slager than for Tsarnaev? Here’s a different question: given those numbers, is the death penalty more likely for Slager than for Tsarnaev?
I would argue that vengeance is the only reason for the death penalty, and it is not a good reason. Unlike Tsarnaev or Slager, most murderers are not captured on video. According to the “Death Penalty Information Center,” while those 2040 executions were taking place, 140 people have been released from death row having been determined innocent after their sentencing. If we agree to execute only those we are most sure are guilty, we as a society are still statistically certain to execute some innocent men and women. We should not take that step, even in cases as obvious as that of Tsarnaev – much less that of Slager, whom geography has placed here in South Carolina, unlike Massachusetts a confirmed “death penalty state.” It should not be about vengeance. It should be about justice. Justice does not require us to kill people, even murderers. We are better than they are.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The Edgefield Advertiser.
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