The willingness of people to label one another “criminal” and another “innocent” too readily can really get justice lost in the process. We know that the justice system will never be perfect—how then could we justify using the total finality of the death penalty? For the perfectly heinous crime and the perfectly unrepentant murderer, denying capital punishment is difficult. The Oklahoma City bomber, Timothy McVeigh, who killed 168 innocents, was put to death still asserting government conspiracy theories and justifying his actions.
Yet for every well-publicized Timothy McVeigh (and there aren’t very many, perhaps just McVeigh himself), there are many cases like that of Curtis McCarthy, who spent 21 years in jail, and sixteen on death row, before being freed because DNA evidence proved he did not commit the crime for which he was convicted. The state of Illinois voluntarily suspended its use of the death penalty after releasing thirteen death row inmates in 2000.
Victims of crimes surely seek justice, but how much control should the people cede to the government? I propose that giving the government more power to kill will get more people killed overall. The issue is one of how much one trusts the government’s authority—whether one can imagine oneself on the “wrong” side of government institutions, or whether one sees his or herself as a purely law-abiding potential victim.
How far from criminality am I or you, in all honesty? Justice, in fact, is not always on the side of justice. The famous Underground Railroad for escaped slaves was met with the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Millions and millions of women have received abortions, which were for the longest time both illegal and unsafe. Peaceful, conscientious citizens also choose to smoke marijuana recreationally, which is illegal as well. It’s illegal to kill a dog or cat, but fully legal to kill livestock like pigs, who have more intelligence than dogs and cats.
The point is that justice should be flexible, but government-controlled capital punishment is permanent and flawed, and a power that begs to be abused by power-seekers.
Now, there are good people and bad; there are sociopaths out there and violent rapists. I believe that incarceration as punishment is underrated—imagine a life having one’s freedom taken away. The fear of the death penalty is momentary, but life behind bars a slow, painful realization of one’s very existence being a shame on society and family.
Does capital punishment prevent crimes? It’s true that criminals act logically to different laws, often carrying just under the certain weight of contraband to receive a lesser charge. That’s why I support long prison sentences, which we know prevent crime. But honestly, is someone willing to kill another person, society’s worst crime, really going to choose to not kill because he or she knows that “only” a life sentence awaits instead of death after years and years of appeals? For a criminal, both options must be equally unappealing, and murder a separate crime from petty offenses to steal for survival, excitement, or greed.
In the end, the question of capital punishment centers around how much power we wish to give whoever manages to reach a government office, how much we trust an imperfect system of justice, and how willing we are to delude ourselves into thinking that criminals are a totally different species from ourselves. Put yourself in the position of the wrongfully convicted criminal, the victim of circumstance and/or prejudice, and try to find justice from there. The downsides of capital punishment are readily apparent, and the use of capital punishment merely appeals to how we fancy ourselves perpetually innocent.