Sentiment as Social Justice
The Ethics of Capital Punishment
by J. Daryl Charles
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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." Rolling down his window, James fired a
shot into the passenger side of the adjacent vehicle. The blast from point-blank
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."
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. 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.
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.
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.
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.