The State That Kills Its Killers Is No Better Than They Were

Capital punishment is not about justice. It’s about vengeance.

Two weeks ago, the government of the United States of America went on a vengeance spree.

The federal government executed three of our own citizens in the span of just a few days after 17 years without a single “state-ordered legal homicide” by the federal government. Officials carried out the three death penalty sentences at the Federal Correctional Complex in Terre Haute, Ind.

The first was Daniel Lee Lewis on Tuesday, July 14.

Then came Wesley Purkey, whose lawyers “contended he had dementia and didn’t know why he was being executed,” on Thursday, July 16.

Finally, on Friday, July 17, the United States put Dustin Honken to death.

No Sympathy

The last time I wrote about the death penalty was in 2001, when the U.S. government executed Timothy McVeigh. He was the Oklahoma City bomber.

I write about it now, as I did then, with a heavy heart.

It’s not because I feel bad for the three men who were killed. If their convictions were righteous, if their trials were fair and they truly were guilty, none of them deserved sympathy.

However, I don’t believe I or you or anyone else should be making the kind of absolute decisions that result in the finality of death. None of us is qualified, not even a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Photo of prisoner with his hands out through the bars - capital punishment
Photo by Skyward Kick Productions via Shutterstock

There are lots of other, stronger, more quantifiable arguments against capital punishment. This fact sheet from the Death Penalty Information Center points to and supports many of them. Examples from the fact sheet:

Exonerations – “Since 1973, more than 165 people have been released from death row with evidence of their innocence.” Clearly, one cannot assume people convicted of capital crimes are actually guilty.

Racial Bias – Jurors are much more likely to recommend the death penalty for Black defendants.

More Racial Bias – The likelihood of someone convicted of murdering a white person receiving the death penalty is much higher than for someone convicted of killing a Black person.

No Deterrent Value – Few experts believe capital punishment keeps anyone from committing murder. In fact, a report by the National Research Council stated that studies “claiming that the death penalty has a deterrent effect on murder rates are ‘fundamentally flawed’ and should not be used when making policy decisions.” In addition, 88 percent of “presidents of the country’s top academic criminological societies” reject the notion that it’s a deterrent.

Bad Dollars After Bad – It costs a lot more for the government to execute someone than to house and feed them for life. We’re talking millions of dollars.

The Death Penalty Information Center, by the way, does not take a position on whether the U.S. government should be killing its own citizens. It simply reports facts and stats. A quick Google search on any of these topics will yield dozens of additional sources. For example, here’s the balance on the costs of putting someone to death vs. life imprisonment.

The Death Penalty Is Not About The Living

I’ll say it again – capital punishment is not about justice.

If it were, life in prison without parole would make much more sense. Executed killers and rapists no longer have to live with what they’ve done. In my judgement, they should suffer for decades in a prison, instead.

As for the argument that executions are for the victims and their survivors, to ensure justice is served for them and that they have some “closure,” one of the three lethal injections carried out two weeks ago defies those notions.

Lewis received the death sentence for helping murder William Mueller, Nancy Mueller and her daughter, 8-year-old Sarah Powell. However, some of the victims’ family members did not want the execution to go forward, and others took no comfort from it.

Earlene Peterson, Nancy’s mother and Sarah’s grandmother, said of the government, “They say they’re doing it for us but they’re liars, lying through their teeth.”

Scott Mueller, who witnessed the execution, said, “It didn’t give me any more closure than I had.”

In another example, the government went against SueZann Bosler’s wishes.

Her father, a pastor, had made her promise, “…that if he were ever murdered, the killer should not be executed.” Bosler fought against death for the man convicted of killing him, and finally had to use her own money to hire “a victim’s rights attorney to help her make her wishes known.”

So it’s not about justice. It’s not about cost, fairness or closure for victims’ family members and friends. And it clearly is not about their wishes.

That leaves just one thing.

Beware Vengeance

“Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves,” Confucius advised.

Not only is vengeance not a noble pursuit, it is an evil that feeds back on its practitioners. And in the cases of McVeigh, the three men put to death two weeks ago and all the other people the U.S. and individual state governments have killed over the years, we are the practitioners – government of the people, by the people and for the people.

No, my heart is not heavy for people who were actually guilty and executed for their heinous acts. Rather, as I wrote back in 2001, it hurts for a nation that kills its killers, that sinks to the level of a murderer to “punish” its murderers.

Capital punishment makes us no better than they were.

 

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2 Comments

  1. Wanting them to suffer in prison – wanting someone to suffer as a goal, for a wrongdoing – is, itself, vengeance, too. And it also just as much feeds into harsh prison policies that go on to affect far more than these “worst murderers”: such thinking has resulted in “penal harm” philosophy that puts “monster” and desperate poor person alike at risk of lasting damage to life and health. Not having air conditioning and heating in prisons, for example, is “justified” by that logic. And it can even *kill* – just like a “proper” execution.

    You are right about vengeance, but it goes further than you think. Punishments – to the extent they have a place – should only be about creating a deterrent at best.

    1. Thank you for your comment. I understand your point and agree with you on most of it. At times, though, one needs to use the logic of one’s audience to confront and hopefully change a few minds about the worst of it first, then move on to the next. That said, I do not want dangerous murderers on our streets, either, so I believe long-term incarceration is appropriate. Thank you again for commenting.

Let me know what you think!