In 2018 25 persons were put to death by the United States. They ranged from 31 years old to 83 and all were convicted by courts, and those convictions affirmed by further courts, that found them guilty of heinous, horrid, disgusting crimes against their fellow man.
Despite that, I believe that their deaths were wrong.
The death penalty in the United States is seldom used. 25 states have either abolished it entirely or declared a moratorium on its use. Almost a dozen other states have not executed a person in years. Yet it still remains on the books and is more than a paper statute, as every year Americans face the prospect of their own government not only having the right to take their freedom and property but their life as well.
America shares this curious characteristic with nations such as Iran, North Korea, the People’s Republic of China, Sudan, Libya, and others with human rights records needless to describe. From 2007 to 2012 America stood fifth in the world in the number of executions.
The liberal argument against the death penalty has always come from the side of compassion, rehabilitation, cost comparisons, and the always present potential of “getting the wrong person.” The conservative argument, however, which is growing, stems from the worry that the government is able to deprive a citizen of something as fundamental as one’s own very life.
Support for the death penalty is now at historic lows. In 2016, for the first time in 45 years, the death penalty fell below majority support among Americans. Young people favor the death penalty far, far less than their older cohorts. Support for the death penalty has declined dramatically among independents and Democrats in recent years and is trending downwards among Republicans.
The Founding Fathers themselves had significant qualms with how the idea of capital punishment, then common in a far more savage world, complied with their ideas of a government based on God-given rights and a social contract.
The fact is that the death penalty is a remnant of a far more brutish time when life was seen as far more cheap, passing, and, sadly, expendable. When countless of one’s fellow innocent citizens died from disease, war, crime, and accidents on a daily basis it seems preposterous to spend time caring for the well-being of those who were adjudged in certainty to have committed truly evil acts.
However, we no longer live in such times. Europe, where precisely such conditions existed for so long, now has seen the death penalty completely abolished except for in the authoritarian nation of Belarus. The European Union describes the death penalty as “inhumane, degrading and unnecessary,” and argues against common death penalty arguments such as deterrence and retribution.
In our own country, the argument against the death penalty should be even stronger. In Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238 (1972), the Supreme Court case that temporarily placed a nationwide moratorium on the death penalty, with the majority arguing that the death penalty, as it was being implemented in the United States at the time at least, constituted cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments.
The majority cited the sentiments and conflictions of many of the Founders who seemed to be struggling with their belief in a government of rights with the seemingly common practice of capital punishment, sometimes for even the most minor of transgressions, in the world at the time.
The death penalty always hangs like a Sword of Damocles over our free society. When the government has the power to kill its citizens it only becomes a question of under what situations and through what process.
We’ve seen in many nations across the world how this power has quickly fallen into abominable depravity, such as the “Bloody Code” in 1700’s England that permitted capital punishment for acts such as pickpocketing or cutting down trees. In the worst cases, we’ve seen whirlpools of cruelty form such as the Great Purge in 1930’s the Soviet Union or the Reign of Terror in France, as thousands upon thousands were executed in a sudden surge of barbarism and government overreach.
We are a far ways away from such atrocities, yet that human life is precious and endowed with God-given liberty should be remembered and can be a shield to such monstrous abuses in the future.
A society that values human liberty is irreconcilable with the institution or even permitting, of the death penalty. Until we, as Americans, iron out that contradiction – through perhaps a constitutional amendment that would apply not only to federal prosecutions but state ones too – our liberty is not secure.
Erich Reimer is a Captain in the United States Army. He previously served as a government affairs lawyer and media commentator. Views expressed are his own and not those of the Department of Defense.