Before you read any further, I want you to think about what your position on the death penalty: Are you for or against it?
In years past, I have always been a proponent. And I think my reasoning boiled down to the following, in order of importance:
- I don't want my tax dollars supporting a criminal for the rest of his life
- Capital punishment deters violent crimes
- It gives closure to the families of the victims
- It permanently keeps the criminal off the streets
- It seems like there are some crimes that are just deserving of it; some people just don't deserve to live after committing certain heinous crimes
But the more I think about it, the more strange I find it that many in the Church seem to be pro-death penalty (again, maybe I'm wrong). There have of course been times in the scriptures where people had to die – Laban, Amalickiah, tens of thousands of Lamanite soldiers. But should it be happening now? Doesn't the gospel value life, even that of the vilest of sinners? Don't we believe in justice and mercy? Isn't it core to Christ's teachings that everyone can change, including those that may have committed some of the worst crimes imaginable? So why is it that we would have a tolerance level for the uber-sinner such that he or she must die for their crimes?
Since the Church doesn't have an official position on capital punishment, over the years I've been looking at the five reasons I just outlined and re-thinking my position. What I've found is that this is a very complex issue, much more so than I can put in one blog post. Maybe I'll do a follow-up at some point. But where I net out now is that I am against the death penalty. Here's why:
COST: Honestly, as a super-fiscal conservative, this is a big one for me. But what I've realized after a lot of research is this: It's an indisputable fact that on average it costs MORE to sentence someone to death than to life in prison. A lot more. It's simply that the appeals process drags on for so long and the state spends so much money defending the verdict, that it would be cheaper to just keep a criminal as an inmate for life. There are tons of great sources on this. Here's one: Enforcing the death penalty costs Florida $51 million a year above what it would cost to punish all first-degree murderers with life in prison without parole. Based on the 44 executions Florida had carried out since 1976, that amounts to a cost of $24 million for each execution. (Palm Beach Post, January 4, 2000).
DETERRENT: I think everyone took this one for granted in the past. If someone thought they might DIE for committing certain crimes, they'd be less likely to commit them, right? There has been a lot of research over the past few decades, much of which concludes that capital punishment is NOT a deterrent toward violent crimes. Most of the places saying anything about it are of course pushing their own agenda, but here's one source I found interesting. Also, the book Freakonomics has a really interesting section on how capital punishment doesn't actually deter violent crime. And the more I think about it, logically, I can't envision a potential murderer saying "Well ... I was going to slit this guy's throat, but since I may get the death penalty for it, I guess I won't."
CLOSURE: Not all victims' families advocate for the death of the perpetrator. Yes, for some it does bring closure, but not always (consider this story, which is one of many). Though I'm not sure, I'd like to think if the unthinkable happened to a family member, I'd be able to forgive. And if I did, I don't think I would want the person killed. As I know others feel differently (and I might too if it actually happened), this is a still neutral issue for me.
OFF THE STREETS: This is complex. There certainly are recidivists who should never be allowed on the streets again simply for public safety. But where do you draw the line? If you don't give someone the death penalty, there's always a chance (even with "life in prison" in some cases), that the person will be paroled at some point. But if someone is released from prison at age 80, how likely are they to re-offend? I feel like I want to err on the side of saying that someone people can be re-habilitated eventually. But it's impossible to know for sure who can and who can't be. Also a neutral issue.
DESERVING CRIMES: This is totally subjective, but I just don't feel that way anymore. And it really comes down to the facts that 1) I want to forgive people (even really, really bad ones), and 2) I don't know where to draw the line. How bad is bad enough to kill someone? Who am I to decide when one person should die and another shouldn't? This just can't be a factor.
Oh, and by the way, since 1973, over 130 people have been released from death row with evidence of their innocence. (Staff Report, House Judiciary Subcommittee on Civil & Constitutional Rights, Oct. 1993)). So, I wonder - how many people have we executed for crimes they didn't commit? There's no going back after you kill someone, even legally.
So there. It has been a long time in coming, but after weighing the above, I'm now against the death penalty.
I'm curious as to how you all feel – am I behind the curve? Am I wrong to have changed my mind? I'd love to hear what you think.
A-Dub currently lives in Portland, Oregon, but grew up in the Midwest. After a mission to Argentina and a degree from BYU, Aaron received an MBA from the University of Washington. Consequently, he is a data-driven corporate sellout who thinks the government should generally mind its own business. A lifelong Mormon and former counselor in a bishopric, Aaron feels that the eccentricities of Mormon culture should be made fun of as much as possible, that the main point of the gospel is to be like Christ and help others, and suspects that – whether openly or covertly – everyone likes Neil Diamond. He and his amazing wife have two boys.
Image credit: Chris Ford (used with permission).