Retributive Justice and the Death Penalty
Perhaps instinctively, we all understand revenge. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, we identify with the young prince on his quest to avenge the murder of his father, even as he kills the innocent old fool Polonius, drives the beautiful Ophelia to madness, and in general creates enough collateral damage to destroy the kingdom. Societies have developed a way to curb this instinct for vengeance and avoid the wanton destruction that often accompanies it. Rather than seeking to personally avenge the wrong, the citizen hands over that burden to the larger society with the expectation that justice will be done and that the punishment will fit the crime. In some cases, the crime is so heinous that the only proportional punishment is death. By careful research, social scientists have pretty much refuted the idea that capital punishment is effective in deterring crime. However, these arguments have not had much sway on that segment of the public which supports the death penalty. For many, the government needs to be able to apply this ultimate punishment in order to fulfill the implicit contract on which our system depends. The death penalty is needed to satisfy their sense of justice. Paradoxically, it is this same intuitive sense of justice that is leading people to abolish the death penalty: too often, we convict the wrong person. We have killed people who are innocent of the crime. Unable to achieve perfection in court system, people are choosing to abandon this ultimate, irreversible penalty in favor of life in prison without parole.
“What about Cop Killers?”
Several years ago, while I was serving as clerk of my local meeting, I received a call from a retired police officer. I think he had probably called several pastors in the area. He wanted to talk, to find out what we believed, to learn, and to be heard. We had a wide ranging, cordial exchange of views, in which we agreed on almost nothing. When the conversation touched on capital punishment and I told him my reasons for opposing it, he came back with this question: “What about cop killers?” Perhaps my response was a bit flippant. In any case, he became markedly less articulate, as the very idea of cop killers filled him with rage. Though we have not spoken to each other since, I have thought quite a bit about this conversation. Our differences of opinion were, in part, based on our different life experiences. Police get into the sewers of our society, seeing people at their most dangerous and self-destructive extremes. We ask, no, we demand, that our police keep themselves aloof from this depravity, and that, however they are treated by the public, they carry out their duties with an almost superhuman restraint.
I know that there is enough violence within me that I would want to exact revenge if someone close to me was raped or murdered. Can I expect someone else to be willing to hand over to the government responsibility for vengeance even if they think that the ultimate punishment would be insufficient for the magnitude of the crime? For a typical citizen, the answer is clearly yes. However, how much can we ask of a police officer who has his hands on someone he thinks murdered his comrade? Again, the answer is clear: we ask them to treat such a suspect with the same respect, the same presumption of innocence, that they would any other. This requires that the police have confidence that if the person is guilty, justice will be done. I have argued for an end to capital punishment through legislation rather than through the assertion of constitutional rights. As our nation makes the transition toward “Constitutional Policing”, I think it would be appropriate for such legislation to make special provision for burden our society places on the police. I expect that local chapters of the Fraternal Order of Police will eventually come around to a point where a majority would support a complete ban on the death penalty. Until that time comes, I think our society is best served with a compromise: the law should make an exception and allow the death penalty to be imposed for cop killers.