For much of my life, I favored the death penalty. It was an opinion informed not by reason, but by rage. I still feel rage at people who are, or were, unquestionably guilty of horrific acts, but my sense now is that society has no more right to kill than does an individual. Perhaps the most persuasive of the thought processes that led me to oppose the death penalty is the fact that the sentence, once carried out, is irreversible. That would not be as big a problem, I suppose, if the justice system were infallible, but we know it is not. People who are not guilty of a crime are too often convicted, nonetheless.
The argument might be made that the death penalty would be acceptable, then, in cases in which the guilt of the accused is “certain,” such as some would say is true of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in the Boston Marathon bombing. But it’s too easy to adjust the definition of certainty; you can’t rely on it. Even though I have no doubt about the guilt of Dzhokar Tsarnaev, I would rather the jury had given him life in prison than condemn him to death.
Aside from the fallibility of the justice system, I oppose the death penalty because I do not want to allow brutal murderers and their ilk, people without compassion and empathy for their victims, to have an easy out. I want them to live for a long, long while without the luxury of freedom. From my perspective, confinement in prison is a fate far worse than death. Unlike some who share my opposition to the death penalty, I do not feel compelled to give persons convicted of heinous crimes the same standard of care as I would someone not guilty of such acts. I would have no compunction withholding access to exercise, human contact, television, radio, music, and other creature comforts. A diet that only sustains life and satisfies hunger, and no more, would be adequate, in my view. And I would have no issue with requiring the convicted to work for their upkeep; if the person wants to eat, they could be required to carry out functions necessary to that end, perhaps tending to crops and feeding livestock.
While I do not like the idea that society has to pay for their upkeep, I’d rather spend money on keeping convicted murderers and rapists and their kind behind bars than kill them. My disdain for the death penalty has almost nothing to do with my compassion for the guilty. I am not above exacting revenge; I just don’t want to use the death penalty as a tool to do so.
I look at my own feelings about the death penalty and about justice as evidence that I see things through two distinct prisms, one that shines a light on compassion and justice and the other that highlights revenge and justice. How odd it is that justice can reside within that same beam of light.