The United States has long been an exceedingly strong and guiding force in the international community. As a dedicated moral leader, the U.S. has stated its utmost support for international human rights conventions. These documents are integral to the objectives of the United Nations and its member states. Yet, despite the fact that the United Nations has stated directly, through such documents as the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, that the abolition of the death penalty contributes to the “enhancement of human dignity and progressive development of human rights”, the United States remains among the retentionist states.
In a world where human rights standards are becoming more and more accepted, what is the justification for the use of the death penalty in America? Furthermore, upon analysis of the United States’ rationalizations, are they consistent with the United States’ stated position on human rights? These questions will be answered through a careful examination of the moralistic contributions to the debate, the effectiveness and practicality of the use of the death penalty, and the United States’ agreed upon international human rights standards. Consideration will also be given to the current public opinion on the subject. Through the examination of these factors it will be shown that the use of the death penalty in America is not justifiable, nor is it in concord with our stated human rights objectives.
The Morality Argument
Many supporters of the death penalty will claim that their personal religious or moral beliefs support the use of the death penalty. As Christianity was the most clearly impacting religion on the formation of the United States, and is the most identifiable religious influence in the political institutions of America today, a careful inspection will be given to the common views attributed to it. A more secular moral approach is also relevant in this debate, though.
Common Christian Views
Jacob Vellenga points out in his essay “Christianity and the Death Penalty”, that (1) life is sacred and (2) those who violate that sacredness must pay the supreme penalty (124). The Bible states clearly that, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for God made man in his own image” (Gen 9:6 RSV). This is the first Biblical reference to the “eye-for-an-eye” justice, which underlies much of the Christian support for capital punishment. The Bible later gives a more detailed indication of how murder indictments are to work. “If any one kills a person, the murderer shall be put to death on the evidence of witnesses; but no person shall be put to death on the testimony of one witness. Moreover you shall accept no ransom for the life of a murderer who is guilty of death; but he shall be put to death” (Num 30:30-32 RSV).
Vellenga’s arguments are contradicted by other interpretations of the Bible, though. There are actually quite different views on capital punishment emerging from the theological debates within Christianity. Charles Milligan brings up five commonly encountered views among Christians in his essay, “A Protestant’s View of the Death Penalty”. These perceptions are (1) immediate abolition, (2) abolition as correct, but not very important, (3) abolition as correct for ‘the Christian’ but not practical in a world of evil, (4) the death penalty as “right and necessary from a Christian point of view”, and (5) the state as the theoretically entitled to capital punishment, but compelled to seldom carry out executions. Most Protestants have called for abolition, and their reasoning belongs to a sort of situational ethics for today’s society (Milligan 175).
If the Bible is going to be used as the standard to hold the United States government accountable, this verse or that verse cannot be selectively chosen to support one’s views only. If this were the case, then why not say that wearing wool and linen together is illegal (Deut 22:11)? Or, for that matter, why are there no laws stating that a man must have children by his brother’s widow (Deut 25:5)?
The reason that these taboos and requirements of The Old Testament are rejected by American society today is because it has chosen to decide for itself what its laws will be. The laws of modern society may not be the strict application of Biblical rules, but they are definitely influenced by them and by the more broad implications they carry. This pursual of wider-ranging Biblical truths is what Milligan advocates. “It is not what the Bible says in a specific verse, but what is says to us through its total message, interpreted in terms of our own conditions, that is relevant” (177-178).
Christianity, as applied by this definition of relevance, is congruous with “compassionate concern” for the soul of the person sentenced to death. A Christian, in the Protestant perspective, should ask: how can this criminal be redeemed and restored to their natural union with righteous behavior. This is seen quite evidently in the story of Jesus and the adulterous woman, who under the commandments of Moses should be stoned to death. Jesus Proclaimed, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her” (Jhn 8:7). Jesus’ statement shows a compassion for the sinner, as well as a wise understanding of the needs of a sustainable society.
These arguments, though, only really apply to those who believe that society should be modeled or influenced by Christian ideals. Seeing as this is only one religion among a plethora of beliefs and ideals within the U.S. and worldwide, arguments based in non-religious morals must be examined.
Capital Punishment as Cruel and Unusual Punishment
Constitutionalists argue that the death penalty violates the “cruel and unusual” clause of the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution. In the 1910 case, Weems v. United States, the United States Supreme Court ruled that a sentence of prison time and a requirement of the defendant to carry a chain hanging from his ankle and wrist was unconstitutionally “cruel and unusual” (Gottlieb 199). This case showed that the meaning of cruel and unusual in legal application is a dynamic meaning, which changes with the evolution of society. In 1958 the United States Supreme Court expressly ruled in Trop v. Dulles, that the term “cruel and unusual” will “draw its meaning from the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society” (Gottlieb 200). So if these terms’ meanings are based on the popular consensus, and if the public sees capital punishment as cruel and unusual, it must be stricken down by judicial action.
Trop v. Dulles also established that a comparative method would be used to determine what is “cruel”. For, if the death penalty is more cruel, as determined by popular consensus, than another form of punishment for the same crime, it is “cruel” and unwarranted. Sir William Blackstone goes further to state that necessity of a punishment “must be great and overriding” (Gottlieb 202). Montesquieu put forth the idea that the more harsh the scale of punishment in a society, the more the society is degraded by it.