Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Death Penalty

With Scott Peterson's trial and sentencing the issue of the death penalty has been thrust to the forefront of our society once again. Never mind the fact that Peterson will likely never be executed due to the system and the number of death row inmates in California that are in waiting.

Is the death penalty an outdated form of punishment that should be abandoned today?

No. In fact, if we pride ourselves on becoming a more civil society, the death penalty has a place today as much as it ever has. Why?

The death penalty is at its core a punishment that reflects the value of human life. Sound contradictory? Only if you do not highly value human life. People are created in the image of God, and God has established that killing one of these who are in his image is a crime punishable by death. One who kills another person is thus subjected to the highest punishment men can face.

What about the life of the one who committed the crime? In this case, Scott Peterson is guilty of killing his wife and unborn son. One of the arguments against his execution is that killing a third person does nothing to make the situation right. Part of the fallacy of such an argument is to what degree it is to be taken. Should Peterson then be allowed to remain free, since incarcerating a man is so detrimental to his life anyway?

What about people who are mistakenly sent to death row? Part of today's argument points to the people who have been dismissed from death row because of new trials involving new evidence. Certainly the system has to work for anyone to be justly sentenced to any amount of time in prison or to the death penalty. Whether or not the death penalty is just has nothing to do, though, with people who are unjustly sentenced.

Personally, the struggle over the death penalty is not an easy one. Chuck Colson has had a strong influence on my personal view of death row inmates and their spiritual condition. However, even Colson has changed his official position on the death penalty.

Disturbing is the fact that there were crowds outside the courthouse who cheered at the sentencing of Peterson. There is certainly nothing to rejoice about when a man is sentenced to death. Even in supporting the death penalty, there should be a weighty sobriety involved in the matter.

As one who has been on a jury for a murder trial, the sentencing of the people involved is a tough matter to deal with. In my personal experience, my jury convicted a 19-yr old of 2nd degree murder and 4 convictions of assault. He was sentenced by the judge to 49 years in prison. While our decision was the correct one, I am still sobered by the thought that this young man is to spend what will probably amount to over half his life in prison.

To an even greater degree, the Scott Peterson jury (and any jury that must make the death penalty decision) did not bring the sentence with any celebration. Rather, in their interviews they appeared very burdened by the crime and the punishment that they had to deal with.

There are problems on both sides of the arguments. Many who are arguing for Peteron's death point to the drastic nature of his crimes. But no matter how brutal his crime, Peterson killed another person. Now matter how significant or insignificant the person was in our society and/or in Peterson's life, his action would merit death. Even if he had killed an unknown homeless person, the sentence should be the same (given that the criteria for 1st degree murder were met.)

On the other side, the problems with many arguments against Peteron's execution are merely emotional pleas. They fall short of being consistent in arguing that he should not be executed (though all agree that he should at least have life in prison.)

In the end, I support the death penalty although I cannot imagine being a juror or a judge in the sentencing. Additionally, no matter how strongly I support the death penalty, I do not think I could be the person to actually administer the execution.


Rooftop MediaWorks said...

Taking what has become an increasingly muted view within the Christian community—which I believe has real merits—William Meisheid at Beyond the Rim contends that it is not biblical to pronounce a death sentence based on circumstantial evidence.

He has written a death penalty series, but the summary of this argument is:

1. The death penalty is legitimate and required by God. (See Genesis 9:5-6 and part I and part II of my series.)
2. In the Law, God established the requirements for implementing the death penalty and that was on the testimony of at least two witnesses. (See Deuteronomy 17:6 and 19:15).

While we may argue in our modern technological age that direct evidence (e.g. genetic evidence using blood or other bodily fluids, phone tap tape recordings, etc.) might be considered to be a witness in the biblical sense, no one argues that there was anything but circumstantial evidence in this case. As such, even the prosecution, much less the sentencing, didn’t meet the minimal biblical requirements for a death penalty case.

This was the essence of Chuck Colson’s opposition to the death penalty for many years, one of the few leading evangelicals with that position. He has changed his views somewhat in later years. I have a link to at my blog today.

All the best.

Colby Willen said...

True, the lack of anything but what seems to be circumstantial evidence in the Peterson case is disturbing - there really are no witnesses. The first degree murder charge actually suprised me based on the evidence (and lack thereof), but then the death penalty charge that followed by the jury did not surprise me so much simply because they had moved past evaluating the evidence to evaluating the crime.