The Death Penalty: A Pointless Exercise

The state of Utah will stage the fiftieth execution in its history tomorrow when convicted murderer Ronnie Lee Gardner faces a firing squad at midnight. Much has been made of the means Gardner requested. Assuming that no method is particularly drawn out, I find it inconsequential. Dead is dead. My concern is broader. I would prefer that Gardner not be killed at all.

I’m rather disappointed that I so often hear members of the LDS community enthusiastically endorse the death penalty. We’ve even had Republican legislators, with the support of the attorney general, consider methods to limit appeals and hurry the process along by which the convict meets their end.

Careful and well-intentioned as our justice system is, it is flawed. According to the Innocence Project, their work alone has led to 254 exonerations. Regarding death row specifically, The Death Penalty Information Center lists 138 people who have been exonerated since 1973. That is a minority number, to be sure, but a significant minority. Can we really be certain that all who have been executed were absolutely guilty? If later evidence proves that someone sentenced to life in prison was wrongly convicted, even years later, that person can be released and some recompense made. Not so for those executed. Dead is dead.

And what of those supposed merits of the death penalty on which supporters are potentially willing to bet innocent lives? The data is very complex, and advocates on either side of the issue are able to pull together statistics supporting their position. I would hardly be surprised if there was some deterrence value in a very aggressive use of the death penalty. Then again, the distinct possibility of death hasn’t prevented people from being willing to enlist in many of the most brutal wars. And is the possible deterrence worth gambling the lives of wrongly convicted people potentially on death row?

From a moral perspective, I fear that the invocation of justice in the argument is nothing more than a thinly disguised interest in retribution. The death of a murderer does not somehow restore the life of the murdered. No one is made whole by the execution. I doubt it provides any closure; the Gospel seems to indicate that the survivors and victims will find closure in the pursuit of forgiveness for the perpetrator, not in a surrogate vengeance.

I think justice, in the sense of restoration, can best be served by the one thing which the death penalty prevents; a change of the heart in the criminal. We tend to dehumanize these people. They become simply a label—criminals, convicts, murderers—subhuman monsters. And no doubt, if they are guilty of a capital offense, what they have done is monstrous. But we shouldn’t forget that these people are children of God like you and I. Damaged and dirtied by themselves and others they may be, they still possibly have the seed of divinity within them somewhere. I was raised to believe that murder approaches the one unpardonable sin. But can we truly judge so definitively, so broadly? I don’t believe we know that they cannot transform, whether through finding God, or finally coming to terms with whatever internal demons have plagued them. Nothing they can do can make up for taking the life of another, but some might possibly do some good in the world, even if behind bars, and beginning in some small way the purging of their soul. I hesitate to irrevocably eliminate that possibility out of some stern notion of justice.

I don’t really mourn Gardner. I have no doubt that Gardner is guilty. From what I gather, he appears to be a brutal, miserable person. If deadly force had been required and used to prevent Gardner from assaulting any of his victims, I would accept that as justified. But I mourn that another human being will be deliberately killed to accomplish nothing.

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20 Responses to “The Death Penalty: A Pointless Exercise”

  1. adamf Says:

    Thought-provoking post. I’m not sure how I feel on the death penalty in cases like this.

    “We tend to dehumanize these people. They become simply a label—criminals, convicts, murderers—subhuman monsters.”

    I think we do this to protect ourselves, at least in an emotional sense.

  2. Wesley W Says:

    I also appreciate your thoughts, Derek. I’ve gone back and forth on the issue, seeing legitimate merits to both sides.

    I do actually see defensible arguments for the death penalty within the bounds of the gospel, ones that do call upon a righteous justice (and not retribution), forfeiting the right to prolonging this earthly life, and sending offenders directly to meet their Maker (so to say). And I don’t see comparing a fear of death for a criminal anywhere close to the same as a fear of death in combat. But your other arguments are what keep me from committing fully to supporting the death penalty.

    I don’t like the idea (inevitability, really) of executing innocents. There is a difference between erring with a life sentence and a death sentence (thus negating the argument, “Well no system is perfect, so why don’t we get rid of all forms of punishment and imprisonment?”).

    I’ve often wondered if the few (the few too many) who have been wrongly executed can be considered as collateral damage, for lack of a more sensitive term. It’s an accepted inevitability in war (even righteous conflicts). It’s even a principle we often cite as an accepted inevitability of the fall and our choice to be here on earth – why people die too young and suddenly, why accidents involving death happen, why some people are “allowed” to live and other “sentenced” to a shortened life. The way we justify those circumstances is that it’s an unfortunate reality of the fall, and the fallen world we live in. It isn’t God meting out verdicts on who gets to live and who dies – it’s the result of others’ and our own agency, illness and accidents, and natural disasters within a fallen planet. (We speak of the Lord calling back specific people for work beyond the veil, which requires an eternal perspective that few firmly understand but accept on faith.)

    So my most recent personal conclusion is that I’m still on the fence, but accept the death penalty as an acceptable inevitability. I very, very rarely have ever encountered members of the church who “enthusiastically endorse” the death penalty, and maybe that’s a result of compassionate logic like yours, Derek. It’s rightfully a sensitive, nebulous topic. It’s when it’s not treated with the attention, thought and sensitivity that it deserves – on either side of the argument – that I really get irked.

  3. Dudley Sharp Says:

    “The Innocent Executed: Deception & Death Penalty Opponents”
    http://homicidesurvivors.com/2009/10/08/the-innocent-executed-deception–death-penalty-opponents–draft.aspx

    The 130 (now 139) death row “innocents” scam
    http://homicidesurvivors.com/2009/03/04/fact-checking-issues-on-innocence-and-the-death-penalty.aspx

    “The Exonerated: Are Any Actually Innocent?”
    http://homicidesurvivors.com/2006/08/21/the-exonerated-are-any-actually-innocent—new-mexico.aspx

    Sister Helen Prejean & the death penalty: A Critical Review”
    http://homicidesurvivors.com/2009/05/04/sister-helen-prejean–the-death-penalty-a-critical-review.aspx

    “At the Death House Door” Can Rev. Carroll Pickett be trusted?”
    http://homicidesurvivors.com/2009/01/30/fact-checking-is-very-welcome.aspx

    “The Death Penalty: More Protection for Innocents”
    http://homicidesurvivors.com/2009/07/05/the-death-penalty-more-protection-for-innocents.aspx

    “Cameron Todd Willingham: Another Media Meltdown”, A Collection of Articles
    http://homicidesurvivors.com/categories/Cameron%20Todd%20Willingham.aspx

    “A Death Penalty Red Herring: The Inanity and Hypocrisy of Perfection”, Lester Jackson Ph.D.,
    http://www.tcsdaily.com/article.aspx?id=102909A

  4. Dudley Sharp Says:

    All prospects of a negative outcome deter some. It is a truism. The death penalty, the most severe of criminal sanctions, is the least likely of all criminal sanctions to violate that truism.

    25 recent studies finding for deterrence, Criminal Justice Legal Foundation,
    http://www.cjlf.org/deathpenalty/DPDeterrence.htm

    “Deterrence and the Death Penalty: A Reply to Radelet and Lacock”
    http://homicidesurvivors.com/2009/07/02/deterrence-and-the-death-penalty-a-reply-to-radelet-and-lacock.aspx

    “Death Penalty, Deterrence & Murder Rates: Let’s be clear”
    http://prodpinnc.blogspot.com/2009/03/death-penalty-deterrence-murder-rates.html

    “The Death Penalty: More Protection for Innocents”
    http://homicidesurvivors.com/2009/07/05/the-death-penalty-more-protection-for-innocents.aspx

  5. Derek Says:

    Thanks for the thoughts, Wes. I guess you’ve been more fortunate than I: I’ve had a few conversations with people who think we should just string up any sex offenders, or who otherwise argue for more frequent and speedy executions.

    Interesting analogy to noncombatant deaths in war (I hate the military term “collateral damage,” and the way it attempts to downplay humanity). Yes, everyone understands that innocents will die in war, particularly in modern war with the incredibly powerful weapons now used. We accept that because, if the war is just, that war will accomplish something meaningful and positive: the repulsion of an invader, the liberation of some community, etc. That is the primary difference between war and capital punishment. Execution accomplishes nothing positive.

  6. Tio Jose Says:

    Derek, it’s interesting that your parents would have taught you that murder is unpardonable. The Book of Mormon states about as clearly as can be that there’s only one sin for which there is no forgiveness.

    From Alma 39:

    5 Know ye not, my son, that these things are an abomination in the sight of the Lord; yea, most abominable above all sins save it be the shedding of innocent blood or denying the Holy Ghost?
    6 For behold, if ye deny the Holy Ghost when it once has had place in you, and ye know that ye deny it, behold, this is a sin which is unpardonable; yea, and whosoever murdereth against the light and knowledge of God, it is not easy for him to obtain forgiveness; yea, I say unto you, my son, that it is not easy for him to obtain a forgiveness.

    http://scriptures.lds.org/en/alma/39

    Not easy … but possible.

  7. Derek Staffanson Says:

    My mistake, Tio, that was an editing error. I meant to say “murder approaches the one unpardonable sin.” Meaning that while the theoretical possibility existed that they might achieve forgiveness, the assumption is that murderers will not do so. You are correct, the scriptures definitely hold open that possibility, and I’m very cautious about eliminating their possibility to do so, even someone like Gardner.

    I’ll correct the mistake.

  8. BUD SIMMONS Says:

    As a former employee of the Department of Corrections in the midwest, I would say the death penalty has more to do with our own emotions and anger than it does with punishing the criminal or exacting justice for the victim or victims. Or then again with the illusion that the more executions the state carries out “The safer we will be.”
    one should take note that harsher penalties are always imposed around “Election time.”
    Life in prison without the possibility of parole makes for a harsh survival on a daily basis for anyone incarcerated. Perhaps the death penalty is a more humane means of punishment after all.

  9. Bob Manning Says:

    I’m lost by your invoking the Innocence Project in the case of Ronnie Lee Gardner. His murder in the courtroom had multiple witnesses. His victim that lived (Kirk) spent the rest of his life in pain and suffering and died from the effects of his injury earlier than he probably would have. In addition, Mr. Gardner confessed to the murder of the person for whom he was in the courtroom that day. There is no doubt about his guilt. Meanwhile, he has enjoyed 24 hour security, room and board, medical care, and high paid lawyers all at taxpayer expense for 25 years. … 25 years. It’s a shame on our system that this wasn’t taken care of 24 1/2 years ago. The death penalty for capital crimes should be administered swiftly in the case of immutable evidence and self confession. If it was, it would definitely be the deterrent that it now so miserably fails at being.

  10. Derek Staffanson Says:

    Bob, the post as a whole talks about the general issue of capital punishment. I use the example of Gardner only as a springboard to introduce the conversation. He was clearly guilty, and thus that portion of the argument does not apply to him.

  11. Wesley W Says:

    @Tio Jose and Derek:

    To quote Spencer W. Kimball in “Miracle of Forgiveness:”

    “As to crimes for which no adequate restoration is possible, I have suggested…that perhaps the reason murder is an unforgivable sin is that, once having taken a life – whether that life be innocent or reprobate – the life-taker cannot restore it. he may give his own life as payment, but this does not wholly undo the injure done by his crime. … Repentance in the ordinary sense seems futile.
    Murder is so treacherous and so far-reaching!… To take a life, whether someone else’s or one’s own, cuts off the victim’s experiences of mortality and thus his opportunity to repent, to keep God’s commandments in this earth life.”

    It is my understanding that Alma 39 refers to a possible forgiveness beyond the bounds of this earth life – after one “spend(s) a term in hell with the devil before being cleansed from sin” as President Joseph Fielding Smith put it in “Answers to Gospel Questions.” Consequently, I’ve viewed the term “unpardonable” in reference to murder as “as crime for which no adequate restoration is possible” and for which no forgiveness in this life can be attained. And even once a forgiveness is possible received, Elder McConkie taught that celestial salvation is not available to them – but I’m not sure how universal that teaching is, although I’m sure it would apply to the hearts and minds of most murderers.

    It’s within that understanding that I believe the death penalty can be a catalyst for some sort of post-moral penance process – almost a necessity for many murderers to ever have a chance at the kind of “possible forgiveness” that Alma teaches about in Alma 39.

  12. Derek Says:

    Wes, that opinion is one which is certainly shared by those who believe in the notion of “Blood Atonement,” a belief which Kimball seems to have shared. I’m much more skeptical. Blood Atonement has never made sense to me: why would the state execution of a person who may or may not be penitent in any way be a step in the penance process? Perhaps it would make some sense for the suicide of the murderer to be some start of the reconciliation process, since the murderer is voluntarily sacrificing their own life in an attempt to “pay” for that life they took–but then, that would seem to contradict the long-held position of the Church that suicide is itself sinful, wouldn’t it? No, I don’t think the Blood Atonement makes any sense.

    As to there being no adequate restoration, I think there are many sins aside from murder for which we cannot make adequate restoration. That’s why we need a Savior, isn’t it? Why make a special case for murder? Why not leave that up to God?

    In researching both statements of church authorities on the death penalty, as well as LDS material on David (in preparation for today’s lesson), I’m finding that there is more ambivalence in the Church regarding the potential for murderers to repent than I’d initially thought. Some church leaders, particularly in the first several decades of the restoration, clearly imply that there is no forgiveness for murder (for example, that David could not repent). Other statements by Church leaders insist that Christ’s atonement is there for all of us, no matter how far we fall. Since there is some ambiguity, I think it important to allow for the possibility of repentance rather than taking away any chance in the only life of which we know the conditions.

  13. Geoff @ A Says:

    Another aspect that concerns me is the consequence to the employees who carry out the shooting. How are they affected? Are they damaged or desensitized by participating?

    And the consequence to the community that supports a state sponsored murder. Is this a harder, happier, more or less tolerant place to live?

    I would suggest the death penalty is an indication of a less tolerant, society, but not a safer one for individuals or families, especially if they are not completely conventional/conservative.

  14. Aaron Orgill Says:

    I really wish I had seen this post sooner. I am very much in favor of the legality of capital punishment, but not of being trigger-happy (no pun intended), and believe it needs to be used with great caution, and it is obvious that is not always the case.

    I think you are correct in your belief that much of what we call justice is just prettying up an ugly act to convince others, and more importantly, ourselves, that we’re free of any hatred in our hearts. I know exactly what you are talking about when you refer to members who are WAAAAY overly enthusiastic in their bloodlust, often from those who are the most outwardly devout. And while I can’t speak for them, I imagine that much of their hatred is inflamed by some of the outlandish defenses and excuses used to get the condemned off the hook. We only need look back a few weeks to some of Gardner’s last-ditch attempts. I was on drugs… m’kay, that absolves you HOW, exactly? I need to be kept alive because I’m a great example of what NOT to do… huh? And most offensive, I’m going to do good by teaching kids how to garden, and name it after my victims… in what universe is that a good idea? The overall weakness of those pathetic pleas should make no difference on what we allow as a society, but even I wanted to tell Gardner to take his medicine like a man, and I feel I’m normally pretty even-keeled and meticulous in looking at different viewpoints in current events.

    This particular execution seems entirely appropriate after all malice and thoughts of revenge are purged. I truly hope that Gardner finds peace in the afterlife and receives the highest degree of glory. Logic dictates that he will have to suffer greatly and come to a full consciousness of what he has inflicted on others before that can happen, but I take no pleasure in any suffering beyond what it takes for him to repent, and I imagine that the Lord doesn’t either. Heaven knows I have my own Green Mile to walk. But in the end, I don’t believe his earthly demise diminishes our society. I hope that we will improve our methods and system to the point where we can say that truthfully about all death row prisoners.

  15. Loree Says:

    I think you are correct in your belief that much of what we call justice is just prettying up an ugly act to convince others, and more importantly, ourselves, that we’re free of any hatred in our hearts. I know exactly what you are talking about when you refer to members who are WAAAAY overly enthusiastic in their bloodlust, often from those who are the most outwardly devout. And while I can’t speak for them, I imagine that much of their hatred is inflamed by some of the outlandish defenses and excuses used to get the condemned off the hook. We only need look back a few weeks to some of Gardner’s last-ditch attempts. I was on drugs… m’kay, that absolves you HOW, exactly? I need to be kept alive because I’m a great example of what NOT to do… huh? And most offensive, I’m going to do good by teaching kids how to garden, and name it after my victims… in what universe is that a good idea? The overall weakness of those pathetic pleas should make no difference on what we allow as a society, but even I wanted to tell Gardner to take his medicine like a man, and I feel I’m normally pretty even-keeled and meticulous in looking at different viewpoints in current events.
    +1

  16. Sarah Chandler Says:

    Whenever this issue comes up I am reminded of the account of Cain in the Pearl of Great Price. Moses 5:40 reads, “And the Lord said unto him (Cain), Whosoever slayeth thee, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold. And I the Lord set a mark upon Cain, lest any finding him should kill him.” Why does the Lord preserve him? I don’t get the impression it is out of generosity or compassion or the promise of the atonement, rather, Cain is spared that his choices might be an everlasting testimony to his guilt. Whether you are of the mindset that these disgusting bastards deserve the worst or coming from a place of hope in humanity, this story leads one to believe that there is some value in letting time be the judge. At some point time will run out. Our perfect Savior and judge will provide a ruling and there will be no mistake.

  17. Bryon Says:

    I respect your opinions however, you all make it sound like these people didnt know the consequences to their actions. Thank goodness I’m not, but if I was ever insane enough to do the hideous crimes that are commited by some of these people. Do society a favor and give me the death penalty. This would be a way to atone for the crimes that have been commited. It is disturbing to have to take the life of a human being, but it is not 1 100th as disturbing as the crimes that they committ. Unfortunately we live in a society where people dont feel they need to be accountable for the choices they make. And by the way they did exercise the death penalty in the book of mormon remember nehor when he murdered Gideon (Alma chapter 1 verse 15.) I think the death penalty should be carefully, carefully considered, but I dont agree with doing away with it at all.

  18. ForesSimmons Says:

    The People of Ammon buried their swords and vowed not to even use them in self defense because it was “all they could do” to receive a forgiveness of their many murders which they had committed before hearing the gospel.

    Alma 24:11&12
    11 And now behold, my brethren, since it has been all that we could do, (as we were the most lost of all mankind) to repent of all our sins and the many murders which we have committed, and to get God to take them away from our hearts, for it was all we could do to repent sufficiently before God that he would take away our stain—
    12 Now, my best beloved brethren, since God hath taken away our stains, and our swords have become bright, then let us stain our swords no more with the blood of our brethren.

    I think that Pres. Kimball was talking about people sinning against greater light and knowledge than these Lamanites had when they committed their murders.

    But we are not the judges of how much light and knowledge is too much (except that we know our own is too much).

    Do mass murderers like Bush, Cheney, Kissinger, etc. have a chance for pardon? We cannot judge. Even they should not be executed, in my opinion. And if not they, then whom could we execute in good conscience?

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