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.