What are your first thoughts when you read or hear that an innocent person has lost their life in a horrific and calculated act of murder?
Even typing the question feels mildly ridiculous. Within most of us, the desire for justice burns.
But for others, it’s not the terror inflicted upon innocent victims that inspires the greatest feeling. Of primary importance, they insist, are the rights of the murderers themselves.
The self-righteous ferocity with which the commentariat oppose any suggestion of a return to capital punishment is unrivalled in its intensity. Perhaps this is unsurprising. Easy for the wealthy, so keen to banish ‘distant death’ from their consciousness, to scoff at the ‘vulgar sadism’ of state execution.
Still, opposition to the death penalty goes beyond detached liberal elites. Many decent people have legitimate reservations. Last year, Pope Frances broke with two millennia of Roman Catholic teaching, to express his belief that capital punishment constitutes: ‘An attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person’.
In order to reaffirm the moral foundations of the death penalty, it is crucial to clarify exactly what justice is and is not.
Since the beginning of time, justice has been defined as retribution. Not to be confused with revenge – driven by personal malice – retribution is the innate understanding that it is right to punish an individual in fair proportion to the crime they have committed. Our instinctive longing to see wrongs made right can be traced back to our earliest days. Even the youngest child recognises that the schoolyard bully should be held to account.
When the primary objective of punishment ceases to be retribution and becomes the achievement of a wider sociological goal, perhaps rehabilitation or deterrence, it is no longer fundamental that a sentence is just. For instance, should we decide that deterrence is of primary importance, it would be legitimate to punish an innocent man, so long as society believes him to be guilty.
For the most horrific and detrimental crimes, only the execution of the perpetrator is sufficient retribution. Thus, nothing less can be considered just.
Whilst retribution is paramount, the State is also responsible for the protection of its citizens, an endeavour that is proving increasingly difficult. Nations that allow dangerous murderers to live, create potential victims both inside and outside of prison. Since the abolition of capital punishment in the West, numerous killers have taken further life following their initial conviction for murder.
Of course, the rehabilitation of offenders is a noble objective and there is a strong case to be made for sending fewer people to prison, focusing instead on restorative reconciliation with victims and structured reintroduction into the community. However, if a collective is to survive, there is surely a point at which it must permanently remove an individual.
Two legitimate challenges to the validity of the death penalty persist. Firstly, although the case for capital punishment as an effective deterrent is strong, it remains inconclusive. Nonetheless, as already noted, deterrence can be no more than a secondary consideration.
More important, is the danger that an innocent will be wrongly put to death. While highly unlikely, it does remain a troubling possibility. However, if infallibility is to be our measure of institutional legitimacy, societal paralysis awaits. Rigorous precautions can ensure incorrect execution is all but impossible, with the death penalty available only in cases in which evidence is diverse and overwhelming. The accused must be convicted by a unanimous jury of their peers and their conviction open to repeated appeal.
As for the charge that support for capital punishment is incompatible with the pro-life movement and Christian faith – how convincing is our reverence for the sanctity of life if we allow those who desecrate and steal the lives of others to continue living themselves? Only the disturbed or dishonest would insinuate the life of a despicable murderer is equivalent to that of an unborn child.
Biblically, room is left for individual interpretation. On the one hand, Jesus pardoned the woman destined to be stoned for adultery (John 8:1-11). His own execution, history’s most unjust.
On the other, in all three gospel accounts in which Jesus refers to the Sixth Commandment: ‘Thou shall not murder’, he uses the Greek/Hebrew word for murder, rather than the distinct word for killing. In addition, Paul clearly justifies the state’s use of ‘the sword’ in punishment (Romans 13: 3-5). Central to Christian scripture is the teaching that God’s love and mercy is only possible because Jesus shouldered the necessary punishment for the sin of humanity.
Justice has always been a romantic and valuable manifestation of community involvement. Should the liberal judiciary persist with their inexplicably lenient sentencing, ordinary people will feel compelled to reclaim the law for their own hands.
For the vast majority, capital punishment isn’t motivated by lustful revenge, but by a desire to protect the gentle and kind amongst us, punish heinous criminals in just proportion to the severity of their crime, and dramatically reaffirm objective moral truth.
It’s time we brought it back.
David Sergeant is a Conservative researcher in the UK House of Commons.