Attorney Gen. William Barr’s announcement that the federal government will resume capital punishment is good news for a rule of law under assault in America, rightly ending former President Barack Obama’s unwisely compassionate suspension of federal capital punishment.
That’s no bloodthirsty cheer for terminal public retribution — the immediate impact of which being that five death-row convicts are now scheduled for execution. There is no joy in that.
Rather, it’s a reluctant recognition that life imprisonment (and the early release that sometimes follows) is an inadequate substitute for ending the lives of those who savagely take others’ lives.
Allowing the government — state or federal — to kill killers always runs the risk that juries will err. Ditto the risk of prosecutors confusing justice with their own advancement.
The state’s obligation to avenge murder by offing the murderer has always outweighed concerns that the government might mistakenly whack the wrong person — a risk far greater in the pre-DNA era.
However unpleasant a way for civilized society demonstrate its civility, death as punishment for heinous crimes was and is necessary to keep vigilante justice locked in the dustbin of our early, occasionally inglorious history.
Legally icing really bad actors is necessary to preserve the body politic’s belief in the rule of law and essential for mainlining our commitment to that rule of law.
That commitment strengthens every time we see governments and the people in their capacity as jurors apply justice without fear or favor.
Sometimes it goes awry. Perfection in governance by humans was never a fantasy that the founders chased.
Compassionate opponents of capital punishment forever argue that the evidence for the death penalty as a deterrent is ambiguous. That’s because it is.
But whether a deterrent or not, a life for a life may provide the only requisite moral and ethical compensation to victims’ survivors, their friends, neighbors and the public at large.
It is at the same time an issue that claws at the conscience of people of all political persuasions.
“This is something that I’ve struggled with for quite some time,” Mr. Obama said in 2015. “There are certain crimes that are so beyond the pale that I understand society’s need to express its outrage. I’ve not been opposed to the death penalty in theory, but in practice it’s deeply troubling.”
Whether in his heart of hearts Mr. Barr finds legal execution troubling, he’s all in for applying it to humankind’s worst iterations.
“Under administrations of both parties, the Department of Justice has sought the death penalty against the worst criminals. The Justice Department upholds the rule of law — and we owe it to the victims and their families to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system,” he said Thursday.
Here’s what two of the five now scheduled for execution did to earn their places on federal prisons’ death row (the others are just as horrifying):
⦁ Convicted of fatally stabbing a 63-year-old grandmother, Lezmond Mitchell then forced “her nine-year-old granddaughter to sit beside her lifeless body for a 30 to 40-mile drive,” according to the Justice Department’s statement. “Mitchell then slit the girl’s throat twice, crushed her head with 20-pound rocks, and severed and buried both victims’ heads and hands.”
⦁ A jury found self-proclaimed white supremacist Daniel Lewis Lee guilty in May 1999 of murdering an 8-year-old girl and two others in her family. The Justice Department described the crimes this way: “After robbing and shooting the victims with a stun gun, Lee covered their heads with plastic bags, sealed the bags with duct tape, weighed down each victim with rocks, and threw the family of three into the Illinois bayou.”
Some conservative evangelicals like former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and some Republican lawmakers strive to kill the ultimate penalty. Twenty-seven GOP state legislators from across the United States have sponsored anti-death penalty bills.
Libertarian and former U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, once a death-penalty supporter, switched after leaving office. “I believe that support for the death penalty is inconsistent with libertarianism and traditional conservatism,” Mr. Paul said in 2013.
D.C. and 20 states have slammed the cell door on the death penalty.
This is no easy problem. Self-evident truths: People wrongly jailed can be freed; people wrongly executed can’t be brought back to life.
So, yeah, we get it. It really is a matter of life and death.
The heinousness of the crimes for which juries convict and sentence people to death again outweighs the natural desire for compassion — at least for most of us.
The changing moral compass of America and the Western world on this issue has something to do with an unsteady, unreassuring trend.
How do partisans in America look at the death penalty? Pretty much as they look at lawlessness, the claimed existence of white privilege and the inclination to blame America first.
Looking at it by party affiliation, about three-quarters of Republicans (77 percent) favor the death penalty, compared with 52 percent of independents and 35 percent of Democrats, a Pew study found.
Last year 54 percent of Americans favored the death penalty, down from in 64 percent in 2007, Pew reported.
After the mass murder last year at a Pittsburgh synagogue, Mr. Trump called for the execution of Robert Bowers, who faces trial in the killings. “When you have crimes like this … we have to bring back the death penalty. They have to pay the ultimate price,” he said.
Most of America still agrees.
So it is with gratitude but not glee, I say to that, “Deo gratias.” (Latin for “deo gratias.”)
Copyright © 2021 The Washington Times, LLC.