In the last few months there have been a few death penalty executions. Most notably the D.C. Sniper was executed on November 10, 2009. Since that time I have been thinking about the death penalty. I have discussed it on Twitter and in real life.
The last unit of our Criminal Law course was the Death Penalty. Professor Levenson asked for volunteers to argue for and against the death penal. Normally, I don’t jump at opportunities like this, I prefer to watch and observe other students try to make coherent arguments in front of their skeptical peers… Yet, my had shot up. It was almost involuntary. And I found myself on the side representing “against” the Death Penalty.
There were three of us and we split duties. I chose to make the moral argument against the death penalty. What follows was my basic argument.
In the USA, murder is against the law. One citizen may not take the life of another. This is a good law and is a basic law in any civilized country. The law is based upon our sense of morality. That means that the starting point when thinking about the morality of taking another’s life is, that it is immoral.
Of course there are exceptions. One who fears for his life may defend his life and is justified in killing his would-be murderer. This is called self-defense.
The application of this defense is very specific. There are other defenses or justifications to First Degree Murder but none will serve as a complete defense, they will only mitigate the charge or perhaps affect the sentencing. In other words, taking the life of another is never completely justified unless it to save one’s own life.
There should be no exception for the government. The State and Federal Governments have a duty to observe the same laws of morality the citizens must observe. The only moral excuse for killing is in self defense. Self defense can only be argued when the danger is imminent. Once a murderer is apprehended and incarcerated there is no self defense excuse. An incarcerated prisoner poses no imminent danger, thus the taking of his or her life is by definition immoral.
We are not bound to punish criminals by the same heinous acts they committed. The law of our country does not hold lex talionis. We don’t punish a criminal with the same act he criminally committed. We shudder at the thought of torturing a torturer or raping a rapist or battering a batterer, how could we be so callous about taking the life of a killer.
We have no moral ground to stand on if we take the life of a murderer. Taking the life of a killer simply turns us into murderers.