Thursday, March 8, 2007

Death Penalty

John Couey was convicted in Florida yesterday of a horrible crime of child rape and murder. The next phase is the sentencing.

Jeffrey Toobin, the CNN legal analyst, observed that the prosecution has an easy argument in asking the jury to impose death by simply saying "If the death penalty is ever justified, it is surely justified in this case." I don't believe the death penalty is ever justified, and my problem with the death penalty is hidden within Toobin's question.

Because Couey's crimes are so disgusting, so beyond the boundaries of moral society, surely if any criminal deserves execution, and we have executed criminals who have commited less, then Couey deserves execution. But whether a criminal deserves to be executed for their crime is not the relevant question in the death penalty. We can discuss in specific cases whether one crime is more or less severe, or severe enough to deserve death. But the answer to that question doesn't matter. What matters is the answer to the question, "Who do we want to be as a people, as a moral society?"

Couey's crimes certainly deserve the harshest penalty our society can impose. The factor that makes the death penalty never appropriate is not that criminals haven't commited sufficiently horrifying crimes, they do, Couey did. The death penalty is never appropriate because the people who would do the executing, you and me, cannot carry out a death sentence without unacceptably compromising our own morality. It is the nature of our actions, not the nature of Couey's actions that must be examined here and in all death penalty cases.

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