Capital Punishment Background
Over the course of the 20th century, almost every industrialized nation has abandoned capital punishment except the US. This arguably points to the conclusion the rest of the western world has taken the moral high road. Meanwhile, the US remains relatively barbaric. “Besides”, we are told over and over, “there is no conclusive evidence that capital punishment (also known popularly as the death penalty) deters murder.” The Christian political activist might address the issue in the following way. (For an extensive review of the current status of the death penalty in the US, click here)
The law of Moses provides the first Scriptural basis for the execution of the convicted person in cases of premeditated murder. The fact that the victim bore the image of God forms the bedrock of this particular law. Further, the doctrine of a human being bears the image of God continues in the New Testament. The Scriptural teaching re the image of God in humanity means all humans have equal rights (Gen. 1:27 –31, Acts 17:26, Gal 3:28). If, as we believe, the image of God in humanity is the ground for equal rights, then how can we ignore it when seeking a Biblical understanding of the issues surrounding first degree murder?
The Need for Deterrence?
I know someone will say that capital punishment deters other would be murderers. However, so long as this doctrine is the basis for capital punishment, the deterrence argument need not be raised. The image of God in humanity makes the reason for execution that this is what the murderer deserves. The wonder of the image of God in human beings will best deter others from premeditated killing.
How do we explain the fact that so many nations have abandoned capital punishment? In my opinion, this change demonstrates just one of many shifts among western nations away from broadly biblical assumptions for democracy to broadly humanistic ones. Where God’s Kingdom that is not the highest value, some single aspect of human nature asserts itself. Humanism urges the acceptance of the teaching regarding the greatest good. The single aspect of a human being could be such as rationality, feeling, or will. The problem arises that there is no higher value than human life and execution is itself just another crime.
Whose Life Is Worth More?
Some version of the humanist creed also seems to underlie the compromise view about capital punishment now popular in the US. The compromise urges the avoidance of a death sentence. Humanism reaches a striking conclusion. The argument revolves around who or how many
victims there are. This criterion will or will not warrant the use of the death penalty. On this view, the death penalty is deserved, say, if the Pope or the President or 25 people were murdered. One ordinary person? Then no.
The humanist creed asserts that many victims or a famous victim “contained” more of whatever human quality is being regarded as the highest value. Then the wrong involved in taking the murderer’s life is outweighed on the justice scales by the greater wrong committed by his crime. From the biblical view, however, there are no degrees of being in God’s image; each human life has equal value and should enjoy equal protection. The premeditated destruction of any person should be equally punished. That holds no matter whether it was one person or many, the President or a homeless street person. (These thoughts and more are found here.)
Perhaps you agree with all I’ve said so far. But you would still object that the danger of executing the wrong person outweighs all else. This is a serious point. It focuses our thoughts on the need for new safeguards in our justice system.
Presently a death sentence carries an automatic appeal so that a higher court can review the case to make sure there were no errors in legal procedure at the trial. That is not enough.
The first thing we need to add is a review of the facts and evidence. A review board formed in every public defenders’ office (but not limited to only cases defended by that office) will do the review. Evidence tainted by illegal means will not stand in review. I judge this evidential review is as necessary as to catch unfair trial procedures.
Secondly, we need to impose this penalty only when the evidence is not merely “beyond a reasonable doubt.” It must be beyond all doubt. And there are such cases. The evidence is some cases is irrefutable. These are cases where a defendant is caught on sound, color, videotape, has the victim’s blood on him, and/or is caught in the act. According to this proposal, when the evidence is anything less than completely certain, the sentence may be for life, but the death penalty should not be allowed.