This past Tuesday, July 14th, at 8:07 a.m., Daniel Lewis Lee was the victim of the first federal execution in 17 years. Lee, a self-proclaimed white supremacist, was sentenced to death after murdering the Mueller family in 1996. According to Newsweek, Lee’s intention while killing the Mueller family in Arkansas was to steal their guns and money and to ultimately to develop a “whites-only enclave in the Pacific Northwest”. Three years later, in 1999, Lee was convicted of multiple offences, including the murders, and was sentenced to death scheduled for July 13th, 2020. However, his death did not take place until July 14th, 2020 due to legal challenges. In Lee’s case, the death penalty was inflicted 21 years after his initial sentence.
Although what Lee did was despicable and he undoubtedly should have been punished to great lengths, the use of capital punishment should not be justified in the United States legal system. The death penalty regularly violates consistent life ethics which call people to maintain that all human beings are equally deserving of life at all stages and under any circumstance.
Not only is the death penalty an unjust punishment, I would argue that it is not a punishment at all. In fact, it takes away punishment. With a simple lethal injection, a criminal’s life ends along with their punishment of any worldly suffering. If the legal system wants to inflict punishment, taking a criminal’s life is not the way to do it.
This prompts the questions, why do we use punishment in the first place? What is the purpose of punishment? The purpose of punishment is education. When a driver runs a red light, a cop can pull them over and give them a fine. That fine is a punishment that seeks to teach the driver to be more careful in his driving. In extreme cases, when someone is a murderer or a drug trafficker, prison is used as a punishment to teach them that illegal actions are wrong a not to be tolerated within society. Further, prison is used to keep criminals from potentially harming the public further.
The end goal of teaching through punishment is to motivate personal growth and understanding within criminals. It is an opportunity for criminals to recognize their faults and change their ways in the future, even if they are incarcerated for life. That is why we have prison psychologists, psychiatrists and prison ministry programs who aim to rehabilitate criminals. Ultimately, the United States wants its citizens to thrive and prosper together societally and that is why there is a legal system with punishments for those who act in violation.
The death penalty, on the other hand, does not allow for criminals to thrive and prosper. As Americans, we want our fellow citizens to become the best version of themselves. Taking a human life via federal execution is, by far, the ultimate hopeless action in regards to dealing with a criminal. In exercising capital punishment, we dehumanize criminals by saying that there can be no restitution for their mistakes and we label them as hopeless cases. As Americans, we should strive to help all citizens, especially criminals, so that they can reach their best potential as human beings. We need not respect their actions, but we must to respect their human dignity and recognize that people can change and experience forms of conversion.
Many people in the world perceive proper justice as taking an “eye for an eye.” In the case of murder, it is understandable why people would want the murderer to die as well. It seems only fair. However, executing the murderer only affirms other murderous people in their devaluing of human life. Granted, the motivations of a murderer and an executioner are different. However, a murderer and an executioner both act contrary to upholding the dignity of human life. Further, executing a murderer does nothing to bring back the lives of the murder victims. Instead, it permanently ends all hope of redemption for the criminal, and the potential for a genuine apology and personal amends for the families of the victims. Rehumanize International, a secular pro-life organization, practices consistent life ethics to seek a form of restorative justice instead of the death penalty and holds that, “a system of justice ought to be based in the inherent dignity of the human person – the dignity of both the offender and the offended. We should seek a model that makes amends and seeks to generate positive outcomes rather than preferring to ensure a balance of harm.” This form of punishment allows for goodness to come out of evil perpetrated by the criminal. The death penalty does the exact opposite by permanently ending all possibility of reparation and healing between the criminal and his victims.
I think that I speak for most people when I say that it is terribly sad that murders occur in our world. Further, I think that most people would agree that murderers are mentally unstable people in dire need of help. In fact, The Atlantic published an article in support of abolishing the death penalty as it affects criminals who have acted out due to their extreme mental illness. The article, entitled, “Are All Murderers Mentally Ill?” defense attorney, Elaine Whitfield Sharp, argues that murderers are mentally unstable and need help rather than a death sentence saying, “You see, I truly believe that murderers are mentally ill. Their brains don’t work like the rest of ours do. To deliberately kill someone requires crossing a profound boundary. Most of us couldn’t do it. We couldn’t even think about it. But they can. They do. Why? Because they’re mentally ill. And fundamentally, as a society, I believe it is barbaric to kill people who are ill.” Sharp’s statement upholds human dignity over misconduct. It is a call to love our fellow man and respect their human dignity by means of helping them to respect human dignity in return, whether that be through imprisonment or psychological aid or rehabilitation. In order to uphold human dignity, we must not give up hope and must work to help incarcerated people with extreme mental illness, not kill them for actions caused by an illness that requires treatment.
Upholding human dignity includes advocating for the mentally ill so that they can receive the help that they need instead of death. To deem someone as a lost cause and choose to kill them is an incredibly hopeless act that devalues human life due to their misdeeds. It is obvious these criminals need help, and because they are human and have invaluable worth, they deserve to be helped humanely. Killing criminals, especially when they are no longer in a position to perpetrate crimes, is an act of abandonment.
I understand that crimes still occur in prisons, especially when prisoners are killed in prison fights. However, that is why there are prisons specifically designated to keep actively dangerous criminals from other inmates. I understand that heavily guarded prisons may be more expensive. However, spending money on human lives that can be helped is worth the cost. When there are other methods to control criminals that do not involve execution, the cost should not even be a question. In fact, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops stated, “When the state, in our names and with our taxes, ends a human life despite having non-lethal alternatives, it suggests that society can overcome violence with violence. The use of the death penalty ought to be abandoned not only for what it does to those who are executed, but for what it does to all of society.” Violence can never overcome violence. It is impossible and only further perpetuates a devaluing of human life. Further, tax paying dollars could be better allocated to pay for special guardiancy and rehabilitation for the criminals rather than used for their useless deaths.
From a secular position, life is invaluable because it is the only chance a person will have to live. The United States of America should advocate for all citizens to live good lives, incarcerated or free. Capital punishment legitimizes the use of violence as punishment for violence in our society.
From a Christian perspective, we should be tending to these criminals and not ending their life before they can make amends spiritually. In good faith, we should not kill a human being if there is the potential for him to repent and turn to God.
The only way the death penalty can be justified is in the event that killing a criminal is the only way to protect yourself and others. In that instance, the killing would be in self-defense and would be aimed to preserve life. The intention would not be to kill a criminal for the sake of killing, but for the sake of saving lives.
In Lee’s case, I have yet to see any news articles expressing how he was a particularly dangerous man within the prison system. Further, the fact that his death was scheduled for 21 years after his initial sentence shows that there must not have been an immediate or emergency need for his death.
While Daniel Lewis Lee’s crimes were heinous and he deserved strict punishment, his life still had value. A person’s past mistakes, regardless of their extremity, does not alter their worth. While they may need strict punishment, guidance, and psychological aid, their life can be brought back to goodness. The death penalty destroys hope for a person to amend their life.