On July 25, the United States Attorney General announced that the federal government would once again practice capital punishment in relation to five death-row inmates convicted of murder, torture and rape of children and the elderly. The executions, scheduled for December and January, are the first to be carried out by the federal government since 2003.
There is no doubt that the crimes committed by these individuals are objectively heinous, and deserve to be punished to the fullest extent of the law. But that leads to the question: Should the system allow for such an extreme and brutal sentence? To some, the answer is a clear “yes.” After all, why should we go easy on perpetrators who so viciously hurt the most innocent groups among us? It seems like a logical conclusion: a literal “taste of their own medicine” form of justice. However, I would argue that capital punishment is not true justice and is not just morally wrong, but is unconstitutional.
First, let’s examine what hints the Constitution might offer. The Eighth Amendment in the U.S. Constitution states that “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” This ultimately begs the question: What is more cruel and unusual than state-sponsored killings? When I hear the phrase “cruel and unusual,” images of 18th century France and the guillotine bubble into my mind, where citizens were beheaded in the thousands in a period that came to be known as La Terreur (scarily enough, the guillotine was not outlawed in France until 1981 when the country abolished the use of capital punishment).
The vagueness of the clause in the Bill of Rights was written that way on purpose — “cruel and unusual” is inherently subjective, and is meant to adapt to society’s progression. It is the same reason the wording states limits on “excessive bail” as opposed to a specific dollar amount: The framers understood that inflation changes over time and that it should be at the discretion of the system to determine what constitutes excessive at the time of sentencing. Whether or not one feels capital punishment is “unususal,” it ought to fall under the “cruel” category, as executions have been proven to be excruciatingly painful, and often go botched. Many legal scholars disagree that it violates the Eighth Amendment, and both state and federal courts have had differing decisions regarding appeals. I am by no means a constitutional expert, and thus am willing to concede that this argument may lean on a simple side.
But beyond how one interprets the constitution, capital punishment is, in my opinion, ethically and morally wrong. The decision to sentence someone to death is an independent one; regardless of what crimes they committed. At the end of the day, no matter how evil the felon or how depraved their acts, no punishment can bring back the deceased or undo the wrongdoings. At the end of the day, we are choosing to kill them from our own hate, not from any notion of justice; it becomes an exercise of our own cruelty.
Let’s consider the argument that it is fair simply by way of it being reserved for only those who commit the most extreme atrocities, and therefore is neither cruel nor unusual. This philosophy makes us no better than the guilty parties. I empathize with victims, and understand why some feel it is fair by way of “eye for an eye.” Yet, we established our criminal justice system with ideals based in fairness and justice — the very reason that Lady Justice is blind and holds a sword in one hand and a scale in the other. Despite the countless shortfalls of the system to operate how it is meant to, that does not mean we shouldn’t strive for more. We need to rise above, not sink to a lower level.
It is also worth mentioning the statistics and data that point to capital punishment being unnecessary. A recent study in Louisiana showed that the state spends an extra $15 million more per year than it would in a system with life without parole as the maximum sentence. In Tennessee, one report found that capital punishment trials cost 50 percent more than life-sentencing trials. If you are unconvinced that the death penalty is morally wrong, then statistics such as these ought to show what a massive burden it is on our criminal justice system. Most states’ criminal justice systems are severely underfunded; imagine the benefits of directing these funds elsewhere. Additionally, previous biases within the criminal justice system that disproportionately target minorities is an important concern to raise. According to an article from NPR, 41.7 percent of death row inmates are Black, despite Black people making up 13.1 percent of the total U.S. population in 2014.
Thankfully in Michigan we don’t practice capital punishment at the state level (interestingly enough, Michigan became the first state to abolish the death penalty all the way back in 1846, and has never sentenced anyone to death since becoming an official state). All in all, the question of whether or not to employ capital punishment is an existential one. Tragically, we live in a world where bad things happen. The dark reality is that humans are capable of some truly horrific acts, and that is unlikely to ever change. But we have agency in how we collectively respond to the face of evil. It forces us to confront the dark parts of ourselves and ask who we are, and who we want to be.
Timothy Spurlin is a Summer Senior Opinion Editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.