On July 23, 2007, in the idyllic Connecticut town of Cheshire, a home-invasion turned into a triple murder. The perpetrators entered the house of Jennifer Hawke-Petit and William Petit, a local doctor, and hit Dr. Petit with a baseball bat, rendering him unconscious. Dr. Petit was then tied up at gunpoint in the basement. The perpetrators continued through the house, finding the other three members of the family and binding them in their rooms. As the night dragged on, the perpetrators became increasingly violent with the family, raping the 11 year old Michaela as well as their mother. Dr. Petit managed to escape with life-threatening injuries but was unable to save his family. The three remaining members of the family were tied up and left with pillowcases over their heads as the house was set ablaze so the perpetrators could flee the scene.
I start my opinion piece on the death penalty with this horrific crime because it helps put into perspective the crimes that we’re dealing with when we talk about the death penalty. Capital punishment is a controversial topic and is often thought about in vague abstractions about human rights and the sanctity of life, but it’s important to remember that we’re dealing with real people who have died at the hands of truly awful human beings.
When we argue about the morality of the death penalty—we’re talking about cases like this: is it logical to argue that people who plan out a number of murders and execute those plans in a truly evil way, that they don’t deserve the harshest punishment possible? There are many arguments against capital punishment, and one of them is that death isn’t the harshest punishment possible in our justice system. Instead, they argue, people like this should be sentenced to life in prison and be forced to spend the remainder of their life having the feeling of guilt eat them alive as they contemplate what they’ve done. I disagree.
First of all, can we expect that somebody who had no problem planning a murder, and then carried it out in an extremely evil way would be able to feel enough remorse for it to be a punishment? No. Another common argument against the death penalty is that no human has the right to kill another person, unless it’s for self-defense. I will agree with this; however, the death penalty is not just some person killing a murderer because they want to, it is a society killing a murderer as a punishment.
There are some collective rights that are not possessed by individuals—for example, the right to imprison somebody as a punishment is a collective right that an individual person does not have. If you found somebody that was stealing from your car, then you locked them in your basement for three years with food and water, you would definitely be arrested. Why? Isn’t that what prison is?
It’s because, while any random person doesn’t have the right to lock somebody up as a punishment, a society does. This is the same for capital punishment. I can’t kill somebody because they killed my friend, for example, but society can. And so long as the methods that determine somebody’s guilt or innocence are fair, then capital punishment is a fair punishment for somebody who deserves it.
And if the methods that determine somebody’s guilt or innocence are fair, and there is always room for improvement, that’s not something that stopping executions will help; rather, changes need to be made to the court system.
In addition, it’s not like criminals who commit these crimes are unaware of the consequences of their actions; they’re adults who decided, ahead of time, to kill somebody. They know that they could face the death penalty if they live in a state where it’s legal. To a certain degree, by continuing to live in a state/jurisdiction where the death penalty is legal, AND killing somebody, they’ve agreed that capital punishment can be used against them. By living in a certain society, one signs a certain type of contract with society. They will get benefits, but they will have to sacrifice some of their personal freedoms to enjoy the safety that their society provides. In many cases, this includes the death penalty, not something that the government is forcing upon people, rather, a natural consequence of decisions that criminals made for themselves.
I hope I’ve managed to convince you about how executing somebody can, in fact, be the moral thing to do under certain circumstances, and that the death penalty should continue to be legal in the US.