Death be not proud: the opening words to Holy Sonnet X by the English poet John Donne (1572-1631) are generally interpreted by literary scholars as a prelude to the balance of the sonnet’s theme, asserting that death is truly powerless in the affairs of humans. Having given Death a persona, Donne challenges it: Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men.
Proposed inmate executions for capital offenses are often rationalized by officials as necessary to “bring closure,” “fairness to the victim and family,” or “society owes it to the rule of law.” These sentiments were spoken by the US Attorney General. William Barr, recently, and reported in The New York Times:
There are people who would say these kinds of delays [in carrying out executions] are not fair to the victims…. The Justice Department upholds the rule of law and we owe it to the victims and their families to carry forward the sentence imposed by our legal system.
The question arises as to how the execution of one human being is fair to another. In a moral and philosophical sense, it seems nonsensical. No matter how brutal or unforgiving the circumstances of the crime might be, the taking of another’s life as a matter of justice or fairness seems out of proportion. And what does it say about our moral judgment that the taking of life is so heinous . . . that we, the state, must also take a life? And certainly, rehabilitation is out of the formula and a life sentence in prison precludes commission of subsequent capital crimes.
Another question arises as to whether the employment of the death penalty functions to satisfy any social or criminal justice goal at all. A review of the legal and legislative history of the practice presents a picture of, at least, ambiguity about its role in our culture.
In 1972 (Furman v. Georgia), the Supreme Court found the death penalty to violate the “cruel and unusual” clause of the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution because the state acted “arbitrarily and capriciously” in its application, especially with respect to the race of defendants. The practice was reinstated in 1976 as the Court found that the states had made substantial progress in improving jury standards and sentencing guidelines. In 1988, the high courts outlawed the execution of offenders under the age of 16. In 2002, it banned the execution of mentally retarded inmates. And in 2005, the age ban was increased to 18 years.
Over the course of this same period, 21 states have rescinded the death penalty, although with some exceptions, such as the killing of a law enforcement officer. And the current President has said that drug dealers should be executed. At the same time, lower federal courts have been far more responsive and sensitive to death penalty appeals, including claims of innocence, defective counsel, and painful use of lethal drugs, among others. Until 2018, when AG Barr ordered the Department of Justice to resume use of the death penalty, only three inmates had been executed since 1988.
What emerges is that from a legal perspective, the role of the death penalty has no clear set of criteria for its application, which opens to further inquiry as to whether it is “fair” or offers “closure” to victims and families.
What emerges is that from a legal perspective, the role of the death penalty has no clear set of criteria for its application, which opens to further inquiry as to whether it is “fair” or offers “closure” to victims and families. At present, there is a serious movement in Virginia to ban the death penalty. An appeal to the Commonwealth’s legislature was recently made public:
The daughter of Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office Cpl. Eric Sutphin, shot to death in 2006 by William C. Morva, urged lawmakers to end capital punishment in Virginia. “It is time for the death penalty to be abolished in order to better care for the victim’s family members, to better serve the public good, and to protect human life.”
Despite the appeal of the victim’s daughter, Morva was executed in 2017. In a testimonial, Cpl. Sutpin’s daughter wrote:
I mourn my father and Morva because I believe in the sanctity of all human life, regardless of criminal record. My faith teaches that we are required to pursue all lawful endeavors to preserve one’s own life and the lives of others. I long for the day when the government stops killing its own people in the name of justice. True justice does not deny human rights. True justice takes all lawful measures to preserve life. May justice come and bring healing to the families of the victims and perpetrators alike.
The Commonwealth was the first to execute an offender, in 1608, and has put to death 1,300 persons in its history, ranking high among the 50 states for women and youth.
According to the advocacy group Virginians For Alternatives to the Death Penalty, the Commonwealth was the first to execute an offender, in 1608, and has put to death 1,300 persons in its history, ranking high among the 50 states for women and youth. At present, there are three individuals on death row in Virginia.
Most remember the cold-blooded, horrific shooting in June 2015 of nine worshipers in a South Carolina church by then-21-year-old Dylan Roof. It’s likely that not as many recall that the killer was forgiven for his acts by the family members of the victims. Nonetheless, then-Governor Nikki Haley called for the death penalty.
These two examples, along with the unpredictability expressed in the nation’s legal system, strongly suggest that the objectives of official government leaders is not consonant with either the reality of the death penalty or the views of victims and their families. In addition, 150 death row sentences since 1973 have been reversed, in many cases due to advances in DNA evidence examination. This fact highlights the uncertainty that marks the procedure. As a society that often publicly practices extraordinary means to preserve or save lives, this aspect echoes a call for caution. And the racial bias in the nation’s legal and criminal justice systems has been clearly documented, from stop-question-and-frisk to cash bail to prison populations, adding yet another aspect to the uncertainty about the ultimate penalty’s purpose.
The caution signs are clear that we owe ourselves the duty to take a longer and harder look at the death penalty, and whether it actually meets a societal need and whether it, in fact, brings closure or fairness to victims and their families. After all, the worst we might find is that the death penalty is unnecessary. Otherwise, we proceed along a course that Donne described as slaves to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men.