With the conviction of Dylann Roof earlier this week we are moving on to the sentencing phase of the trial. (Scheduled to begin in January.) The only question remaining at this point is whether the killer will be put to death or thrown into a cell for the rest of his life with no chance of parole. I’ve weighed in on the subject in general here more than enough times, but suffice it to say that I still support the judicious use of capital punishment for the worst offenders when the evidence of their guilt is sufficiently clear.
Not so for Kathleen Parker in her recent op-ed at the WaPo. After reminding us of the parable of the sower, she concedes that if anyone should be deserving of death it’s Roof. He is, she acknowledges, the poster child for evil incarnate. But even with that admission, she’s left with doubts about slaying the monster.
Yet, execution would be the wrong sentence.
It is both too good for him and too awful for the rest of us.
As a general matter, I oppose the death penalty for reasons both moral and practical. The moral issues should be obvious: Not only do I, as a citizen, not want to be part of anyone’s murder, regardless of whether it’s state-sanctioned (maybe especially so), I can’t countenance anything less than a foolproof system.
This is the first part of Parker’s argument and I can’t say a single thing against it in terms of the moral issues she references. I know plenty of people who feel the same way because religious and/or moral impulses. While I may not agree, I most certainly must respect their position. I’m not onboard with the “foolproof system” part of it, but I’d like it to be as close to 100% accurate as possible. So I can see at least part of Kathleen’s point. But she then goes on to somewhat squeamishly admit that what she’s hoping to see in Roof’s future is something worse than death. (Emphasis in original)
Now, to the part I am loath to admit: Death is too easy.
There is in each of us a temptation to vengeance, and this is my confession. Somewhere deep inside my brain is a tiny cell where marauding angels (not the better sort) bicker and shout and curse the day. They sleep with spite and dream of malice, plotting revenge and delighting in the prospect of another’s suffering. Forgive me, Father, for I know exactly what I’m doing here.
I’m recommending that it’s better to condemn Roof to a lifetime of suffering than to end his miserable life. Easing him to eternal rest does nothing to heal the wounds he has inflicted. But ensuring that he has to live every day for the rest of his life with the same horror, pain and, eventually, perhaps even recognition of the sorrows he caused is the punishment I wish for him. Life in prison without possibility of parole is what he deserves.
Parker’s argument against the death penalty in general actually comes in two parts. One is the moral prohibition against taking a human life which I gave a nod to above. The other is her belief that it doesn’t act as a deterrent. She does at least agree with me that, if nothing else, it would be a 100% foolproof deterrent for Dylann Roof. But is it really useless in term of serving as a warning to others? I’ve seen some studies on the subject and remain unpersuaded. We can never actually know how many criminals out there who are guilty of some form of serious assault or an armed robbery briefly considered killing their victims so they couldn’t be identified but decided not to at the last moment because they didn’t want to see a months long stretch in a jail cell turn into a trip to the lethal injection chamber.
But returning to the morals clause of the debate, the author offers an interesting admission. The idea of locking someone up in small cell with only brief sojourns outside for the rest of their natural life may indeed be worse than death, at least for some people. Particularly in a case like this, where the criminal is in his twenties and might live six decades or more in that cell and could never safely be put out into the general prison population, it could prove exceedingly brutal. Is there something inherently more moral or Christian about wishing for such a sentence? It’s true that the Good Book says, thou shalt not kill. (Though many scholarly interpretations believe the original meaning was thou shalt not murder or take the life of another unjustly.) There aren’t too many clear cut entries in the Bible about locking up murderer and throwing away the key. But Parker’s assertion sounds correct. It might actually be worse than death.
So does that make it a “better” choice for the jury to give Roof life without parole? Is it the more Christian thing to do? If I was smart enough to answer that one I’d probably have a job at the Vatican so I’m afraid you’re on your own with this. As for me, I still say we should put the beast down and be done with it.