The Death Penalty as Assisted Suicide

The Death Penalty as Assisted Suicide December 18, 2014

We are told that the death penalty (which we celebrate by conducting in total secrecy) is supposed to be a deterrent.  We are also told that as prolife Christians, we are supposed to be opposed to assisted suicide.

So what do “prolife” death penalty advocates make of a case where the reason a man killed two people was in order to obtain the death penalty?  Here, the death penalty was an incentive to kill, so that we could assist in the murderer’s chosen form of suicide.

Dear anti-abortion-but-not-prolife advocate.  Be consistent.  Stop striving to maximize the death toll for your preferred victims. Abolish abortion *and* the death penalty.

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  • Rob B.

    I’ve often wondered why modern executions are conducted in secrecy. If you’re going to deter crimes in this fashion, then why hide it from the world?

    • D.T. McCameron

      The New Victorians are no so much Puritans in the area of morals so much as they are in aesthetics.

      • Rob B.

        Perhaps they know that the only way to have people support the death penalty is to hide it from them. Whenever a high-profile execution takes place, it always seems that the cheerleaders come out in droves (at least on the Internet). Perhaps if they actually saw someone die for their crimes, they might approach the situation in a more somber and thoughtful manner, seeing it perhaps as an unfortunate necessity rather than a cause for celebration.

        • Dan Berger

          Unfortunately the historical record isn’t encouraging. Public executions drew large and appreciative crowds, and probably would again.

          • Rob B.

            True, but I wonder what the attitude of those crowds was. It’s something to research…

            • Ye Olde Statistician


            • D.T. McCameron

              Nowadays, such a thing’d only be possible if were maintained that the executed were something less-than-human. A cancer on society, to be excised like a polyp or tumor.

              A cosmetic issue. Otherwise, the very act would remind the populous of their own mortality, and that simply won’t do. Might hurt the beer and shampoo sales.

    • Neihan

      Well, the point of execution is to punish crime, not to deter it. Much like the point of prison isn’t to rehabilitate but to punish. I’m not sure that deterrence and rehabilitation should be aims at all, but if they are they’re surely secondary ones.

      Even so, if we’re going to have executions, and personally I’m wary of but not against executions, then we should just go back to public hangings.

      • Rob B.

        Yes, but advocates of the death penalty often cite its value as a deterrent. Certainly public hangings would be cheaper than lethal injection (especially nowadays).

        • Neihan

          That’s true enough, many do cite its value as a deterrent. I’ve never been convinced that it was. I assume the people who would be deterred by the fear of execution are people who are already adequately deterred by fears of imprisonment.

          I have one friend who went to prison for murder, and I am fairly certain that, if he did commit the crime, the prospect of being executed would not have stopped him anymore than the prospect of life in prison did. Generally speaking, I’m not sure it’s reasonable to assume most people in prison are people who have a history of balancing their actions against the consequences.

          • “Generally speaking, I’m not sure it’s reasonable to assume most people
            in prison are people who have a history of balancing their actions
            against the consequences.”

            Ha ha, yes. Short-term thinking v. long-term thinking.

  • Fesantplucker

    A self-identifying Catholic writer fails to distinguish between guilty and innocent life: score one for the culture of death.

    • freddy

      ‘Cause nothing says “culture of life” like salivating over the death of the wicked!

    • Mariana Baca

      Again, what is this obsession with thinking only the innocent deserve rights, whether from death or from torture? Newsflash: we are all guilty. And we have all been bought at a great price, death should not be ours to dole out willy nilly.

      • Okay, so, since we’re all guilty, no punishment for anyone.

        You think life in prison is such a sweet option?

        I’m not even a fan of the death penalty, but your position, while perhaps emotionally compelling, is illogical. And emotions don’t make good law.

      • Mark Neal

        “willy nilly”

        Do you really think that’s accurate?

    • Rob B.

      How many death penalty cases have been overturned in recent years? How many people were executed and then proven innocent? Guilt and innocence are not as clear-cut as you’d like to believe.

        • Please pick an article that actually conforms to the basics of journalism rather than a propaganda piece for the family of the convicted killer. The article may be correct or not but it lacks even the very basics necessary to get at the truth.

          We’re just coming down from a fake rape scandal provoked by exactly this sort of journalism conducted by Rolling Stone. Not even doing a pro-forma attempt to reach out and tell the other side of the story ended up with a retracted story and possibly significant legal liability for Rolling Stone. This story follows the same type of journalism malpractice. It should never have seen the light of day without editorial oversight insisting on making an effort to contact prosecutors.

          I have zero opinion on the case itself. I’ve read nothing reliable to base such an opinion one way or the other.

          • Well, here’s the Wikipedia summary:

            And here is a google news search, where you can see all sorts of publications reporting on this, including CNN, NPR, NBC, the Christian Science Monitor, and some legal publications:

            Some of those articles link to other articles that discuss, for example, relatives of the victim objecting to the exoneration, and the issue of a new trial.

            I linked to the Slate story because that was where I first heard of it, and it was the easiest link to go back to. Moreover, my point wasn’t to go into the specifics of this particular case, but simply to illustrate the fact that convictions have been overturned after execution — which was the very topic of Rob B.’s comment.

            As for the comparison to the UVA story, a fundamental difference is that one was accusing people of a horrible crime, and this one is alleging someone was innocent. Issues of adequate research aside, I don’t think it merits the same level of outrage.

            Finally, with very, very few exceptions, we can never be 100% of someone’s guilt or innocence, which is another reason I am opposed to the death penalty — it cannot be undone or corrected in any way.

            • The only reason to associate the two cases is exactly the reason I gave, that both exhibited the same technique of journalistic malpractice rendering the information therein worthless.

              As I understand it, the judge in the case decided that no confession in those days by a black 14 year old to white police officers could be accepted as valid due to the power differential and issued a writ of coram nobis on that basis. That’s a terrible idea and would justify opening up a large class of ancient appeals irrespective of the truth.

              I still don’t know enough to judge the facts of the case.

              • Your understanding is wrong. There were multiple due process issues with the trial, and the validity of the confession was only one factor in the decision to overturn the conviction. You can read the opinion here, if you wish:

                Exactly what journalistic malpractice is there in the Slate article? Please be specific, because I don’t see it.

                • Ask yourself, where is the statement from the prosecutor, from the family of the dead girls? Journalism as opposed to propaganda, gives multiple perspectives, especially where they are easily obtainable. When an alternative is not available, the attempt to get it is traditionally noted.

                  I read the judgment, and a bit more on the case. The order is a dog’s breakfast, a jumbled up mess. At best, it seems to have something of a point on the speed of the process. But to take this seriously in its entirety would be to hold that facts and circumstances don’t matter and that no black juvenile should have been convicted on the basis of a confession prior to the civil rights era.

                  This process is a mockery of justice. Laches should have applied. Even the judge said that it would have been preferable for this judgment to have proceeded 25 years prior when more were alive who could testify to the events. There is no recent finding of fact that justified putting aside Laches such as the case in Hirabayashi v US where documents made public decades later unearthed relevant racial animus to the case. The justification is that the family couldn’t afford a lawyer to file while there were witnesses alive to fight this and perhaps certain paperwork had yet to be tossed.

                  So we’ve got an unusual case, a bit of a weird case, and its current disposition does not look any more satisfactory than its 1944 original disposition.

                  • We’ve gotten completely sidetracked. I’m not interested in debating the merits or the facts or the legal ramifications, I simply was giving an example of a conviction being overturned after an execution.

          • Then, of course, there is the issue of whether any 14-year-old boy should ever be executed.

  • HenryBowers

    It’s not quite assisted suicide, because the private franchise to the use of lethal force is still reserved to the state, jury, and judge, and not to the convict. IMHO we shouldn’t blur the distinction.

    • Mariana Baca

      So it is euthanasia, then? Just a bad.

      • HenryBowers

        There’s some reason Aquinas said killing in self-defense could elude even the specification of “killing” if it fell prater intentionem. I think we should focus on how actions come about, instead of trying to impute intention from the outside. It may be true that too many people use capital punishment to kill instead of to preserve justice and order, but that’s not a conclusive reason to ban the practice. It’s just a very weighty reason.

        • Rob B.

          Not even the Catechism calls for an absolute ban on the practice. However, it rightly sets the standards very high indeed.

          • This fellow looks like he met the standard.

  • D.T. McCameron

    “the reason a man killed two people was in order to obtain the death penalty?”

    What, was he afraid he’d go to Hell if he offed himself?

  • K. Lundquist

    This issue brings up some hypocrisy and inconsistency for left-leaning folks as well. For example: in my state, the governor has placed a moratorium on the use of the death penalty for ostensibly “moral” reasons… while he was (and is) an avid supporter of of legalizing physician-assisted suicide. Try to twist your head around that.

    Also, some progressives are lobbying for organ harvesting from condemned prisoners, as is the practice in Belgium… and China. The Belgians and the Chinese see this practice as a boon to society – through very different lenses, obviously. But both perspectives reflect a dehumanization of the prisoner which allows the state to kill them for others’ benefit. “It is more expedient that one man die for the people…” where have you heard that before?

    • Dave G.

      I don’t think it’s inconsistent at all. At least from a non-Christian left leaning POV (my view from a previous life). Most – not all, most – on the Left in the Western tradition oppose war, torture, the death penalty. Most – not all, most – support abortion rights, embryonic stem cell research, and in growing numbers, assisted suicide and in recent years, beginning to support euthanasia in some forms. Think on it. It’s very consistent. Again, from a particular POV.

  • Mark Neal

    “So what do ‘prolife’ death penalty advocates make of a case where the reason a man killed two people was in order to obtain the death penalty?”

    Not much at all, really.

    If a mentally disturbed man killed in order to obtain life in prison, would we blame the Law for the murder?

    Would it “mean something”?

  • The anti-death penalty advocates have advanced the argument that it is no longer necessary to employ the death penalty because we could just put people in jail for life and that there was no real danger that these people would kill again. QED this line of attack on the death penalty is false. But consistent application of arguments has never been the hallmark of the anti-side.

    The same fellow would be trying for ‘death by cop’ if the death penalty would not be available. When applying the death penalty to the original murder is the solution that would have reduced the body count over all other solutions, the death penalty is a legitimate punishment.

    This fellow was committed to dying in jail from the day he was first sentenced:

  • antigon

    Those who take pleasure in state executions cannot with great justice be called pro-life, but that is not true of folk who uphold that in principle such executions can be legitimate. It might be worthwhile to recall Jessuz8’s arguably just complaint that ‘”merely anti-abortion’…is the ugliest label I’ve ever heard in the abortion debate.”
    Supporting mortal sin, such as torture, clearly isn’t pro-life. But insisting opponents of abortion can’t justly be called pro-life unless they accept positions unrelated to sin not only flirts with ugliness in se, it weakens the strength of such charges where they in fact apply.

    • chezami

      And yet, there is something creepy about people eager to maximize death, just as there is something creepy about the scene in, if memory serves, Maritain where Jesus tells his disciples they must hate father, mother, sister and brother and all the disciples are shocked and confused–except for Judas who laps it up. Christians who pore over the Tradition looking for the maximum opportunity to shed blood and who drag their feet when the Church urges mercy are suffering from a spiritual disease.

      • Dave G.

        And therein lies the problem with your approach. Clearly anitgon was making the clear and obvious case that not everyone who still believes there are times when it is appropriate to use the death penalty want to maximize death. It might be argued that they are still of the belief that our states haven’t come to that point of being able to prevent crime, and therefore the option must exist as a way to decrease death. There’s no maximizing death about it. No wanting to increase slaughter. No maximizing death. No yearning to be like North Korea or Saudi Arabia. Simply holding to more traditional understandings of justice, protecting the innocent, and approaching our fallen world. Continually falling back on the ‘increase slaughter/maximize death’ in the debate is like trying to discuss Catholicism with someone who keeps falling back on ‘Catholics worship Mary/worship the pope.’ There are better ways to discuss the issue.

      • antigon

        ‘Christians…looking for the maximum opportunity to shed blood…are suffering from a spiritual disease.’
        Sure, & that’s true even if they don’t pore over the Faith’s historical arguments.
        ‘Christians…who drag their feet when the Church urges mercy are suffering from a spiritual disease.’
        That only gets a maybe, if by ‘the Church’ you mean not the Catechism, but instead Her imperfectly trustworthy clerical establishment.

        • antigon

          Sorry, just in passim, don’t at all mean to be banging any drums for State-ordered executions. Just against charging ‘not pro-life’ where it doesn’t apply, not least because of where it does.

          • antigon

            Also, I suppose you realize your last two avatars have been of ethnic Ebrei. Most suspicious, Sheaski.

            • chezami

              We are everywhere.

  • JM1001

    So, traditionally, the argument that the death penalty is in principle morally permissible rests on the four purposes of punishment in general: (1) retribution, (2) defense of society, (3) deterrence, and (4) rehabilitation. The death penalty, so the argument goes, can serve all these purposes.

    In this particular instance, the third purpose is being called into question, due to the perpetrator having killed with the intention of obtaining the death penalty. Even if we assume that the death penalty acts as a deterrent against violent crime to some extent, it obviously did not do so in this particular case. In fact, for the perpetrator, the death penalty was the primary incentive to commit the crime.

    So, the question becomes: Are the other three purposes still being served? And if so, does that mean the death penalty is still morally permissible in this case, regardless of the perpetrator’s motives for committing the crime?

    Also: If a perpetrator commits a crime in order to obtain the death penalty, and the death penalty is applied, is that morally equivalent to assisted suicide? Presumably, a person who engages in an assisted suicide is not being punished for anything — they are merely ending their lives because of extreme pain or illness, which are not morally legitimate reasons to end someone’s life. Assisted suicide is, therefore, always an unjust killing, at least as the term “assisted suicide” is commonly used. But someone who has committed a crime is being punished for something, regardless of their motives for committing the crime. So, is the death penalty still morally permissible as punishment, even if the perpetrator committed the crime in order to obtain it?

    For example, if it is morally permissible to use lethal force in self-defense, does the intention of the aggressor matter at all? What if the aggressor is merely attacking you in order to be killed himself? If non-lethal means of neutralizing the aggressor fail or are unavailable, and you are forced to kill them, would it be accurate to say that you have “assisted” them in suicide? If so, then you certainly did so unintentionally. Your intention was self-defense against the aggressor, regardless of his motives. Your intention was not his death, and therefore you only “assisted” his suicide in a material sense.

    (Again, as I have said before in these discussions, I still wonder whether the death penalty can ever be just in practice, not only in principle — like “just war.” I pose these questions because the case of “the death penalty as assisted suicide” is an interesting moral problem, and one that is, with all due respect to Mark, perhaps a bit murkier than at first glance.)