On Thursday, Attorney General William Barr issued a directive that effectively reinstates the death penalty for appropriately convicted federal prisoners. There haven’t been any federal executions since 2003, and only three since 1988, but now five convicted murderers find themselves on deck and awaiting lethal injection.
This news prompted a predictable reaction from the Left. Many Democratic presidential candidates condemned the attorney general’s decision, calling the death penalty “immoral,” “cruel,” and “flawed.” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) insisted that “there’s enough violence in the world.” Other leftists flung familiar “hypocrisy” charges at conservative proponents of the death penalty, arguing that it is inconsistent and contradictory for pro-life advocates to support the execution of criminals. Taking it a step further, Alyssa Milano declared that pro-lifers have “lost the right to pull your ‘pro-life’ narrative-talking-point-bulls**t with me.” Many on the Left have echoed these sentiments.
This is all precisely backwards. The contradiction and hypocrisy goes the other way. If you are opposing the death penalty on the basis that it is “violent” and “cruel” — if you say that we have “no right” to “take another person’s life” — then it is obviously deranged to, in the next breath, advocate for the summary execution of infant children. There is just no cogent argument that could make the death penalty cruel for child murderers but not for children themselves. There is no morally coherent basis upon which to support lethal injections for the unborn but not for rapists and serial killers. The only way to justify abortion is to argue that life is not inherently sacred, and that the right to life is not absolute, and that some lives are simply not worth preserving. But if all of that is true, and if babies might fall into the “not worth preserving” camp, then surely John Wayne Gacy and Timothy McVeigh must join them in that category.
On the other hand, it is perfectly reasonable to both support the death penalty and oppose abortion. We do have a right to life, but that right, like almost every other right, can be lost. An inmate serving a life sentence has permanently lost his right to free speech, his right to assembly, his right to bear arms, his right to vote, his right to privacy, his right to private property, and numerous other rights. Nobody quibbles over this. Obviously prison, must by its very nature, involve the curtailing of liberties. That’s the whole point of the thing. But if all of these basic human rights can be suspended, or even lost, then why not the right to life? What is the limiting principle?
Indeed, even opponents of the death penalty must agree that the right to life is not absolute. If someone breaks into your house in the middle of the night, it is not only your right but, if you have a family to protect, your obligation to meet the intruder with deadly force. But if that intruder has an absolute right to life, which cannot be lost under any circumstance, then you would be committing a human rights violation by shooting him. Anyone who agrees that it’s potentially acceptable to shoot a home invader must therefore agree that the right to life is not insoluble or absolute.
It is, then, certainly reasonable to argue that people who commit the most heinous crimes against their fellow human beings have, like the home invader, lost their right to life. This is not a position that I have always held, admittedly. I’ve waffled on the death penalty issue over the years, most recently arriving at the conclusion that it is an unfortunate moral necessity.
It’s obvious that a person is capable of losing his right to life. The only question is whether, say, raping and murdering a child might entail its forfeiture. I say that a crime of that nature does cause the culprit to forfeit his right to life, and that in no way interferes with or contradicts my conviction that we shouldn’t kill babies in the womb. Babies have not committed any crime. They have not intentionally caused harm to any person. They cannot have lost their right to life for the same reason that they cannot have lost their right to free speech (though their physical development may preclude speech for the time being).
What about the sanctity of life? If life is sacred, don’t we desecrate that sacredness by executing criminals? At one time, I would have said so. Now I see that the sanctity of life is precisely what calls for the death penalty. A man who commits the worst offense against an innocent life has brought upon himself the worst punishment. It is out of a passion for the sacredness of life that we must dole out the harshest penalties to those who violate it. Consider the crimes of the five men now eligible for execution by the federal government, as described by the Department of Justice:
Daniel Lewis Lee, a member of a white supremacist group, murdered a family of three, including an eight-year-old girl. After robbing and shooting the victims with a stun gun, Lee covered their heads with plastic bags, sealed the bags with duct tape, weighed down each victim with rocks, and threw the family of three into the Illinois bayou. On May 4, 1999, a jury in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas found Lee guilty of numerous offenses, including three counts of murder in aid of racketeering, and he was sentenced to death. Lee’s execution is scheduled to occur on Dec. 9, 2019.
Lezmond Mitchell stabbed to death a 63-year-old grandmother and forced her nine-year-old granddaughter to sit beside her lifeless body for a 30 to 40-mile drive. Mitchell then slit the girl’s throat twice, crushed her head with 20-pound rocks, and severed and buried both victims’ heads and hands. On May 8, 2003, a jury in the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona found Mitchell guilty of numerous offenses, including first degree murder, felony murder, and carjacking resulting in murder, and he was sentenced to death. Mitchell’s execution is scheduled to occur on Dec. 11, 2019.
Wesley Ira Purkey violently raped and murdered a 16-year-old girl, and then dismembered, burned, and dumped the young girl’s body in a septic pond. He also was convicted in state court for using a claw hammer to bludgeon to death an 80-year-old woman who suffered from polio and walked with a cane. On Nov. 5, 2003, a jury in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri found Purkey guilty of kidnapping a child resulting in the child’s death, and he was sentenced to death. Purkey’s execution is scheduled to occur on Dec. 13, 2019.
Alfred Bourgeois physically and emotionally tortured, sexually molested, and then beat to death his two-and-a-half-year-old daughter. On March 16, 2004, a jury in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas found Bourgeois guilty of multiple offenses, including murder, and he was sentenced to death. Bourgeois’ execution is scheduled to occur on Jan. 13, 2020.
Dustin Lee Honken shot and killed five people — two men who planned to testify against him and a single, working mother and her ten-year-old and six-year-old daughters. On Oct. 14, 2004, a jury in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Iowa found Honken guilty of numerous offenses, including five counts of murder during the course of a continuing criminal enterprise, and he was sentenced to death. Honken’s execution is scheduled to occur on Jan. 15, 2020.
It seems that a man who tortures, rapes, and beats to death his own daughter has done something that warrants the ultimate punishment. This isn’t really a matter of deterrence. The deed has already been done. It is too late to deter it. It is, rather, a matter of a crime that cries out for the severest response. It is a matter of a man who simply has no right to continue breathing.
Lezmond Mitchell stabbed a woman to death and then beat her granddaughter over the head with rocks before decapitating her. I do not see how justice could be served by giving Mitchell his own room and three hot meals a day for the rest of his life. What right does he have to such treatment? What right does he have to his own life? As we established, he has certainly lost his right to almost everything else. Why hasn’t he lost his right to literally everything? Why should he retain any rights at all after bludgeoning a child?
There is nothing inherently inhumane or cruel about giving a man exactly what he deserves and what he has earned through his own actions. And there is nothing about it that violates pro-life principles.