When she was just 12, Lisa Marie Velasquez and her younger siblings watched in horror as her pregnant mother was murdered by an ex-boyfriend. Twelve years later, Lisa was repeatedly bludgeoned with a hammer and brutally dismembered, then her remains stuffed into trash bags. A week later, Bronx police discovered two bags of Lisa’s body parts in Crotona Park. Four days after that, three more bags containing Lisa’s remains were found in Barretto Point Park in Hunts Point.
When Bronx County District Attorney Darcel Clark announced indictments for the man and woman charged with the crime, she characterized Velasquez’s murder and torture as “the ultimate degradation of a human being.” The desecration was so unspeakable that Jacqueline Perez, Lisa’s aunt, was unable to identify her niece. Horrified by the sheer enormity of the atrocity, she declared, “I want the same thing to happen to them that happened to my niece!”
Perez’s raw plea for justice was fueled by righteous anger. Her shattered heart demanded accountability in the face of a monstrous injustice. She called for an unmistakable punitive response to those responsible for such a barbaric act. It was an appeal to a fundamental principle of justice in civil society. A justice rooted in “proportionality”—that punishment should be dispensed in direct relation to the level of injury caused to others.
The Importance of Proportional Punishment
Applying proportionality in evaluating and punishing unlawful conduct is at the heart of any ethical administration of justice. It reinforces our obligation to pronounce moral judgment on criminal behavior and to implement a code of penalties appropriate to the crime. The most challenging and severe application of this principle is the imposition of the death penalty.
Robert James Bidinotto was a criminologist and investigative crime reporter in the infamous Willie Horton case. As he puts it, “To abandon proportionality in sentencing is to abandon the quest for justice itself. And to deny the death penalty for premeditated murder is to deny the very principle of fitting punishments to offenses. . . . Proportionate punishment is the moral keystone of any system of justice.”
In “Why The Death Penalty is Still Necessary,” professors Edward Feser and Joseph M. Bassette agree:
We reserve the death penalty in the United States for the most heinous murders and the most brutal and conscienceless murderers. . . . To sentence killers like those to less than death would fail to do justice because the penalty . . . would be grossly disproportionate to the heinousness of the crime.
However, many, such as California Gov. Gavin Newsom, have a different view. Newsom has said, “The death penalty is a failed policy that wastes money and is fundamentally immoral.” Recently, Newsom put his personal beliefs into action by granting reprieves for 737 death row inmates. Newsom’s unilateral action disregarded the direct will of Californians, who in 2016 voted to retain the death penalty via Proposition 62 and to expedite executions by streamlining the costly death penalty appeals process through Proposition 66.
Sadly, in today’s charged political climate, it has become fashionable to toss around the term “immoral” to shut down meaningful debate on important issues like the death penalty. Walls are apparently now immoral. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is immoral. Incorrect pronouns are immoral. Tuition is immoral. Masculinity is immoral. School mascots are immoral. Whiteness is immoral. Are you sensing a trend?
Morality has become usurped, cheapened, and diluted by outrage mobs. Regardless of the strength or truth of any countervailing arguments, these mobs don’t hesitate to arbitrarily label anything “immoral” if it’s contrary to their ideas or ruffles their high-minded feathers. The result is a self-righteous, cynical, partisan game that reduces everything to derision and denunciation.
Proportional justice must be anchored in the principle of retribution to counteract this brand of toxic thinking. Only on this firm foundation can we avoid the irrational, mindless reprisals and revenge in reaction to crime and its adjudication.
Contrary to death penalty opponents, retribution is not that same as revenge. It is not vindictive or some blind retaliation of “an eye for an eye.” It is a measured and rational moral response to capital offenses, free from any personal animosity.
The Origins of Retributive Justice
At its root, the word retribution derives from the Latin for “recompense, repayment” or to “hand back.” Originally, “that which is given in return for past good or evil.” In more modern usage it has become “evil given for evil deeds.” This definition finds its roots in virtually all religions and cultures, including the Judeo-Christian heritage that undergirds America’s founding.
Retribution “casts back” upon criminals the harm, injury, pain, and suffering they have caused. In the case of the death penalty, if we can agree that human life is our highest moral value, then murder is the greatest moral affront to civilized society. Feser and Bessette again explain:
Perhaps most importantly, in its supreme gravity it [the death penalty] promotes belief in and respect for the majesty of the moral order and for the system of human law that both derives from and supports that moral order.
Yet, even in the face of this, many still consider the death penalty “unconstitutional” and regard its application as “cruel and unusual” punishment.
In 2015, the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia reminded Americans that the death penalty is firmly rooted in the U.S. Constitution. In Glossip v. Gross, he cited the Fifth Amendment’s provision that “no person shall be held to answer for a capital . . . crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury,” nor “deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”
Scalia noted, “Not once in the history of the American Republic has this court ever suggested the death penalty is categorically impermissible.” He argued it was “impossible to hold unconstitutional that which the Constitution explicitly contemplates.”
As for the notion of cruel and unusual punishment, Scalia continued, “Historically, the Eighth Amendment was understood to bar only those punishments that added ‘terror, pain, or disgrace’ (Baze v. Rees) to an otherwise permissible capital sentence.” He stated that he “would not presume to tell parents whose life has been forever altered by the brutal murder of a child that life imprisonment is punishment enough.”
Life in Prison Is Sometimes Not Enough
Scalia’s sentiments have been echoed by countless grieving relatives who have earnestly pleaded to know why life imprisonment is considered the worst fate for heinous criminals. This impassioned question was underscored loudly in the Willie Horton case.
After serving only ten years, Horton made a mockery of his original sentence of “life without the possibility of parole.” After being transferred to a minimum-security prison, Horton soon became eligible for work release. It was on an unsupervised weekend furlough that he committed armed robbery and assault, subsequently torturing and raping a Maryland couple for 12 hours.
Unfortunately for untold victims and their families, the Horton episode is not an isolated case. Life sentences seldom mean “for life,” or anything even close to it. Last year, Herman Bell was released from prison after serving 44 years. Along with two other members of the Black Liberation Army, Bell had been convicted of coldly planning and carrying out the assassination of two police officers in 1971.
Even more recently, Weather Underground terrorist Judith Clark won parole after only serving 38 years of a 75 years-to-life sentence for her participation in a 1981 bungled armored car heist that killed two police officers and a Brinks security guard. William Smith Jr., the dissenting vote against Clark’s release, wrote: “Release at this time would deprecate the seriousness of the offenses and undermine respect for the law. In time . . . media coverage will lessen. What will not diminish is the loss felt by the loved ones . . . the sounds of their weeping will remain.”
“What kind of justice is this?” ask victims’ loved ones. Friends and family of the victims not only remain lifetime victims themselves, but must stand by as murderers can fill their lives while incarcerated with entertainment, sports, formal education, vocational training, psychological and spiritual counseling, libraries, gardening, and a whole host of fulfilling activities.
Yet those murderers have killed may experience none of this, of course. Why should murderers get what their victims never can again? When do the families of victims get to resume their lives, put their grief aside, and attempt to recover from a loss that is unrecoverable? Who has the true life sentence?
We Must Uphold Life as Our Highest Moral Value
In a time of mass shootings, terror-driven beheadings, the slaughter of innocent children, and the senseless moral depravity of gang violence and human trafficking, the death penalty has an even greater role to play in the defense of human life. In a nation claiming to value both life and the rule of law, it becomes a moral necessity.
Human life is our highest moral value. It is precisely because we cherish human life that the state must sometimes end the lives of those who have wantonly ended it. In our commitment to justice, we must make the hard, sober, moral declaration that there are some crimes that cannot be forgiven, or repaid through imprisonment of whatever length. There are certain acts for which the only appropriate punishment is the ultimate penalty—the forfeiture of one’s life.
We take no pleasure in the solemn duty of carrying out capital punishment, nor should we make apologies for a civil society requiring retributive justice. But by punishing criminals appropriately and proportionally, as befits their crimes, we can honor the Lisa Marie Velasquezes of the world. As Elizabethan dramatist John Webster once wrote, “Other sins only speak; murder shrieks out.”