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How Capital Punishment Preserves The Value Of Human Life


Daniel Lee Lewis was involved in his first murder when he was 17 years old. It was July 24, 1990. Enraged by a teenage party prank, he beat Joseph Wavra unconscious. Then Lewis ran to get a knife and helped Wayra’s murderer hide the crime. This was only the beginning of Lewis’ seven-year crime spree that included burglary, bombings, public shootouts, and murder.

The crime that landed him on death row happened on January 11, 1996. He and his partner, Chevie Kehoe, kidnapped a Tilly, Arkansas gun dealer with his wife and stepdaughter. Lewis had burglarized William Mueller’s home a year earlier, and came back believing gold and other valuables were still hidden. He tortured and killed William, then did the same his wife Nancy and, finally, her eight-year old daughter in an attempt to force them to reveal the location of this supposed hidden treasure.

He was convicted of all three murders by a jury of his peers on May 4, 1999. While Kehoe was sentenced to life without parole, prosecutors successfully argued that Lewis’s lack of remorse and long history of violence, even while incarcerated and awaiting trial, demonstrated he was a candidate for the death penalty.

On May 14, the jury returned a verdict of death. Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder was asked to withdraw the death notice, but he declined. Nancy Mueller’s mother, Earlene Branch, said, “It’s hard to be a Christian and think of killing somebody. But I don’t see any other answer. I don’t want them out influencing anyone else.”

In the 20 years since, Lewis has exhausted every possible appeal to his death sentence. On July 25, Attorney General William Barr announced that his execution is now scheduled for December 9, 2019. This announcement also noted the scheduling of four others, the first federal executions since 2003.

It is gut-wrenching to read about Lewis’s crimes, even though I have omitted some of the details too terrible for print. And his are the least heinous of the five men scheduled for execution last Friday. These horrific histories are precisely what the families of the victim, first responders, investigators, and juries had to face.

There’s No Doubt This Guy Committed Heinous Crimes

It is quite true to argue abstractly, as Molly Davis did in The Federalist, that no human justice system is perfect. It is quite another thing to argue that Lewis did not, in fact, torture a family of three to death. The fact that some on death row have been exonerated speaks to the value of the appeals process. Now that Lewis has failed his appeals, no one is suggesting that he is innocent.

Evil has a face. Justice requires that we look at it unflinchingly. The same is true when considering crimes of a particularly heinous nature. These details have driven prosecutors, judges,bener and unanimous juries to impose capital punishment even if they found it hard to swallow. It is wrong to suggest that the particulars of the crime are beside the point. They are precisely the point.

For starters, we should note that since capital punishment is reserved for particularly heinous crimes, they are extremely rare in the history of federal law. According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, there have been only 34 executions between 1927 and 1963. The next three decades saw none. Then, there were three between 2001 and 2003, including Timothy McVeigh, who killed 168 people on April 19, 1995.

Dylann Roof is on death row for killing nine members of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. So also is Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who was convicted of killing three and injuring 260 by a bomb at the 2013 Boston Marathon. Videos and dozens of eyewitness accounts establish without any doubt that these men are guilty of heinous crimes. Any rational discussion of capital punishment must begin with facts such as these.

Don’t Like the Law, Change It, Don’t Filibuster

It is also important to accurately report the timing of Barr’s announcement. Mainstream media outlets reported it as though he were unilaterally lifting some federal “moratorium” on the death penalty. There was no such thing.

Calling it a “de facto moratorium” may leave the impression that federal law ended the death penalty. Nothing could be further from the truth. Rather, pharmaceutical corporations conspired to embargo the anesthetic that was administered before executions. This hampered both state and federal abilities to carry out the law.

Later, under the eight years of President Obama, as U.S attorney general Holder simply failed to schedule any of the executions that were entrusted to him by the legislative and judicial branches. Then, in 2014, he instituted a review of all death penalty procedures and protocols.

This review was ongoing when the Trump administration took office and continued while Jeff Sessions served as attorney general. Last Thursday’s announcement by Sessions sucessor Barr accompanied word that the five-year review is now complete.

Presumably as a result of that review, the three-drug procedure used at the last execution in 2003 has been replaced by the single drug, Pentobarbital. This is the same drug Big Pharma is selling in states that have legalized physician-assisted killing.

Capital Punishment Has a Long and Strong History

Having clarified the historical record, we can now turn to ethics. It should be noted at the outset that Western Civilization has always had a place for the just application of capital punishment.

The difference between pagan Roman civilization and the Christian ethos that held sway after Constantine is this: under paganism the government had authority to execute whomever it pleased, regardless of innocence. Under the Christian ethos, capital punishment is reserved for only the guilty.

This principle is founded on the teaching of the Apostle Paul that God Himself gives governments the “sword” to “execute wrath on him who practices evil” (Romans 13:4 NKJV). This, in turn, is based on the charge given after Noah’s Flood, “whoever sheds man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed” (Genesis 9:6).

Some People’s Crimes Make Their Lives Forfeit

Note well that the death penalty rests upon the assertion that “evil” is not defined by the government, but by God. The government, as God’s “minister,” must recognize it as evil and punish it accordingly. Perhaps this explains why those who were first to oppose the death penalty were avowed atheists.

Robespierre, the henchman of the French Revolution, sought to repeal the death penalty. He wrote a pamphlet against it in 1791 before guillotining 40,000 countrymen in 1793 and 1794. Likewise, in February 1917, the provisional government of the Bolshevik Revolution banned the death penalty. In the century prior to this, the tsar had executed approximately six people. In the seven decades following the Revolution, tens of millions of citizens were killed by hard labor, starvation, exposure, and the firing squad.

Governments are established by God and chartered to discern between objective good and objective evil as His representative. When a nation forgets or denies this fact, it does not become more just. It fails in its primary task and colludes in evil.

Justice Includes Punishment, Not Merely Rehabilitation

Modern arguments against the death penalty deny the very definition of penalty. In his classic essay, “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment,” C. S. Lewis points out that progressive ideology replaces justice and penalty with criminal reform and effective deterrence. A jury of peers is perfectly suited to decide matters of justice. But the same jury is unqualified to act as experts on effective reform and deterrence.

Lacking straightforward penalties and a common sense of justice, then, the penal system relies on “experts” to prescribe sentences of indefinite duration and psychological manipulation to effect what they describe as rehabilitation. Once a government has discarded the idea that God defines evil and prescribes its punishment, its fearsome power is no longer limited. Prisons easily become camps to reeducate whoever resists the latest orthodoxy.

Kylee Zempel, also in The Federalist, helpfully points out that the five objectives of the criminal justice system still include retribution. While the other four objectives (deterrence, incapacitation, rehabilitation, and restoration) may enter into the argument, they can only be tangential. Often, they appear as red herrings.

At its root, capital punishment is about just retribution. Here again, the imperfection of human systems comes into play. Zempel cites “Flawed Criminal Justice Policies,” to the effect that “Retribution fails” if one jury imposes the death penalty where another jury does not. This argument sacrifices the good to the perfect. It uses an impossible standard of measure to overthrow what is objectively just and right.

Ending the Death Penalty Would Teach the Wrong Things

All agree that to abolish the death penalty is to make a statement. Some believe it’s a statement that life is too valuable to take. Others conclude that the lives of the victims are not valuable enough to avenge. Whatever it teaches about the lives of victim and perpetrator, it chiefly teaches something about the source and authority of government.

Ultimately, every law, from jaywalking to grand larceny, is enforced at the point of a gun. G. K. Chesterton writes in “What’s Wrong with the World,” “every statute is a declaration of war, to be backed by arms.” If government does not have the legitimate, God-given authority to take life, it has no legitimate authority at all. It has no authority to wage just wars. It has no authority to enforce just laws.

Talk of government’s basis in “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” triggers secularist sensibilities. It raises fears of a theocracy dependent upon some private revelation. Such fear is unfounded. Precisely because godly governments are established to rule believer and unbeliever alike, just laws rest on the laws written into nature and not upon the revelation of the gospel.

Either God Defines Good, or Governments Will Do It Badly

Nor should we ever forget that the very notion of a limited government derives from an understanding that government is “under God.” If a government is not limited by God, what else is capable of limiting it? Take God out of the equation and governments tend toward totalitarianism. We have seen this principle in both the French and Bolshevik Revolutions of the past, and currently in communist China. How many more examples are needed to prove the point?

Capital punishment acknowledges both the existence of objective evil and human government’s responsibility to execute justice. To conflate it with the killing of the innocent is reprehensible. For this reason, every check and balance must be followed scrupulously to ensure that innocents are not mistakenly put to death. The Innocence Project deserves our support. But it is precisely for the protection of innocent life that some crimes require capital punishment.

The pending execution of five human beings is a terrible thing. What would be more terrible still is to deny that just societies have the right to do it, and the responsibility to do it justly.