Death Penalty


A 22-year old man, Daniel Lopez, was sentenced to death by lethal injection this past week in a Texas district court in Corpus Christi.  Driving an SUV, Lopez intentionally ran over and killed a police officer.  He later self-confidently asserted that he was not worried about going to the penitentiary, because "cop killers are treated like kings by other inmates."

Lopez's record screams "Sociopath!"  In addition to killing a policeman, Lopez dealt drugs, beat up women, and assaulted school teachers.  At one point during his trial, he looked at the victim's family and smiled proudly.  He interpreted the legal proceedings in which he was involved as an opportunity to demonstrate his macho.  He turned down a plea bargain which would have allowed him to receive life imprisonment, because he allegedly wanted to die.  Tough guy.  When the jury returned the second time, newspaper headlines were "Cop Killer Gets His Wish."

Not too many years ago, in the Corpus Christi Caller-Times, I wrote a piece, which made a pragmatic case against the death penalty.  I pointed out that millionaires are never executed in Texas, but that the death penalty is a punishment uniquely reserved for the poor.  Nothing demonstrates the mythical status of "equality under the law" so much as capital sentences.  I believed it then, and I believe it now.

Yet I no longer think that the death penalty is a regression to barbarism.  I think it has its place in a civilized society.  There are crimes for which an enlightened citizenry must reserve an ultimate penalty.  For a society to punish a crime, such as the horrific rape and murder of a child or treason against one's country, by simple incarceration for a term of years, or even for a lifetime, blasphemes everything good for which the society stands.  A crime can be so ghastly, appalling, and shocking to the conscience that life in prison without the possibility of parole is insufficient.  Adolf Eichmann, the infamous Nazi, was hanged as he should have been.  Gary Gilmore, the murderer from Utah, chose to drop his appeals and to be executed by firing squad, and the result was just.  Lopez too will hopefully be receiving, sooner or later, precisely what he deserves.

At this juncture, there is invariably someone who resolutely stands up against the death penalty and argues that it constitutes "cruel and unusual" punishment.  Vincent Bugliosi, the remarkably gifted prosecuting attorney and author of the best-selling book Helter Skelter, once discussed the death penalty with Melvin Belli, another legendary attorney.  Belli was condemning death sentences and, with immense moral indignation, asked Bugliosi whether he had ever actually witnessed a person being executed by the state.  Bugliosi's response was quick, "No, but have you ever actually witnessed a person murdered in cold blood?"  The prosecutor made his point.

I was recently at the Nueces County Courthouse, where I was standing in line with a host of venire men.  A man was carrying a placard protesting the death penalty.  The protester asked one of the individuals standing beside me whether he favored the death penalty.  The gentleman's response was a curt "yes, I do."  He was then asked why he supported it.  He replied, "Because some people are no good and need to be killed."  That summarized the matter in a nutshell.  One can commit such a cruel atrocity as to forfeit his right to live in the same society as the rest of us, even if his address might otherwise be a small cell in a penal institution for the rest of his life.

Some people believe Sharia law is primitive.  In many respects it is.  But amputating the hand of a convicted thief or beheading a murderer successfully safeguards Islamic societies against thieves and murderers. The incidence of these crimes is much lower in Muslim societies than in our own. What is more retrograde – instituting penalties that deter thievery and murder or not doing so?  The answer to this question lends itself to no moral ambiguities in my mind whatsoever.

American society has become hopelessly permissive.  Many citizens practice freedom without a commensurate sense of responsibility.  I think this should change.  In fact, I contend that it is a "fundamental change" in which any rational person can believe.

March 7, 2010