Even When Casting the First Stone Seems Appropriate

May 16, 2015

The occasion of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s death sentence [1] is a good time to talk about capital punishment. This is because Mr. Tsarnaev is so clearly guilty of murder, and he is such an unsympathetic criminal defendant, that the subject can be looked at in stark relief. An opponent of the death penalty cannot avail himself of the individual circumstances surrounding Mr. Tsarnaev to make his case. But a case can be made, and ought to be heeded. Saint Pope John Paul II put it this way in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae

“This is the context in which to place the problem of the death penalty. On this matter there is a growing tendency, both in the Church and in civil society, to demand that it be applied in a very limited way or even that it be abolished completely. The problem must be viewed in the context of a system of penal justice ever more in line with human dignity and thus, in the end, with God's plan for man and society. The primary purpose of the punishment which society inflicts is ‘to redress the disorder caused by the offence’. Public authority must redress the violation of personal and social rights by imposing on the offender an adequate punishment for the crime, as a condition for the offender to regain the exercise of his or her freedom. In this way authority also fulfils the purpose of defending public order and ensuring people's safety, while at the same time offering the offender an incentive and help to change his or her behaviour and be rehabilitated. 

“It is clear that, for these purposes to be achieved, the nature and extent of the punishment must be carefully evaluated and decided upon, and ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Today however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent.

“In any event, the principle set forth in the new Catechism of the Catholic Church remains valid: ‘If bloodless means are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons, public authority must limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person’.” [2] 

The purpose of punishment in a criminal justice system must be kept in focus when the question of capital punishment is considered, and that purpose is to “redress the disorder caused by the offence.” This has two facets: (1) it must defend public order and ensure public safety, and (2) it must offer the offender both the incentive and assistance to be rehabilitated. But when the death penalty is imposed, the offender has no chance at rehabilitation. Therefore, it should be inflicted only when absolutely necessary, and it is absolutely necessary only when there is no other way to defend society from the offender. In the United States today, the adequacies of the penal system are such that an offender can be rendered harmless to the public without killing him. There is, therefore, no justification for capital punishment in the United States.  

It will be argued that putting a murderer to death will deter others from doing the same thing, and thus save innocent lives. But while it “might seem that the prospect of receiving a death sentence would deter would-be murderers from committing such offenses….many studies on deterrence and the death penalty do not support this idea, nor does the rate of murders in states with the death penalty. The murder rate in states that do not have the death penalty is consistently lower than in states with the death penalty. The South, which carries out over 80% of the executions in the U.S., has the highest murder rate of the four regions.” [3] 

The existence of the death penalty certainly didn’t deter Mr. Tsarnaev. While being interrogated he “‘told the FBI that [he and his brother] were angry about the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the killing of Muslims there.’” [4] According to John Miller, who served in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence before becoming a senior CBS correspondent, Mr. Tsarnaev, before his capture, and while he lied bleeding from multiple gunshot wounds, wrote a note on the side of the boat in which he was hiding which said that the Boston “‘bombings were in retribution for the U.S. crimes in places like Iraq and Afghanistan [and] that the victims of the Boston bombing were collateral damage, in the same way innocent victims have been collateral damage in U.S. wars around the world. Summing up, that when you attack one Muslim you attack all Muslims.’” [5] Terrorists like Mr. Tsarnaev aren’t deterred by the possibility of capital punishment. If anything, the potential of martyrdom provides an incentive for them.  

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev also has a right to life. Capital punishment in the United States should be abolished, even for murderers like him.   

Jack Quirk