Right and Reason: Capital Punishment


Holy Phinehas Impales Sinner


From the beginning of recorded history the state has used capital punishment rather freely, often excessively. If the death penalty is out of all proportion to the crime, the state does wrong in using it. We are speaking of it here only as applies to very serious crimes, and as murder and treason, which all who approve of capital punishment acknowledge as its proper sphere. The state exists to maintain justice, and one of its chief purposes is the prevention and punishment of crime. In receiving its authority through the natural law, the state also receives from Him the right to use the necessary means for attaining to its end. The death penalty us used as such a means. It fulfills the retributive function of punishment by re-establishing as far as possible the balance of outraged justice and is thought to be the only effectual punishment against the most serious crimes, especially those committed by criminals already under life sentence. By its very nature capital punishment cannot be corrective. But correction, desirable though it be in a punishment, is not absolutely necessary; in the most serious crimes the claims of retribution and deterrence are so imperative that the corrective aspect must be sacrificed, if necessary. If capital punishment often fails as a deterrent, the fault may lie rather in the way it is administered than in the nature of the punishment itself. The law’s long delays can empty the lesson of all its meaning. To be an effective deterrent, punishment should be swift, summary, and sure. Certainly, enough time must be allowed to gather evidence and to give the accused a fair trial, but in their effort to protect the criminal our judges, lawyers, and juries can lose the proper sense of civic responsibility.

Though the state has the right of capital punishment, it need not exercise the right if it can protect itself from criminals in another way. In former ages life imprisonment for all major criminals was impossible because the jails did not exist. If the state can prove that it can effectively handle crime without the death penalty, it may be argued that it not only need not but should not use it

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