The Wrong Way to Fight the Death Penalty

Under the leadership of President Donald Trump and Attorney General Bill Barr, the federal government has executed nine prisoners since July and is set to execute four more before the change of administrations on Jan. 20. Opponents of the death penalty are appalled at the pace, with the editors of the Washington Post writing that the Justice Department “has gone on a sickening spree of executions.”

NBC and Slate are also calling it a “spree”; other news outlets are calling it a “rush.” Cori Bush, an incoming Democratic member of Congress, calls it “state-sanctioned murder.”

The government does not need to kill any of these people to keep everyone else safe from them. That’s reason enough, in my view, not to do it. To act with the precise intent to cause someone’s death, rather than to protect others from his aggression, is immoral. If you’d prefer more theological language, it usurps God’s lordship over life. Legislatures at the state and federal level ought to end capital punishment.

But even good causes can go wrong, and in important respects the movement to abolish the death penalty has. It deserves, then, criticism as well as praise. Here are a few pieces of advice it should consider.

Stop ignoring or glossing over the victims of the crimes that have drawn the death penalty. Cori Bush said that she was thinking of “Brandon Bernard and his family” and that “the system failed them.” She said nothing about Todd and Stacie Bagley, the young couple Bernard helped to brutally murder. This evasion is not universal among opponents of the death penalty. But it’s all too common.

A Christian activist against capital punishment recently wrote an op-ed for Religion News Service, for example, that mentioned three death-row prisoners and none of their victims. Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein issued a statement lamenting that Joe Biden will become president too late to save four prisoners from execution. It said nothing about their victims or their crimes. A call to mercy should not be based on indifference to justice.

Don’t call it murder. The primary definition of murder is “the crime of unlawfully killing a person especially with malice aforethought.” The death penalty is lawful. If most of its supporters are moved by malice, then trying to change their minds is probably a waste of time. But support seems to me to be mostly based, instead, on an honest view about what justice requires. Law, morality and ordinary language all distinguish among types of unjustified killing. You can oppose capital punishment without erasing these distinctions.

Don’t mix up the issue with abortion. Sometimes opponents of the death penalty use the issue as a cudgel against opponents of abortion: If you were really pro-life, they say, you’d be on our side. This almost never works as anything more than a taunt. Most opponents of abortion – even many of those who, like me, oppose capital punishment, too – think the killing of innocents on a mass scale is worse.

Stop fixating on speed. It’s understandable that abolitionists have recently been saying that Trump and Barr are on a mad dash to execute people. But it is misleading. The Bagleys were murdered in 1999. Alfred Bourgeois, just executed for torturing, molesting and murdering his 2-year-old daughter, committed his crime in 2002.

Capital punishment in the U.S. isn’t rapid. It’s agonizingly slow, particularly for those relatives of murder victims who say it brings them closure. If the current set of executions is shocking, it is partly because the federal government did not execute anyone from 2003 through 2019.

Accept democracy. This one may be the hardest for opponents of the death penalty. It’s common for articles on this controversy to note that support for capital punishment has fallen. That’s true. It’s also true that support is still pretty strong: Gallup finds 55 percent support for it “for a person convicted of murder.” The Constitution clearly contemplates the use of the death penalty, and Congress has provided for it.

Opponents nonetheless want judges to override these laws, or for the executive branch to use its discretion and its powers of clemency to set a new policy. But these are abuses of power, even if committed for a good reason.

I think Trump and Barr are wrong to support the death penalty. But they’re not wrong to see to it that the duly enacted laws of our country are implemented. We should make a case, based on truth and respect, that persuades our fellow citizens to support legislation that ends capital punishment.

We should change the law the right way. The movement against the death penalty too often falls short of that standard.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a senior editor at National Review, visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and contributor to CBS News.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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