Just as there are cases to support the abolishment of the death penalty, there are cases to support its continuation. Some crimes are just so heinous, cold-blooded and shocking that it’s hard to believe the death penalty isn’t the only fitting punishment. I think James Holmes is a great example here. This individual walked into a movie theater with four weapons and took the lives of twelve people, including a six year old child. He tore apart families. He killed mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, sons, daughters, husbands, wives and friends without hesitation. Had his weapon not jammed, more may have been killed. How is life in prison a fitting punishment for that kind of evil?
Because I dedicated a large portion of this article to cases that support an anti-death penalty stance, I want to finish up with the flip side of the coin – cases that seem to support the need for the death penalty. Despite the fact that I’m still against the death penalty, there are times that it does seem to be fitting punishment for an especially horrid crime.
Lawrence Russell Brewer – Texas, 2011
Lawrence Brewer was convicted of killing James Byrd Jr. in 1998 and was sentenced to death for the crime. Brewer, a white supremacist, and two friends, severely beat Byrd, urinated on his beaten body, chained him to their truck by his ankles and dragged him for three miles before dumping his torso in front of an African American church and heading off to a barbecue. It isn’t just the sheer disgust of the crime or the fact that the victim was chosen simply because he was black that makes it hard to believ Brewer (and his cohort, John King) deserved lethal injection. It was the complete lack of remorse Brewer expressed over the murder. Brewer stated, “As far as any regrets, no, I have no regrets. No, I’d to it all over again, to tell you the truth.” Hard to imagine that life in prison would’ve been an appropriate punishment for such a callous, hate-filled man.
Ted Bundy – Florida, 1989
Ted Bundy confessed to thirty murders across three states shortly before his execution. The actual number of women he victimized is thought to be even higher. He escaped from prison twice. His own lawyer said, “Ted was the very definition of heartless evil.” It’s hard to imagine a life sentence would’ve come anywhere close to being enough for this kind of criminal.
John Wayne Gacy – Illinois, 1994
If the death penalty is to remain intact, it should be reserved for monsters like Gacy. Between 1972 and 1978, Gacy raped and murdered 33 boys and young men. Some of his victims were buried in the crawl space beneath his home while others were disposed of in a nearby river or in various spots on his property. This vile creature dressed as a clown for charities in his community, raping and killing children all the while. After being caught, he never showed even the slightest hint of remorse for the lives he had taken or the pain he inflicted on the families of his victims.
Albert Fish – New York, 1936
Albert Fish killed and cannibalized children, sometimes sending letters to the families of the victims. There were four known victims although many believe the number to be much higher. Fish himself claimed the number to be closer to 100.
Jeffery Dahmer – Wisconsin, 1994
Jeffery Dahmer wasn’t technically put to death but it’s hard to imagine he didn’t get what he deserved. Although he expressed remorse for his crimes, something many of the other men on this portion of the list did not, he still raped, dismembered, cannibalized and brutally murdered seventeen boys and young men. Were he convicted of these crimes in a state that offers the death penalty, he almost certainly would’ve gotten it.
Timothy McVeigh – Indiana, 2001
Timothy McVeigh parked a truck loaded with explosives in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma and detonated it. The resulting blast killed 168 people and injured 800 more. 19 children were among those killed. Prior to the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, this attack stood as the deadliest terrorist attack on US soil. McVeigh was not insane. There was no question of his guilt. When asked about the victims of his crime, McVeigh stated, “To these people in Oklahoma who have lost a loved one, I’m sorry but it happens every day. You’re not the first mother to lose a kid or the first grandparent to lose a grandson or a granddaughter. It happens every day somewhere in the world. I’m not going to go into that courtroom, curl up into a fetal ball and cry just because the victims want me to do that.”
Saddam Hussein – Iraq, 2006
I couldn’t even list Saddam Hussein’s crimes here if I wanted to. He was convicted and put to death for killing 148 Shi’ite Iraqis in 1982 but the actual number of people he killed or ordered killed is so far beyond that it’s hard to fathom. Nicknamed “The Butcher of Baghdad” because of his deeds, it’s hard to imagine things could’ve ended any differently for Hussein.
In the end, there are strong arguments on both sides of this controversial topic. I’ve tried to present a well rounded argument for both sides but even with all of the things we’ve just discussed, I remain against the death penalty. While clearly there are cases when it seems to be the only fitting punishment – and there are far more than the ones I’ve included here – the problems with the system leave it wide open for abuse. The death sentence should only be handed down in the most extreme cases and only when there is absolutely no doubt as to the person’s guilt. It is far easier to free a wrongly imprisoned man serving a life sentence than it is to bring an innocent man back from the dead. The troubling question underneath it all remains obvious – how is one victim’s life worth less than another’s. How can killing a police officer in the line of duty be a crime worthy of a death penalty if killing a firefighter isn’t? Or a doctor? Or a mother or father with small children at home? We could condemn all murders to death but just the cost of that alone would be astronomical. Doing away with the appeals process would save money but would increase the chances of innocent people dying at the hands of the government. Perhaps the answer is to reserve the death penalty for only the most depraved, most remorseless, most dangerous criminals.
My fear is that in the wake of a truly horrific event, emotions cloud the judgment and we find ourselves worked up into a frenzy, demanding immediate justice without really thinking about what we’re asking for. Do I want to see James Holmes suffer for his crimes? Yes. I want him to feel the horror and the terror he inflicted on each and every person in that movie theater. I want him to feel the sorrow and the agony he inflicted on the families that lost loved ones. I want him to know what it feels like for the survivors to have to live with what they experienced at his hands every day for the rest of their lives. I want him to be punished and I want him to be punished severely. Is sentencing him to death the answer? The truth is, even after all this, I have no idea.
How does one reconcile giving the government the power to kill an individual for a heinous crime without also insisting the government is absolutely sure they have the right person before performing the execution? It just is inconceivable. At the same time, it’s hard to imagine letting monsters like Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, Albert Fish or Timothy McVeigh escape their atrocious crimes with their lives. There needs to be some middle ground. There needs to be some sort of balance.
In the end, perhaps it is best to listen to the families of the victims themselves. In James Holmes’ case, many are calling for the death penalty. That isn’t always the case though. Bethany Webb lost her sister, Laura, in a shooting at a beauty salon that left seven others dead and left her own mother critically wounded. Laura does not want to see the killer sentenced to death though, instead asking for a life sentence without the possibility of parole. That should be her right. The problem becomes getting all victims’ families to agree.
I suppose when all is said and done, there really are no easy answers. When emotions are running high, there is a natural desire to see swift justice but maybe that just isn’t possible. We are a civilized society – at least we’re supposed to be. When someone steps outside of that and takes the lives of innocent people, we need to react as civilized people. We need to focus on logic and reason. Even when there is no logic and reason to be found in a crime, we need to avoid sinking to the mindset of the criminal. We can not allow ourselves to give in to our thirst for vengeance because that makes us no better than the criminal we want to punish. That doesn’t mean taking the death penalty off the table necessarily. It means making damn sure that when we use it, we use it properly. That means making sure the people put to death are actually guilty – beyond a shadow of the doubt – of the crime they’ve committed. That means refusing to give in to the screaming masses demanding blood and making an educated decision based on the real facts. That means not making judgments on what should or shouldn’t be done as we sit in the safety of our homes behind our computer. Leave it to the jury, the judge and the system and hope beyond hope that they do their job right.