Although the death penalty is gradually becoming less prevalent in the United States, it remains legal in 27 states, where some will defend it fiercely. And even in states where capital punishment has been abolished for decades, there persists the sentiment that maybe it should be brought back. However, the conversation about the death penalty is misguided, and I’d like to explain why and outline my position with the help of an unusual source.
Now, people who support the death penalty offer several pragmatic arguments in favor of it. Among the most pervasive are: it deters crime, it is cheaper than life imprisonment, it provides closure to families of victims and finally, executions of innocent people are rare. Unfortunately for death penalty advocates, the evidence is not in their favor. To address some of these points briefly, the deterrent effect is essentially non-existent, and a death sentence is much more expensive than life imprisonment. Moreover, families rarely feel the kind of closure you’d expect, and executions of innocent people happen more often than people might think.
While I could have spent much longer on these arguments (and that conversation is certainly worth having), I believe that they mask the real debate over the death penalty. Discussions about the death penalty quickly hit a wall of emotion. Stories about those who commit heinous crimes and are ultimately sentenced to death are harrowing and horrifying; they cause an immediate and visceral desire to banish the cause of the horrors permanently. Most people believe that some people deserve to die, and a mechanism to facilitate that can be genuinely comforting.
However, I disagree with this argument. Why? Well, for all of you “Lord of the Rings” fans out there, here’s an exchange between Frodo and Gandalf in “The Fellowship of the Ring” that I found particularly insightful when I was reading it earlier:
“‘Do you mean to say that you, and the Elves, have let him [Gollum] live on after all those horrible deeds? Now at any rate he is as bad as an Orc, and just an enemy. He deserves death.’
‘Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.’”
Gandalf’s assertion is true in two ways—firstly, in the factual sense: even something as wise as a well-funded justice system cannot see all ends. Even if the results of a case seem indisputable, mistakes can still be made (for a particularly famous example, look up the case of Carlos DeLuna). Even though there is a rigorous checking process in each capital punishment case—which is part of the reason why the process is costly—it can still go wrong.
But more importantly, the phrase “cannot see all ends” has a second meaning—namely, that real good can come from sparing the life of someone thought to be beyond help (even if they actually are beyond help). I’m sorry to spoil the ending of the “Lord of the Rings” for those who haven’t experienced it yet (you’re missing out), but in the end, Gollum inadvertently helps destroy the ring despite remaining a wretched creature. Imagine what would have happened if Gandalf had decided to kill Gollum!
To apply this to the real world, Gandalf’s counsel aligns closely with a policy of rehabilitation. Instead of viewing the law as a means of punishment, we can use it as a tool to improve the worst people in our society. I won’t pretend that everyone can be rehabilitated. Some, like Gollum, are beyond help. But I find it cowardly that we would collectively give up on them. Remember that life imprisonment costs the state less than the application of the death penalty. Isn’t “we should try to help everyone” much more comforting than “some people deserve to die”? Well, I certainly think that Gandalf would like that quite a bit more.