Arguably, organizations opposing the death penalty — Death Penalty Focus, Amnesty International, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Mid-Missouri Fellowship of Reconciliation — mean well. After all, it is a tragedy each time someone is put to death by our judicial process.
Nevertheless, inasmuch as a majority of Americans — 65 percent, according to ABC News — continues to support the death penalty, which is authorized in 37 states, for cases of capital or aggravated murder, that zeal would appear to be misdirected. The offenses for which death is authorized include murder by one with prior conviction for first-degree murder, killing of a peace officer or officer of the court, and murder while engaged in rape, sodomy, robbery or kidnapping.
Therefore, it should be obvious that capital punishment is reserved for only the most vicious of crimes, and because all states with the exception of Florida require a unanimous jury verdict, the death penalty is neither arbitrarily nor capriciously awarded. In fact, one must conclude that the death penalty is not only an earned but also a richly deserved closure for barbaric behavior and wanton disregard for human life.
Take for example the Feb. 9 execution of Martin Link, convicted of the 1991 rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl kidnapped on her way to a St. Louis school bus. Link, previously convicted of raping a 13-year-old child and, while awaiting trial, accused of raping and beating a 15-year-old, could be the poster boy for continuation of the death penalty.
The shedding of tears over the likes of Link as an abused or neglected child is a sham. Much like the 2007 rape and murder of a 9-year-old Cassville girl by her stepfather or the monster who shot and killed a mother on Mother's Day in Morristown, Tenn., in front of her four children, some crimes are so heinous, so brutally shocking and senseless, that "the basic right to life for all" theme fails the test of morally acceptable conduct.
Contrary to the claims of capital punishment opponents, the death penalty is not a means of exacting revenge, nor does it debase us as a society. Instead, it is a legal, judicial means of judging responsibility and an appropriate punishment for particularly atrocious or hideous crimes.
For example, how can one justify leniency for someone who abuses and murders a child? Not only is that youngster deprived of the carefree experience of childhood, but also the family is forever denied the joy of guiding the child through to maturity and the hope of grandchildren. There can be no more horrific experience than that of a parent burying a child.
Death penalty adversaries tend to cite sanctity of life, its failure to deter commission of capital crimes and the risk of executing the innocent as primary reasons for opposition. The callous antipathy shown the victim's life by the killer renders it difficult for even the most compassionate among us to summon the slightest degree of sympathy or regret at his or her execution.
As to the absence of the death penalty's deterrence factor in preventing murder, that is not entirely correct — of the 3,000-plus inmates on death row in 2005, 8.4 percent had previous homicide convictions. Nonetheless, viewing capital punishment's existence as a homicide deterrent is not highly relevant as each capital crime must be decided on the evidence.
Finally, the time from sentence to execution, measured in weeks at the nation's founding, has increased to well over 10 years, with many instances exceeding 20 years. The Supreme Court's suspension of the death penalty from 1972 until 1976 resulted in mandated reforms, such as lengthier appeals, automatic sentence reviews and changes in law and technology, making it highly unlikely that the innocent will be put to death.
Accordingly, though the judicial process is not infallible, the checks and balances provided by the executive and legislative branches, the appellate courts and the press work together to insure against miscarriage of justice. The system could be improved with a faster-track appellate process for those whose guilt is unquestioned, but there is scant hope for that.
J. Karl Miller retired as a colonel in the Marine Corps. He is a Columbia resident and can be reached via e-mail at JKarlUSMC@aol.com.