Four things belong to a judge: to hear courteously, to answer wisely, to consider soberly, and to decide impartially. Words from ancient Greece echo loudly as we ponder the importance of Socrates teachings in a day that a growing division is arising in today’s society in the debate of whether it is adding to an already heinous crime by killing those who deliberately kill. Capital punishment, is it justice or justification? As Goethe put it, “One man’s word is no man’s word. We should quietly hear both sides.” So let us look at both sides of the spectrum in this controversy.
Why is it believed that capital punishment should not be permitted? Well, for a number of reasons. The philosopher Voltaire reasoned, “The punishment of criminals should be of use; when a man is hanged he is good for nothing.” How about the argument that death in some of these forms of execution is cruel and unusual punishment? Death by electrocution has been a widely used form of execution in this country, which many deem as a cruel and unusual form of punishment. Is it unnecessarily cruel? You judge.
“The condemned prisoner is led--or dragged--into the death chamber, strapped into the chair and electrodes are fastened to head and legs. When the switch is thrown the body strains, jolting as the voltage is raised and lowered. Often smoke rises from the head. There is the awful odor of burning flesh. No one knows how long electrocuted individuals retain consciousness.” (The Case Against The Death Penalty, Hugo Adam Bedau) Does that sound vicious? Well, a lot of people thought so and in time a new, quicker manner of administering death arose...the gas chamber. The prisoner is strapped into a chair, a container of sulfuric acid underneath. The chamber is sealed, and cyanide is dropped into the acid to form lethal gas.
The following is an account of the 1992 execution of Don Harding in Arizona, as reported by U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens:
”When the fumes enveloped Don’s head he took a quick breath. A few seconds later he again looked in my direction. His face was red and contorted as if he were attempting to fight through tremendous pain. His mouth was pursed shut and his jaw was clenched tight. Don then took several more quick gulps of the fumes.
“At this point Don’s body started convulsing violently . . . His face and body fumed a deep red and the veins in his temple and neck began to bulge until I thought they might explode.
“After about a minute Don’s face leaned partially forward, but he was still conscious. Every few seconds he continued to gulp in. He was shuddering uncontrollably and his body was racked with spasms. His head continued to snap back. His hands were clenched.
“After several more manuals, the most violent of the convulsions subsided. At this time the muscles along Don’s left arm and back began twitching in a wavelike motion under his skin. Spittle drooled from his mouth.
“Don did not stop moving for approximately eight minutes, and after that he continued to twitch and jerk for another minute. Approximately two minutes later we were told by a prison official that the execution was complete.
“Don Harding took ten minutes and thirty one seconds to die.” (Gomez v. U.S. District Court, 112 S. Ct. 1652)
According to many, this is a clear example of cruel and unusual punishment. Another popular argument is the fact that the death penalty is irrevocable. In 2003, a movie entitle, “The Life of David Gale” acutely attacks the death penalty on this premise. Penalty by death forever deprives an individual of the benefits of new evidence or new laws that might warrant the reversal of a conviction or the setting aside of a death sentence (The Case Against The Death Penalty).
Seeing how final and lasting the sentence of death is, the question arises . . . Where is the assurance that this method of justice is 100% foolproof? What if we accidentally condemn an innocent human being to die an ignominious death? Thomas Jefferson wrote, ”The sword of the law should never fall but on those whose guilt is so apparent as to be pronounced by their friends as well as their foes.” (Letter, 1801) Consider a few examples:
In 1975, only a year before the Supreme Court affirmed the constitu-
tionality of capital punishment, two African-American men in Florida,
Freddie Pitts and Wilbert Lee, were released from prison after twelve
years awaiting execution for the murder of two white men. Their con-
victions were the result of coerced confessions, erroneous testimony of
an alleged eyewitness, and incompetent defense counsel. Though a white
man eventually admitted his guilt, a nine-year legal battle was required
before the governor would grant Pitts and Lee a pardon. Had their exe-
cution not been stayed while the constitutional status of the death penalty
was argued in the courts, these two innocent men probably would not be
Just months after Pitts and Lee were released, authorities in New
Mexico were forced to admit they had sentenced to death four white
men -- motorcyclists from Los Angeles --who were innocent. The
accused offered a documented alibi at their trial, but the prosecution dis-
missed it as an elaborate ruse. The jury’s verdict was based mainly on
what was later revealed to be perjured testimony (encouraged by the
police) from an alleged eyewitness. Thanks to a persistent investigation
by newspaper reporters and the confession of the real killer, the error was
exposed and the defendants were released after eighteen months on death
row. (The Case Against The Death Penalty)
Finally is the argument that killing in any form is immoral and wrong. Christians opposed to capital punishment argue that murdering a murderer is not Christ-like. Some see it as hypocrisy at its finest. The Bible teaches “Thou shalt not kill.” (Exodus 20:13) And the famous words from Christ to Peter, “ . . . all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.”(Matthew 26:52) Well, where do we go from there? Let us now examine the other side of the spectrum.
The words of Shakespeare echo loudly, “I must be cruel, only to be kind.” (Shakespeare, Hamlet. Act III. Sc. 4) Why be in favor of capital punishment? Out of necessity some would say.
George Bernard Shaw illustrates the need with the following example, “Dogs are friends of Man, but an exceptional dog sometimes goes mad and runs amok through the streets, biting and infecting everybody it comes across. Fond as we may be for dogs we must kill it on the spot, by gun or bludgeon. Cobras and adders, perfectly sane and normal, may get loose in a school playground or domestic garden. We break their necks without trial by jury. A fox caught in a poultry yard is liquidated on the spot, though it is only acting according to its nature as we ourselves do when we eat the turkey we have killed the fox for pursuing with the same purpose. Nobody thinks of the liquidations as punishments, nor expiations, nor sacrifices, nor anything but what they really are: sheer necessities. Precisely the same necessity arises in the daily-occurring cases of incorrigibly mischievous human beings. They are vermin in the commonwealth, ferocious wild beast on our highways, robbers and crooks of all sorts.” (Capital Punishment, June 1948)
Opposition would say that it’s not a fair comparison. It’s different because those are animals and we’re discussing human beings. Fair enough, imagine for yourselves this scenario. You have a little girl and she is the sunshine of your life. She is eight years old and her innocence is that of the angels. Ponder for a moment of the memories you have of all her birthdays, her first step, her first bathroom experience, her first day of kindergarten, her first lost tooth, and now...she’s gone. She has been kidnapped. You agonize for days. No word from the police department other than their assurance that they are doing all they can. You find yourself praying to God more frequently than before, sometimes accusingly and other times barely able to squeak out words amidst your sobs. Weeks pass slowly as you struggle to cope with the dim possibilities of the situation. You hold back tears each time you pass by her bedroom, which has been left untouched in the hope of her safe return.
Four months pass by and you are awakened one night by a phone call from the police department. Your little girl has been found and they want you to come down to the station immediately...to identify the body. She has been malnourished, raped multiple times, beaten severely, and finally shot to death. Her perpetrator was a convicted murderer, out on parole after serving a 25-year sentence for a similar offense, supposedly a reformed man ready for the real world and another chance on life. He was stopped for a routine traffic stop but the officer noticed blood on one of his hands. Your little girl was found in the trunk of that car, in a black garbage bag, ready to be dumped somewhere out of sight. The man returns to jail and awaits trial. The trial comes and as the specialists come in to report the wicked deeds performed on your daughter by this evil man. Suddenly, the man turns. He looks you in the eyes and you think he is trying to show a sign of remorse and repentance. Then his lip twitches and his solemn expression transforms into a smirk, and he begins to roar with laughter. The laughter stops and he says to you, “Don’t worry, she stopped screaming for Daddy after the first week.” How would that make you feel?
The trial ends with the jury’s decision. Guilty of murder in the first degree and the jury foreman asks the judge for a quick sidebar conference. The jury foreman talks with the judge for a second and then the judge asks you as the parents to please step forward. The jury has requested that the decision of sentencing be left up to you, the family. A sentence of death or a life sentence behind bars. Thinking of what he did to your young child, are you even the least bit concerned that this monster may receive what some deem as a cruel and unusual punishment? Was he worried about a cruel and unusual punishment as he beat your little princess for screaming out for Daddy and Mommy while writhing in pain as he viciously violated her virtue and honor?
Well, what do you decide? Life or death?
The decision for most of us is clear. We want justice served. We hope he will fry for what he did to our little girl. The story is a hypothetical extremely fringe situation but at least a partial reality for an all too many of our fellow Americans. After the initial desire for vengeance has subsided, the yearning to prevent this from ever happening to anyone else’s children enters your heart and mind. Such is the argument of those who support capital punishment. We must deter these criminals from committing these heinous acts by fear of punishment. They need to fear the consequences of their actions. If they know that they will be killed for an act of murder, it will make them think twice before they continue with the deed.
Opposition to this point comes from the Italian jurist Cesare Beccaria, in his treatise On Crimes and Punishments (1764), “The death penalty cannot be useful, because of the example of barbarity it gives men.” So, in other words, he states that even if it were a useful deterrent, it still would be an example of barbarity and in any case, a death penalty is not restitution. One cannot restore life. So do we just give up because full restitution cannot be made?
Russell Madden offered the following, “Killing a murderer is not much restitution for the surviving loved ones. That action can never bring back the dead victim...But simply because complete restitution is not possible, that does not imply we should not strive for as much restitution that we can achieve...How precisely restitution is to be achieved in a case of murder is a problem for the philosophy of law. Not being able to at this time to define the precise nature of practical restitution in the case of murder does not mean it is impossible or undesirable.” (A Letter To George H. Smith At Liberty On Rights And Capital Punishment)
Christians in favor of capital punishment would cite scriptures to back their opinions. God has decreed, “He that smiteth a man, so that he die, shall be surely put to death.” (Exodus 21:12) And, “...the murderer shall surely be put to death.” (Number 35:16) Or even amongst our own Latter-day Saint scriptures we find, “Wo unto the murderer who deliberately killeth, for he shall die.” (2 Nephi 9:35) and “And again, I say, thou shalt not kill; but he that killeth shall die.” (D&C 42:19) Many within the Christian realm feel that those who deliberately kill have given up their opportunity to be a part of civilization and thus relinquished their right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. They believe that it is our job as concerned citizens to see just that justice is served and to protect the community from further attacks. Others feel that if we were stiffer on the death penalty, maybe make it a public showcase, that it would discourage and frighten others from performing such damning deeds by beholding the inevitable mortal consequences.
Since most of the Biblical references in support of capital punishment come from the times of Moses, let us investigate how capital crimes were dealt with according to the law of Moses. There were many crimes that, according to the Law of Moses, were punishable by death. However the student will find that it was rarely used and the inquiring mind cannot refrain from wondering why. It was because there was only one type of crime heinous enough to carry a mandatory penalty of death...first degree murder (Number 35:31). Once again, capital punishment was inescapable for those who calculated the taking of human life with wholly evil intentions (Exodus 21:12-14).
In all other situations, where the maximum penalty was death, the offender had two options. One was to “be cut off from among his people” and the other was to “make satisfaction”. Or in other words, he had to leave Israel or make restitution. That is where the whole “eye for an eye” thing came into play. Not only that but as Moses explained: “If there be laid on him a sum of money, then he shall give for the ransom of his life whatsoever is laid upon him.” (Exodus 21:30). However, keep in mind that it has already been established that it was impossible to make satisfaction if he were guilty of murder: “Moreover ye shall take no satisfaction for the life of a murderer, which is guilty of death: but he shall be surely put to death.” (Numbers 35:31).
That brings us to the next obvious question...How did they implement the Mosaic Law? An interesting note in that regard is that the Law was not governed by a police force but by the people themselves. The judges waited for people to bring grievances and then it was their sacred duty to “inquire diligently,”(Deuteronomy 17:4; 19:18) they investigated to assure that the charges were true. However, even the rendering of judgment lied heavily upon the people, especially in murder cases requiring the death sentence.
In verdicts guilty of death the original accusers or witnesses of the crime had to be the one’s who threw the first stone. (Deuteronomy 13:9; 17:7) W. Cleon Skousen adds: “It is one thing to accuse a person of a capital crime and have the Government officers do the investigation and the executing. It is quite another thing for private citizens who brought the original charges or who served as the principal witnesses to be required to initiate the execution.” (The Third Thousand Years, p. 357). This is exactly what the Law of Moses necessitated: “At the mouth of two witnesses, or three witnesses, shall he that is worthy of death be put to death; but at the mouth of one witness he shall not be put to death. The hands of the witnesses shall be the first upon him to put him to death, and afterward the hands of all the people.” (Deuteronomy 17:6-7)
Skousen continues: “Note that no matter how inflamed a community might be against the accused, they could not execute him until after the citizens who had brought the charges (and thereby inflamed the community’s wrath) had cast the first stone. If these witnesses failed to act then it was presumed that there was something wrong with their testimony. That is why the elders of a community were legally prohibited from carrying out the death sentences unless the accusing witnesses would strike the first blow.” (The Third Thousand Years, p. 357).
The problem with capital punishment is that people have a tendency to only look at it from a mortal point of view, which is okay, because we’re all mortals. However, if we are to truly understand why God has implemented the death penalty then we must see it as He sees it...from an eternal perspective. Let us turn to the scriptures and examine what we have received concerning the matter.
Since the beginning of time the Lord has said that:
“But flesh with the life thereof, which is the blood thereof, shall ye not eat. And surely your blood of your lives will I require; at the hand of every beast will I require it, and at the hand of man; at the hand of every man’s brother will I require the life of man. Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man.” (Gen. 9:4-6)
And Joseph Smith added further understanding to this passage:
“But, the blood of all flesh which I have given you for meat, shall be shed upon the ground, which taketh life thereof, and the blood ye shall not eat. And surely, blood shall not be shed, only for meat, to save your lives; and the blood of every beast will I require at your hands. And whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed; for man shall not shed the blood of man. For a commandment I give, that every man’s brother shall preserve the life of man, for in mine own image have I made man. And a commandment I give unto you, Be fruitful and multiply; bring forth abundantly on the earth, and multiply therein.” (JST Gen. 9:10-14)
Notice the emphasis on life not death. We need to “preserve the life of man” and “multiply...on the earth.” All of this is about bringing in, supporting, and sustaining new life. Why? Because that has been the plan of God since the beginning of time. We learn from Abraham:
“Now the Lord had shown unto me, Abraham, the intelligences that were
organized before the world was; and among these there were many of the
noble and great ones; And God saw these souls that they were good, and
he stood in the midst of them, and he said: These I will make my rulers;
for he stood among those that were spirits, and he saw that they were
good; and he said unto me: Abraham, thou art one of them; thou wast
chosen before thou wast born. And there stood one among them that was
like unto God, and he said unto those who were with him: We will go
down, for there is space there, and we will take of these materials, and we
will make an earth whereon these may dwell; And we will prove them
herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God
shall command them; And they who keep their first estate shall be added
upon; and they who keep not their first estate shall not have glory in the
same kingdom with those who keep their first estate; and they who keep
their second estate shall have glory added upon their heads for ever and
ever.” (Abraham 3:22-26, emphasis added)
The plan encompasses before, during, and after mortality. Birth is not the beginning and death is not the end. The plan of God is to house spirits into mortal bodies in preparation for eternal glory. Here on earth we are given commandments and laws to follow to prepare us to stand before our Maker. As was told to Joseph Smith, “I give unto you directions how you may act before me, that it may turn to your for your salvation.” (D&C 82:9) As we grow we gain experience as we try to teach our young body to succumb to our spirit. Therein lies the problem at times. Our spirit is relatively mature while our mortal body is yet premature. Getting the two to coincide is our life’s goal. We sin and as sinners we fall short of the glory of God. He “cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance” (D&C 1:31). Even thought God has perfect love, he cannot look past our sinful state.
Justice requires punishment for every infraction of God’s law. If it were not for the plan of redemption, upon death our souls would be doomed to everlasting misery and damnation. It was vital that mankind be saved from this spiritual death. God, in His infinite mercy, provided a redeeming plan in absolute accord with the law of justice. The Atonement makes it possible for all those who will, to repent and be freed from the obligation of punishment without violating the law of justice. The wonder of this plan is that it allows God to be both merciful and just, without offending either side, for if He did, He would assuredly cease to be. Shakespeare’s poetic verse echoes to our point:
“The quality of mercy is not strain’d
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes;
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice.”
Shakespeare- Merchant of Venice, Act IV. Sc.I
Thanks to Christ’s sacrifice and atonement we are given the opportunity to prove ourselves worthy of returning to God’s presence by following His commandments. Thus the scripture from ancient America rings true, “...for we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.” (2 Nephi 25:23)
Now with that background let us enter murder. What is murder really? It is the taking of a person’s life with no ability to restore it. If a person cannot make complete restitution for a sin, is it possible to be forgiven? For example, viewed from an eternal perspective, a murderer is in direct opposition with God. God gives life for specific purposes and a murderer takes that away. A murderer robs the victim of the opportunity in mortality to sow the seeds of godhood that lie within a person. President Spencer W. Kimball gives us an excellent view of man and his potential:
“...man is the supreme creation, made in the image and similitude of God
and his son, Jesus Christ; that man is the offspring of God; that for man,
and man alone, was the earth created, organized, planted and made ready
for human habitation; and that, having within him the seeds of godhood
and thus being a god in embryo, man has unlimited potential for progress
and attainment.” (The Miracle of Forgiveness, p.3)
The whole purpose of the earth was for us. To interrupt that plan is mockery of God and God will not be mocked. In committing the vile act of murder one “make(s) a mock of the great plan of redemption, which has been laid for” us. (Jacob 6:8) So why kill the killer? This returns us to what we were discussing previously. How can God be both just and merciful in dealing with a murderer?
President Joseph Fielding Smith taught, “The real purpose which the Lord gave for the taking of life has long been forgotten. The taking of the life of the murderer was never intended to be a benefit to the murdered person or even a benefit to humanity.” (Answers to Gospel Questions, Volume 3, p.104) Well, there goes any justification on our behalf. As humans we have that tendency to feel like “Oh he deserves to die for what he did.” We call it justice. Yet the Lord never saw it solely in that way. To take the life of a murderer was also an act of mercy. How, you ask? President Smith continued, “It was intended to benefit the murderer himself. There are sins which cannot be forgiven, except by the guilty person paying a price by the shedding of his blood. Capital punishment was to benefit the guilty to obtain a better resurrection when the sin had been one unto death.” (Answers to Gospel Questions, Volume 3, p.104)
That brings us to the ensuing question...Is there repentance for the murderer? My initial answer is yes...and no, but allow me to illustrate why. Have you ever done something so incredibly dumb and then asked yourself, “What was I thinking? How could I have made such an incorrect decision?” You feel trapped by your actions and feel that there is no way out. How could God ever forgive you now? That is exactly what Satan wants you to think. We know, nevertheless, that the way out is to come humbly and penitently to our Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ to plead for forgiveness. However, the steps for forgiveness are not easy. There are certain sins for which a level of forgiveness is achievable but to be restored to your exact former position is not possible. One who breaks the law of chastity may be forgiven but God cannot restore a person’s virginity back to them.
The Prophet Joseph Smith also added: “A murderer, for instance, one that sheds innocent blood, cannot have forgiveness...They could not be baptized for the remission of sins, for they had shed innocent blood.” That brings up what would appear to be a contradiction from what Joseph Smith translated in the Book of Mormon but upon closer study it falls in line with the teachings of the gospel. The question is in regards to the call to repentance in 3 Nephi 30:2? Why does it say to “...repent of your evil doings,...and of your murders,...and come unto me, and be baptized in my name, that ye may receive a remission of your sins, and be filled with the Holy Ghost, that ye may be numbered with my people who are of the house of Israel.”
This has reference to those Lamanites who, under the direction of their wicked kings, murdered and endeavored to enslave their Nephite brethren. Elder McConkie again clarifies, “The call to repentance and baptism which includes murderers has reference to those who took life while engaged in unrighteous wars, as did the Lamanites, because they were compelled to do so, and not because they in their hearts sought the blood of their fellow men. On the other hand, the Jews on whose hands the blood of Christ was found were not invited to repent and be baptized. (Acts 3:19-21)” (Mormon Doctrine, p.520)
King David, father of Solomon, was guilty of iniquitous offenses and had true contrition for his sins. Because of that he was able to receive forgiveness, excluding the murder of Uriah. For that David is still unforgiven, but he received a promise that the Lord would not leave his soul in hell. David will be resurrected at the end of the Millenium. Because of Uriah’s murder, David has fallen from his exaltation. (D&C 132:39) In the meanwhile David is suffering what Christ has warned us to avoid.
“For behold, I, God, have suffered these things for all, that they might not
not suffer if they would repent; But if they would not repent they must
suffer even as I; Which suffering caused myself, even God, the greatest of
all, to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore, and to suffer
both body and spirit—and would that I might not drink the bitter cup and
shrink—Nevertheless, glory be to the Father, and I partook and finished
my preparations unto the children of men.” (D&C 19:16-19)
Thus, in the case of David. He was forgiven of his sins, all except of Uriah’s murder. He is paying for that sin and will continue to do so until the loving arm of God reaches to pull him out of hell. Will David ever be restored to where he was? No. But the fact that God will save him from the hell that he is enduring indicates the he will have paid the severe price and receive his level of forgiveness, which is salvation from the bowels of hell. Complete forgiveness and restoration to former position is impossible.
Is out justice system perfect? No, just look at what happened in the L.A.P.D. Rampart division. Over sixty-seven convictions have been overturned based on the actions of corrupt police officers. However, I feel that overall the justice system is there to protect the community. Do we hear about oddball things happening? Rapists getting three years and fraudulent check-writers getting 7-10 years. I believe, though, that a panel of twelve jurors, who realize that the fate of a human’s life depends on their decision, will make the right decisions. I believe that based on my belief in humanity. I believe that humans are internally good. I believe they want to do the right thing. The murderers of the world are the minorities. I feel that a penalty of death should not be inflicted if there is even .01% of a chance that the accused is innocent. If that is the situation a sentence of life imprisonment is better the case. However, when the evidence is overwhelmingly pointing the convicting finger of the law at the accused, it is our responsibility and duty to deliver a verdict of guilty. The judge then has the obligation to deliver a sentence of death as an act of justice and mercy to the guilty party. With God’s view of an eternal perspective, to not kill the killer would be considered an act of eternally cruel and unusual punishment.