Simple Justice – Simple Hubris

Originally published at in April 2011.

There is a simplicity to capital punishment that appeals. Deciding the appropriate penalty for a crime often feels like some abstruse mathematics: two offenses which call forth the same sentence rarely have much relationship to each other. Murder, however, elicits a comforting equivalence: the penalty for killing is death. Justice is comprehensible at last.

Capital punishment also sets a close to the catastrophe of murder. With an execution, the process ends. The court turns its attention away; the prison system no longer bears the weight of its charge. The grieving, so the theory goes, can lay aside their pain and go on with their lives.

Perhaps some do. I wonder how many can; I have lost no loved one to violence, only to illness. And I grieve their absence still.

Capital punishment may be comprehensible, but it does not meet the test of justice. Its very simplicity belies the complexity of life, and ignores the very real possibility of human malice, manipulation, or error. In 2011 the New York Times printed John Thompson’s account of his eighteen year struggle not just for his freedom, but for his life. When prosecutors failed to turn over exculpatory evidence to his attorneys, juries convicted him of two crimes he had not committed, including a murder: and sentenced him to death. An investigator’s discovery of a report on forgotten microfiche averted his electrocution and eventually freed him – after his execution had been scheduled for the seventh time.

If the amendment planned by those favoring continued executions in Connecticut had been in place in Louisiana in 1999, Thompson would have died.

Capital punishment makes too many assumptions. It assumes that the convicted is guilty – Thompson was one of 138 condemned prisoners to be exonerated between 1973 and 2010. It assumes that the penalty will be swift – but the legal processes required (which prevented 138 innocents from dying at the hands of the state) continue for years. Justice delayed, it’s said, is justice denied.

Capital punishment assumes that the world has no more use for the condemned, that no repentance, no reconciliation, no renewal are possible. In contrast, Christians recall that Jesus said that God cares for each sparrow, and how much more for each person. Capital punishment assumes that somehow, an action undertaken by the state has a different moral quality than one taken by an individual citizen. It does not, except in this: when the state acts, we all act. We all take this life.

This fundamental hubris, that we are entitled to take life when one is taken, corrupts us all. Its very simplicity in a complex world should warn us.

And I shudder at the deepest warning of them all. According to my faith, only one person has walked this earth since it first began to spin in the void who could truly be called innocent of sin and error. When the police arrived, his friends fled, and we will tell that story in our churches next week. We will further tell the story of a swift yet thorough legal process that, less scrupulous but as self-righteous as our own, manipulated evidence and led inexorably to that most ragged legal maxim of all: expediency. And from there to a cross on a hill.

The Roman legal system that executed Jesus has echoes in our own. Even more, its hubris is the model for our own. We human beings applied the ultimate sanction to the person who least deserved it in the history of the planet. How did those who follow him ever dare to take it up again? Are we so arrogant as to believe that we should never be wrong again?

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