Capital Punishment Betrays Our Nation’s Founding Principles

There is an understandable and righteous desire to execute Dylann Roof, especially after he was convicted of such a vile and horrific crime. Seeking this vindication is a primal instinct—to address the wrong that has been committed, to “balance the scales.” When Hamlet states “Haste me to know’t that I, with wings as swift as meditation or the thoughts of love, may sweep to my revenge,” we immediately sympathize with his desire to murder the man who took his father’s life, because his feelings are so easily understood. They are intensely relatable.

A man who takes the life of an individual—an affront to society as a whole—must pay with his own to address the imbalance of justice. Despite this desire to right what is wrong, the balance of justice cannot be achieved in this manner. Truth and fairness are not restored through the use of capital punishment since it betrays and undermines the fundamental principles of our nation, thus depriving us of moral clarity.

Our country was founded on the ideals of ensuring life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness: the fundamental principles that outline the American experiment. Power is vested in the people to secure these rights through the establishment of a republic, and it is bound to protect these rights from the tyranny of the state or the coercion of private individuals. This is why when one commits murder, or any other act that deprives an individual their natural rights, the state removes him from society and places him in prison. He is punished for his offense and cannot continue to usurp the rights of others. This is why it is unnecessary to kill the offender for their crime to maintain our fundamental principles. To uphold our guiding ideals of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, placing offenders in prison to remove them from society is both necessary and sufficient.

We must then confront the question: Is it moral for the state to have the right to kill citizens that no longer pose an immediate threat? If murder is insufferable for a civil society and must be outlawed, then on what grounds does the state possess the right to kill premeditatively? If the state is a representative of the people, a collective body of private individuals, then is there any justification for the state to be empowered to take the life of a criminal when a private citizen could not?

Some will argue that the government already coerces citizens in ways that private individuals cannot, like imprisoning people  and seizing private property in the form of taxation or cases of eminent domain. This is a false comparison because the imprisonment of offenders and the taxation of citizens are necessary functions of a republic that seeks to secure the rights of its people. When we unnecessarily grant the state the right to premeditatively kill people, however, we sacrifice our founding principles in allowing the state to perpetrate what we hold at an individual level to be an intolerable transgression: murder.

Our nation’s legal system is not perfect, as numerous instances of prosecutorial and police misconduct have resulted in the false imprisonment of thousands of Americans. Elected prosecutors and law enforcement officials are often incentivized to make arrests and seek the highest punishments in the court of law, to indicate to the public that “law and order” is being enforced. What can result is the tampering of evidence, the coercion of false testimony, and the selection of unfavorable jurors for some defendants. Even when standard legal procedures are followed, some innocent people are inevitably convicted of crimes they did not commit.

Recent studies have indicated that upwards of 4.1% of defendants sentenced to death in the United States are later found innocent. With roughly 2,900 people on death row, it can be reasoned that approximately 120 of the convicted offenders are innocent of their crimes. This is simply intolerable for a free and civil society and undermines the very foundational principles of our nation. The punishment of death is irredeemable and irreversible and is therefore incompatible with a legal system that commits any margin of error.

Wishing death upon Dylann Roof is an easy decision. He committed a heinous crime without remorse, and it can be difficult to conceptualize a world in which he deserves to live. Despite our  inner urge for vindication, we must resist, for it is only through the practice of just restraint that a free republic is able to survive. The clamor for capital punishment is derived from moral hypocrisy and is irreconcilable with a nation that values the virtues of life and liberty. We should rather strive for what is just and call upon, in the words of President Lincoln, “the better angels of our nature.”

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About Cole Carnick

Cole is a junior at the University of Michigan. He can be contacted at carnick@umich.edu, or on Twitter @ColeCarnick.
  • Thomas F. Dixon

    Are those opposed to killing killers just as opposed to killing unborn kids?

  • Dudley Sharp

    Exactly, my point. Cole knew the death penalty was given foundational support, within the constitution specifically contrary to the point of his article.

  • LightsOut

    Ya Cole definetly knew of those. No need to suspect anymore Dudley.

  • Dudley Sharp

    The 4.1% is an extrapolation with a foundation in a database that is a very well known deception, which is 70-83% in error, as detailed:

    The 4.1% “Innocent” on Death Row: More Nonsense
    http(COLON)//prodpinnc.blogspot(DOT)com/2015/04/the-41-innocent-on-death-row.html

  • Frank Blackman
  • Ernie

    It’s not true to say that 4.1% of defendants sentenced to death in the United States were “later found innocent.” Their convictions were overturned (for the most part) due to insufficient proof of their guilt. For example, the appeals court in the case of Jay C. Smith said, “Our confidence in Smith’s convictions for the murder of Susan Reinert and her two children is not the least bit diminished.” See the critique of DPIC “innocence list” at http://www.prodeathpenalty.com/DPIC.htm

  • Dudley Sharp

    Frank:

    As a general and very well known rule:

    Life is preferred over death and death is feared more than life.

    What we prefer more deters less. What we fear more deters more.

    Nearly 100% of death penalty eligible murderers do all they can to avoid the death penalty and to live, instead.

    All non murderers, overwhelmingly, prefer life over death.

    Just basic.

    Frank:

    As a general and very well known rule:

    Life is preferred over death and death is feared more than life.

    What we prefer more deters less. What we fear more deters more.

    Nearly 100% of death penalty eligible murderers do all they can to avoid the death penalty and to live, instead.

    All non murderers, overwhelmingly, prefer life over death.

    Just basic.

    The Death Penalty: Saving More Innocent Lives
    http(COLON)//prodpinnc.blogspot(DOT)com/2013/10/the-death-penalty-do-innocents-matter.html

  • Dudley Sharp

    and some more:

    New Testament Death Penalty Support Overwhelming
    http(COLON)//prodpinnc.blogspot(DOT)com/2014/01/new-testament-death-penalty-support.html

  • Dudley Sharp

    I suspect Cole knew of those.

  • Dudley Sharp

    Cole:

    Thank you for yours..

    Cole:

    Justice is subjective and I as many others feel that the death penalty is appropriate in some cases and that, because of that, a judge or jury should have the option of life or death for some cases.

    Sanction takes away that which we value: time and labor with community service, money with fines, freedom with incarceration and life with execution.

    Life is the greatest of all gifts and when it is, wrongly, taken, that guilty murderer may have forfeited there own life, when in some cases, a forfeiture of that greatest gift has been earned as with Roof.

    Innocent lives are much more at risk when we allow murderers to live (1).

    It seems the last proven innocent executed in the US was from the 1930’s.

    It appears that we may have proof that some 0.4% actual innocents may have been sentenced to death since 1973 (1). All have been released.

    The death penalty protects innocents, in three ways, better than does a life sentence (1).

    When are the innocents more at risk?

    The Death Penalty: Saving More Innocent Lives
    http(COLAN)//prodpinnc.blogspot(DOT)com/2013/10/the-death-penalty-do-innocents-matter.html

  • Frank Blackman

    “Individuals have freedom of the will, so we cannot know what is necessary (or sufficient) for the prevention of future crimes; we only know whether the punishment is commensurate with the crime already committed.” (from “A Refutation of the ELCA Social Statement on the Death Penalty,” page 5) http://mcadams.posc.mu/edu/pdf/Death_Penalty_Lutheran.pdf

  • Patrick H.

    “No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury….” (U.S. Constitution, Amendment V)

    “…nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law….” (U.S. Constitution, Amendment XIV, Section 1)

    That’s proof enough that the framers of the Constitution did NOT regard the death penalty as a “cruel and unusual punishment” forbidden by the Eight Amendment.

  • Patrick H.

    “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed.” (Genesis 9:6)

    “Whoever takes a human life shall surely be put to death…. If anyone injures his neighbor, as he has done it shall be done to him, fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; whatever injury he has given a person shall be given to him.” (Leviticus 24:17-20)

    “You shall not accept indemnity in place of the life of a murderer who deserves the death penalty; he must be put to death.” (Numbers 35:31)

  • Cole Carnick

    Thank you for your response, Dudley.

    It is hardly worth addressing the fact that there were laws in the books of this nation at its founding that were later found to be incompatible with our founding principles. Capital punishment is now one of them.

    Our inalienable rights are secured by the republic through the use of a just legal system. If you are convicted of murder, your life and liberty are forfeited to the state when you serve life in prison. Due process is necessary, but as I outlined, the premeditated killing of citizens is not necessary to achieve justice or to protect individual rights.

    I don’t attribute Lincoln’s words as being against capital punishment. I call upon them to echo his standards for citizenry, similar to how he evoked the words of slave-owners to make the case against slavery.

    The state can kill with premeditation, private citizens cannot–when capital punishment is unnecessary to maintain our individual rights, the argument for the state having this right is derived from hypocrisy. Instances of taxation and imprisonment are necessary for the function of our republic to secure our rights and incomparable to capital punishment.

    And I apologize for my error for not fact checking legal studies with your “Pro death penalty in North Carolina” blog. If the rate of error was even 1% or less, it should be insufferable for us as nation, that values life and liberty, to see any number of innocent men and women put to death at the hands of the state.

  • Dudley Sharp

    Cole:

    Think.

    Hamlet is speaking of revenge. The jury in the Roof case is dealing with justice.

    Very different.

    One wonders how Cole could find that seeking justice undermines the fundamental principles of our nation. At the time of our Declaration of Independence, all colonies had laws supportive of the death penalty, which were accepted when they became states.

    General Washington was responsible for the first “American” execution.

    The moral clarity of capital punishment could, hardly, be more clear.

    One wonders why you say “Truth and fairness are not restored through the use of capital punishment”.

    The purpose of all sanctions is justice. Justice is imposed by providing a sanction that is just and proportional to the crime committed.

    Is there a concept or realization more important than justice?

    Cole, you seem completely, unaware that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are all conditional upon individuals not violating the social contract. Dependng upon crime, the criminal may forfeit life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

    Are you unaware?

    The state and federal governments enforce all sanctions premeditatively. It is known as the due process of law. Would you have it some other way?

    We don’t sanction folks based upon future threat, but because of justice.

    Innocents are better protected by the death penalty, in three ways, than with life without parole (1).

    Cole’s trouncing of history continues, by his using an Abraham Lincoln quote, as an, alleged, anti death penalty position.

    President Lincoln, “the better angels of our nature.”

    On the orders of President Lincoln, December 26, 1862, thirty-eight Dakota Indians were hanged in Mankato, Minnesota, in the largest mass execution in US history.

    Cole asks “Is there any justification for the state to be empowered to take the life of a criminal when a private citizen could not?”

    Private citizens can kill in self defense, defense of others and in a just war. Are you unaware.

    Private citizens cannot, lawfully, murder, kidnap or steal, yet the state can, lawfully, execute, incarcerate and fine.

    Have you not been instructed about the importance of fact checking? If so, it had little impression upon you.

    Try it, here:

    The 4.1% “Innocent” on Death Row: More Nonsense
    http(COLON)//prodpinnc.blogspot(DOT)com/search?q=4.1

    1) The Death Penalty: Saving More Innocent Lives
    http(COLON)//prodpinnc.blogspot(DOT)com/2013/10/the-death-penalty-do-innocents-matter.html