On the occasion of the impending execution of murderer Eric Wrinkles, the Roman Catholic bishop for the Diocese of Evansville, where the crime took place, offers his thoughts on capital punishment and the protection of society:
Capital punishment demands the life of the criminal to protect the members of society. On the "frontier" many years ago, execution provided quick and final justice. That may have been necessary then, as there were no means to separate the criminal from society for a lifetime.
Frontier justice employs various means for killing criminals including hanging, firing squad, gas chamber or lethal injection. Death was inevitable. Society was protected.
It seems that we are still invoking frontier justice. Indiana is no longer the frontier. The state is able to protect its citizens from murderous criminals by separating them from society by sentencing them to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
However, one cannot ignore the reality that deep within the human being there is somehow a "blood lust" as ancient as human kind. Executions were made a public spectacle so as to teach a lesson, or worse were to satisfy base instincts for vengeance and retribution. They somehow gave approval, even applauded, the base instinct of hatred arising from ignorance and fear.
Ironically, executions are sanitized and are accomplished virtually in secret.
It's an undeniable point, I think, that capital punishment as it is carried out today is not a deterrent (except for the deterring of the particular individual subjected to the execution). "Frontier justice" did deter, because it was brutal, swift, sure and public. Today, capital punishment is slow, uncertain and, as the bishop points out, sanitized and virtually secret. Given my age, I'd die in prison before execution if I decided to commit murder.
So, do we want to make it a deterrent again? William F. Buckley once said something to the effect that we could easily end marijuana use (or maybe it was drug use in general) in this country -- just take every 10th user and execute them publically. However, he added, would we really want to live in a country like that?
In the absence of deterrence, can capital punishment still be justified? Anyone who has read this blog over the years knows I've been hot and cold on that issue. For the record, I think Indiana handles it pretty well, reserving it for the worst of the worst among murderers; there have to be additional circumstances beyond mere murder for someone to qualify. But should anyone qualify, given that life without parole is available? If we remove the ultimate punishment from the equation, is that the same as saying there is no ultimate crime, and does society want to say that?