Attorney General William Barr has reinstated the death penalty after a lengthy hiatus, NBC News reported July 25. Five men on death row were then sentenced to be executed in December and January. The death penalty has long been the subject of heated debate.
According to NBC News, the use of the death penalty was largely suspended in 2003 over legal challenges “involving the system for using three drugs to carry out lethal injections.” Prior to that, capital punishment had been reinstated in the 1970s after another cessation period in which it had been ruled as unconstitutional. This seemingly unending state of flux surrounding the death penalty hints at its controversial nature, with voices sounding strongly on both sides regarding its humaneness and effectiveness.
Historic Crimes and Punishments
Today, most Americans think of murder and treason as crimes that can warrant an execution, but this wasn’t always the case. “In the pre-revolutionary American colonies, a number of religious and moral offenses were punishable by death, including blasphemy, idolatry, adultery, sodomy, and witchcraft,” Dr. Mark Berkson, Professor of Religion at Hamline University, said. These days, aside from murder and treason, Dr. Berkson listed the rape of a child, espionage, aircraft hijacking, and drug trafficking as other offenses that often cost the offender his or her life.
“In the 17th and 18th centuries, many methods were used for executing people—some remarkably brutal, such as being disemboweled and quartered,” Dr. Berkson said. “The most painful form of execution—burning someone alive—was reserved for slaves who killed their owners or women who killed their husbands. These crimes were seen as threatening the social order, which was clearly based on racial and patriarchal hierarchies, and were called petty treason, illustrating the connection between the order of the household and that of the state.”
It’s of little surprise that execution has caused emotional debate for and against it. “One reason why capital punishment provokes such a passionate debate among thoughtful people is that it appeals to different kinds of virtuous impulses,” Dr. Berkson said. “Proponents of the death penalty appeal to our sense of justice, our reaction of moral outrage, and the notion that a community has the right to rid itself of elements that would threaten it.”
Dr. Berkson mentioned that justice is both a religious and secular notion of retribution. “While opponents of the death penalty often argue that executing people violates our belief in the sanctity of life, proponents argue that killing those who take innocent life actually demonstrates our belief in life’s sanctity,” he said. “In Genesis 9:6, God tells Noah, ‘Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.'” Dr. Berkson then pointed to sociologist Ernest van den Haag, who in turn cited the Roman phrase homo homini res sacra, which means “man is a sacred object to man.” This phrase, van den Haag said, proved that the Romans “believed the sanctity of life was best safeguarded by executing murderers who had not respected it.” Executing offenders of crimes that befit the death penalty is also said to bring closure to victims and their families.
Of course there are those who oppose the death penalty, many of whom believe it inhumane and imperfect enough to be cast aside. In centuries past, application of capital punishment was far from fair. “Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, capital crimes specifically targeted black people, especially in the Southern states, where black people encouraging slaves to run away or hitting a white person hard enough to leave a bruise were crimes punishable by death,” Dr. Berkson said. “Execution rates were far higher for black people than for white people, and many scholars argue that the death penalty continues to be applied in a racist way today.”
In addition, Dr. Berkson said, there have been problems with varying methods of execution. Hanged prisoners’ necks sometimes failed to break, causing a slow death by suffocation instead. Prisoners in the electric chair either caught fire or survived only to lose “cruel and unusual punishment” appeals and be re-electrocuted later. Finally, the United States settled on lethal injection in 1982, but even this has failed to work 100 percent of the time. “In 2014, convicted murderer Clayton Lockett was given a cocktail of drugs designed to kill him painlessly, but he writhed for some 43 minutes before he died,” Dr. Berkson said.
Finally, statistics don’t paint a pretty picture of capital punishment as a deterrent. “In the United States, the South is by far the region where most executions take place—over 80 percent of all American executions are in the South, with over one-third in Texas alone since 1976; and yet, the FBI reports that the South has the highest murder rate,” Dr. Berkson said. “The lowest murder rate is found in the Northeast, which has the fewest executions annually. The FBI has also found that the states without capital punishment have homicide rates at or below the national average.”
Whether arguing for justice, retribution, and closure for victims on the one side or ineffectiveness and inhumanity on the other side, the death penalty remains a hotly contested political issue. With Attorney General Barr declaring its reinstatement last week, that debate is likely to continue for some time.
Dr. Mark Berkson contributed to this article. Dr. Berkson is Professor of Religion at Hamline University. He earned a B.A. from Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, an M.A. from Stanford University in East Asian Studies, and a Ph.D. from Stanford University in Religious Studies and Humanities.