Seminary Student: The Death Penalty Is Merciful

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More and more death row inmates are opting to “volunteer” for execution rather than spend their lives in prison.

First, I’ll say something we can hopefully all agree on: the modern system of capital punishment is an absolute mess. Inmates on death row often spend years, even decades, awaiting execution. This slog of a process ends up costing the government more money than life in prison without parole, something opponents of the death penalty often cite as an argument against the practice.

The process takes so long for a number of of reasons. One concerns the difficulty states often have in obtaining the drugs necessary for lethal injections; drug companies often do not want the negative press of supplying the chemicals used in executions. The appeals process often can drag on for years. However, these roadblocks put in place prior to the application of the death penalty make the entire situation crueler; imagine having to wait ten years years knowing you would be put to death at the end of it all.

In order to make the process more humane, we need to settle the issue of our aversion to the death penalty or, otherwise, simply get rid of it.

So should we put people to death? Well, we already do much worse.

An entire life spent in prison, without possibility of parole (especially in cases that involve solitary confinement) is a fate much worse than death. It is a scientifically proven that solitary confinement is nothing short of mental  torture, but, unfortunately, solitary confinement is sometimes necessary for the most dangerous of criminals.

But in our justice system, a person is sometimes unable to request to be put to death. There have been exceptions to this, of course. For example, all three people executed by the state of Pennsylvania since capital punishment was reinstated in the United States by Gregg v. Georgia (1976) requested that their death sentences be carried out. An increasing number of inmates on death row have been “volunteering” for execution by waiving their appeals. For example, “between 1993 and 2002, 75 volunteered for death, compared to the 22 consensual executions between 1977 and 1992.”

Should someone convicted of murder’s request to be executed go ignored, however, he must spend a life in prison without parole, undergo the entirety of his remaining life on earth in a small cell, often for upwards of 20 hours per day. This, in my mind, is much worse than a quick and humane execution.

If the state has the right to condemn a criminal to a life in prison, a fate arguably worse than death, it surely has the right to kill that person, despite the claims of certain abolition activists citing the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishment.”

It is possible, however, that opposition to the death penalty actually has very little to do with merciful concern for the condemned. It may instead reflect the omnipresent fear of death shared by so many of us. So much of modern life aims to detach us from the inevitability of mortality. It is almost as if anti-capital punishment activists want the death penalty banned so as to further ignore death in this modern society.

If our only concern is indeed the well-being of those sentenced to life without parole, then we ought to have fewer reservations about humanely ending their lives through capital punishment. This is the merciful option.

Matthew Jacobs, a graduate of Texas A&M University, is studying for his Master of Divinity at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He writes about the intersection of religion and secularism in the United States.

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