The Penalty Phase.
Nothing to Do with Justice_Barnabas-The Penalty Phase.
“It’s an awful thing to kill a man, to take away all that he has,
and all that he’s ever going to have.” —The Unforgiven
Twice this week there were sentencing hearings for men convicted of murder. In both cases the victims were middle-class girls whose lives, according to the jury, had been murderously taken away by these men. The portion of the penalty phase that reached national television did not focus on the nature of the crime, however, but on how loveable the victim was and how much she was missed and grieved by family and friends.
An absurd question comes to mind because the scenario is absurd. Does one killer deserve to die more than another does, because he killed a nicer person? Even more, does a killer deserve to die because the prosecutor in one case has more pretty pictures to show of the victim, and more tearful relatives to testify, than the prosecutor in the next courtroom?
No ethical reason may be cited why such a presentation should be allowed in court, and several why it should not be. While very moving, it has nothing to do with justice. In a rational justice system, punishment fits the crime, not the victim. Among murder victims, at least, there is equality in the great leveler, death. Murder in the first-degree (with premeditation) calls for severe punishment because of the nature of the crime. The killer of a young male drug runner, found robbed and tortured to death in an alley, deserves the same punishment as the killer of a popular middle-class kid with lots of loving relatives. (Does the term “gang-related” minimize the humanness of the victim, or the obscenity of his violent end?)
If you believe that emotional appeals for severe punishment are justified on the grounds of the victim’s value to other people, you won’t much care for the underside of your argument: you are suggesting that it’s the quality of the victim’s life that determines the heinousness of the crime. One killer deserves to die more than another because one victim deserves to live more than another.
Morally, I don’t want to go there. We have no right to minimize the value of any person. The unloved has the same right of redress as the beloved. Beyond this obvious truth there is a greater: murder is more than a crime against an individual. It is an outrage against all of us, and a sin against God.
What have you done? Your brother’s blood cries to me from the ground.