For me, any symbolic balancing of the scales accomplished by the death penalty is pointless masturbation. A punishment should address only two considerations: effective deterrence and social healing. As exercised in our justice system, death provides little deterrence. It is far down the list of potential consequences that loom in a wrongdoer’s mind, below exposure, shame, loss of freedom, suffering in the prison population, and a host of other imaginings. Our own death is difficult enough to conceive of with concentrated effort, much less as an internal debate of the merits of evil action.
As far as social healing is concerned, here the specter of vengeance and retributive justice is legitimately addressed. But death for a murderer only ends the suffering. The death imposed on the victim may have ended the unexpressed potential of their life, but it just began the suffering of those around them and the ripples of suffering through the social fabric. How does ending the perpetrator’s suffering achieve the balance of justice?
Perhaps we need to reexamine the concept of cruel and unusual punishment within the framework of the most heinous crimes. Perhaps we need to explore the possibilities of cruel and appropriate punishment. Instead of imposing death on the most evil among us, how do we impose despair? Hopelessness? An inevitable sense of divine retribution and an enduring denial of forgiveness?
One expression of the experience of families of murder victims that recurs again and again is their numb realization that the killer has no conception of their experience, has little visceral immersion in the monstrous wreckage that has torn into their lives. Execution is a pale and transient weight that does little to balance the scales. I believe we must seek out punishments that open the listening of these monsters to the wind whistling in the Abyss. This is the punishment that fits the crime.