By Joseph M Nunes
In late August 1987, I was sitting in my Utah home watching the late news. The execution of Pierre Dale Selby was the lead story. More than 13 years earlier, Selby committed a heinous crime that resulted in the torture and death of three innocent people in the infamous Hi-Fi murder case. The news that night also included a sidebar report on the vigils and celebrations being held outside the state prison just a few miles from my home.
The celebrations were unsettling. I was disappointed anybody would celebrate the death of another person. The vigils protesting the execution were not comforting either. They were populated by opportunists whose only objective was to make political statements.
An execution is not an event to be celebrated or exploited. Capital punishment is not about vengeance, nor does it provide recompense for the crimes that were committed. It is a horrendous event for everyone involved. But it is a necessary task for good government to perform to preserve justice and the sanctity of life, just as disciplining a child is a necessary task for good parenting. As a parent, I was expected to teach and train my children.
Teaching occurred as I introduced my children to principles governing physical safety, social interactions, moral decision-making, or other tools and skills that would help them learn to navigate their ever-growing sphere of activity in the world. As they tried out these principles in the laboratory of life, they would often make mistakes.
Training happened when they needed to be corrected. To train my children effectively, I had to carefully choose an appropriate level of discipline that was commensurate with the severity of the mistake. Arguing with a sibling might only earn a parent-child discussion or a timeout. Stealing might include an apology and working off the debt to compensate the victim for his loss. Drug or alcohol abuse might merit the loss of freedom and privileges. The discipline I chose reflected how important the principle was to me and how serious was the offense.
Societies work in a similar manner. A punitive action should be commensurate with the crime that was committed. This is key to demonstrating our values. The more important a thing is to us, the harsher the penalty we will demand if it is violated.
Among other things, the Constitution is a contract between the people and the government. In the Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln said the people who died on that battleground gave their last full measure of devotion for a specific cause; namely, “that this nation shall have a new birth of freedom; and that this government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” In short, we (the people) are the government, and our governmental documents communicate our values to each other and to the world.
A CONSTITUTIONAL VALUE: THE SANCTITY OF LIFE
The Constitution of the United States identifies a few common values held by our society. The 5th amendment states: “No person shall be… deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” The 14th amendment limits states with almost the exact same language: “… nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” (Note that these statements in our Constitution echo the more well-known words from the Declaration of Independence: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.) The Constitution is the highest law of the land so the values it contains should be the most important to us.
Is the sanctity of life, particularly human life, one of our highest values? If so, do we not want the make absolutely sure that everyone, domestic and abroad, is aware of how much we value it? What can we do to show that?
We demonstrate how much we value life when we demand the ultimate penalty for anyone who wrongfully deprives another of this inalienable right. A virtual slap on the wrist indicates our society does not value life and holds it cheap.
A weak message filters down to many aspects of our lives. It is not just murder that is involved here. Declaring, through our impotent response to violations, that we think life is cheap opens the door to other heinous crimes such as abuse, trafficking, rape, abortion, mass shootings, suicides, and a host of other ways to mistreat the divine gift of life. The “life is cheap” mindset dampens the more virtuous aspects of our societal character, such as love, dignity, respect, courtesy, service, and charity.
There is another essential phrase in the 5th and 14th amendments that often is ignored or overlooked—due process of law. The door is open for a person to be deprived of life, liberty, or property if they are in violation of the law and determined to be guilty through the legal processes that form the backbone of our justice system. A person may be legally deprived of life if they are determined to be guilty of a capital crime.
Capital crimes should be few in number, but they should represent the highest values of our society. Our legislatures are tasked with making laws and, in so doing, determining what are capital crimes and what are not. Property crimes have generally not been considered capital crimes but have been punished by depriving a person of liberty or their own property. On the other hand, treason has the potential to take away our liberty, so it has been treated as a capital crime for most of our nation’s history.
Murder, the act of willfully depriving an innocent person of life, is a clear violation of one of our most sacred values. As such, our society should demand that we make an unambiguous statement about how much we value the sanctity of life. The right to life is a promise to each of us individually from all of us collectively. We should expect the government to work in our behalf to promote safety and security for all of us. We must demand that those who willfully transgress that basic human right without just cause must pay the ultimate price. Not for revenge or recompense. But because we want to say, “It is not insignificant to take a person’s life. It is not an open season on humanity. We solemnly proclaim our intent to defend the right to live for all innocent people who dwell under our protection.”