Christians and the death penalty.

Author:Bottum, Joseph

In 1981, on the campus of Cornell University, Michael Ross murdered a young woman named Dzung Ngoc Tu. Over the next year, he raped and killed Tammy Williams, Paula Perrera, and Debra Smith Taylor. In 1983, he added Robin Stavinsky. On Easter Sunday in 1984, he abducted, sexually assaulted, and strangled Leslie Shelley and April Brunais, both just fourteen years old, after he caught them walking along a Connecticut road. Two months later, he raped and killed another Connecticut girl, the seventeen-year-old Wendy Baribeault, leaving her body behind a stone fence along the highway.

The man was a monster, and he got at least a small portion of his desserts, long delayed but nonetheless real, over twenty years later, when, on May 13, 2005, executioners in a Connecticut prison injected poison into his veins while the families of his victims watched. He gasped and shuddered, one witness reported, as the needle went home and the poison began to work. Then the color drained from his face, and he was dead: executed at last, and justly, for the destruction of his innocent, undeserving prey.

Considered as a story--but who can stop to consider this simply as a story, standing back from the sheer, bloody reality of those slaughtered girls and the brutality they suffered before their deaths? This isn't a novel, a stray bit of horror fiction, but the horrifying thing itself, the raw stuff that fiction only models, and its victims are not mere characters but genuine, living beings whose lives were broken and destroyed. Do not forget them. Dzung Ngoc Tu, Tammy Williams, Paula Perrera, Debra Smith Taylor, Robin Stavinsky, little Leslie Shelley and April Brunais, Wendy Baribeault: They were here with us, and now forever they are not, and the reason is that a man named Michael Ross found a brief pleasure in abusing their bodies and ending their young lives.

And yet, even true stories are still stories, the kind of things we know by telling them. Dzung Ngoc Tu, Tammy Williams, Paula Perrera, Debra Smith Taylor, Robin Stavinsky, Leslie Shelley, April Brunais, Wendy Baribeault--the litany I hear over and over, the syllables that whisper in my mind every time I try to think about the moment this spring when the State of Connecticut carried out its first execution in more than forty years: even that repetition of the victim's names, in the end, appears on a page only as a storyteller's promise that this particular story really happened.

It is real, unbearably real, in other words, but also a story, with a purpose in the way the story goes. And taken that way, the execution of Michael Ross works more or less as we demand from such stories. It has a completeness, a satisfaction, a narrative arc. It gives the feeling of rightness and a sort of balance restored to a universe gone wrong with the taking of innocent life. It aims, as satisfying stories must, at what we used to call poetic justice: the killer killed, the blood-debt repaid with blood, death satisfied with death.

Unfortunately, it is also, in its essence, a pagan story, and Jesus--well, yes, Jesus turned all our smiles inside out. Especially the old, old ones about blood and blood's repayment.

One hears so many bad, thoughtless, and even dangerous objections to the death penalty in the United States. That it is unconstitutionally "cruel and unusual," for instance, though the Constitution itself mentions capital crimes. Or that the large number of prisoners removed from death row in recent years by commutation and technical legal appeal some-how prove that hundreds of innocent convicts are on the edge of state-sanctioned death. Or that opponents of abortion are hypocrites if they don't simultaneously reject the execution of criminals. Why, I always wonder, does this never seem to cut in the opposite direction: If the issues are genuinely linked, then what about the people who oppose capital punishment while supporting legalized abortion? Aren't they equally hypocritical, and for exactly the same reason?

At the same time, one regularly hears another set of bad arguments for the death penalty. That it is required to teach human beings the wrongness of killing, for instance, though countries that have abolished capital punishment show no mass conversion to murder. Or that the cost of executing prisoners is significantly less than the cost of imprisoning them, though the expense of actually carrying out a death sentence in today's legal climate is enormous.

But the worst of these, for a Christian, is the argument from justice--the argument made implicitly every time we tell the story of an executed murderer. One could quarrel here about Christian pacifism and its relation to the death penalty, the hard-edged claim that the task of a believer is to stand as a sheep among the wolves or the softly sentimental notion that mercy is somehow nicer than strict justice. The question I have in mind, however, is about the status of justice in political theory.

Christians may decline to accept responsibility for government, but governing must still go on. And that governing will inevitably find itself caught in the clash between justice and mercy...

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