From a practical point of view, capital punishment works. It permanently removes vicious criminals from society so they cannot repeat their crimes, and it deters others from committing murder. But there is more to it than practicality.
From a spiritual point of view, capital punishment is justified for two reasons. Consider the case of a convicted murderer who is in prison for life with no chance of parole, and who then commits murder in prison. There have been such cases. What punishment could be imposed in that situation? Another life sentence? That would mean nothing to the convict; it doesn’t change his circumstances in the least. A literal slap on the wrist would actually be more severe. The only proper punishment in such a situation is death. Otherwise, the person can go on murdering, even in prison, because there is no other effective deterrent. (Life in solitary confinement is regarded as cruel and unusual punishment, and therefore has been ruled unconstitutional.)
That is the first justification for capital punishment: simple fairness to society, even when “society” is merely a prison population. It removes an incorrigible murderer from that society, so that he can never again repeat his offense. Statistics show that about 20% of all murders are committed by recidivist felons.
The second justification for capital punishment is that it creates an opportunity for the condemned person to contemplate death more deeply and thereby possibly gain spiritual growth. As Samuel Johnson, the English lexicographer, put it, “Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows that he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”
Spiritual traditions use death as a focus for meditative practices, and capital punishment imposes the circumstances where a condemned person is being strongly encouraged to inspect the subjects of mortality, the afterlife and, for religions which hold the doctrine of reincarnation, the wheel of death-and-rebirth. Thereby society may compassionately hope for a “deathbed conversion”—i.e., true repentance and remorse. Any growth in consciousness resulting from that will be carried over into the postmortem process by which the deceased is (from a Christian perspective) judged or (from an Eastern perspective) reincarnated for further opportunity to attain enlightenment. Thus, capital punishment serves the condemned person’s spiritual awakening.
Although capital punishment is justified from a spiritual point of view, it should be imposed only under very restricted circumstances and with the strongest possible safeguards to avoid taking the life of a wrongly convicted innocent person. The means of imposing the sentence should be humane, such as lethal injection. Hanging, electrocution and the gas chamber are crude and sensational, inflicting unnecessary pain. The only exception to that which I see as proper is a firing squad in military circumstances for someone found guilty of a capital crime such as treason or desertion in the face of the enemy. In such cases, military tradition should be upheld in honor.
There must be concern about the possibility of executing an innocent, wrongly convicted person, of course; that is of utmost importance for a civil society. Legislators should therefore require measures to assure that only the guilty are executed. But if an innocent person is wrongly executed, that is not the fault of capital punishment; that is a failure of the judicial system through which the investigation and trial took place.
Some opponents of capital punishment cite the Sixth Commandment as the basis for their objection. As translated in the King James Version of the Bible, the Sixth Commandment reads, “Thou shalt not kill.” However, that is an inaccurate translation which has misled people to conclude that the commandment prohibits all killing. Biblical scholarship shows that an accurate translation is “Thou shalt not commit murder.” There is a significant difference. In Hebraic law of Old Testamental times, murder was defined as unlawfully taking a life—i.e., causing the death of an innocent person. There were various degrees of homicide ranging from accidental and unintended cases to the worst form of homicide, premeditated murder. The penalty prescribed for premeditated murder was capital punishment. (See the entry for “murder” in Harper’s Bible Dictionary.) So opponents of capital punishment who argue that the Bible prohibits all killing are misinformed (as are conscientious objectors to military service who base their position on the Sixth Commandment). Actually, the Bible prohibits taking an innocent life.