Only execution can deliver justice (National Post, January 28, 2004)

Recently I crossed paths with an old friend from university days, who as a law student assisted in the defence for Ron Turpin, the last Canadian to be executed before the abolition of the death penalty in 1976. I attended the 1962 trial. Turpin had killed a police officer, so the outcome wasn't in very much doubt.

An online poll reveals 51% of Canadians feel Washington sniper Lee Boyd Malvo should receive the death penalty. Interesting. That's about the same percentage of Canadians who advocate gay marriage. Yet reinstitution of the death penalty is never raised for public discussion, while gay marriage -- impossible to imagine in 1987 when the House of Commons reaffirmed abolition of capital punishment (the vote was 148-127, not exactly a landslide) -- seems poised for passage in Canada because it's considered "progressive" in wonkish circles.

People's attitudes to capital punishment fluctuate, depending on how secure they feel in society. After 9/11, sympathy for the death penalty soared. The murder rate in the United States is four times that in Canada. If our rates went up, our liberalism on that issue would decline. For myself the murder rates were never a deciding factor in my attitude. I have always believed in capital punishment on principle.

I know the death penalty is not always a deterrent to murder. I know that it doesn't save public money. I know that victims' families and friends are variable on the issue: some are content with life sentences, some can't sleep until the bastard who murdered their loved one is dead too. I know that the really bad guys like Bernardo won't ever get out of jail. Some say life in jail is worse than death. I don't think that's the issue. Bernardo, serial murderer Clifford Olson and their ilk should be dead for justice's sake.

I believe in the death penalty because, like University of California professor Thomas Laqueur, it supplies the "ritual reassertion of a communal moral order." The death penalty distinguishes between neurosis, deviancy, random violence -- and evil. I don't support the death penalty for ordinary felons and gas station killers, despicable as they are. I'd save the death penalty for the truly depraved amongst us: genocidal tyrants, serial killers, murder involving torture, child sex murderers, and as well for treason in wartime, plus the unprovoked murder of policemen and firemen, but with irrefutable proof of that. (Ron Turpin's crime was virtually unwitnessed and the officer may have fired first, so Turpin wouldn't meet my criteria for execution today.)

Monsters should die because only execution can deliver justice: the ultimate penalty for the ultimate crime. Yes, the world needs both justice and mercy, but when you make mercy your default punishment, you have effectively eliminated justice from the equation. By definition, mercy -- clemency -- is the exception to a general rule. Mercy commutes a just punishment out of compassion. Without the death penalty we only have mercy.

Thus in our justice system all murderers are morally equivalent: the volatile handy store thief/impulse killer lives a parallel after-crime life to Paul Bernardo. This offends against the notion of true justice. Everyone knows it. Which is why, when genocidal Nazi murderer Adolf Eichmann was tried in Israel, he was executed, even though Israel doesn't otherwise allow capital punishment.

Sister Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking, lectures on capital punishment. Her (supposedly) clinching argument is: "If you really believe in the death penalty, ask yourself if you're willing to inject the fatal poison." Could I kill Paul Bernardo, Clifford Olson, Saddam Hussein? Yes -- o yes -- I could.

Supposedly this makes me "no better" than the murderers. Nonsense. Opposition to capital punishment is the mushy sentimentalist's cheap ticket to moral superiority over those who think. By calling it "state murder," the abolitionists assign a false moral parallel between murderers and the societies that judge them. This is plain cowardice, not moral superiority. As attorney and legal thriller writer Scott Turow says, "I don't think the death penalty is the product of an alien morality ..."

I could pull the lever, or inject the poison, but I couldn't physically torture anyone, not Saddam or Stalin or Hitler. Execution is justice, physical torture -- except in truly desperate circumstances -- is sadism, and morally indefensible.

I do have a problem with many methods of execution. After reading Steven King's The Green Mile, I am "off" electrocution. Hanging is never quite instant enough and can be horribly miscalibrated. Injection's logistics mimic healing operations: Counter-intuitive symbolism. On the whole, having consulted my own preference for annihilation, I like the firing squad. You die instantly, standing up. It's dignified. Squads of sharpshooters can be chosen from military volunteers (there would never be a shortage), and can be rotated, avoiding executioner guilt.

Capital punishment, justly applied, is neither regressive nor cruel. It's collective closure.

© National Post 2004