The Morality of Capital Punishment

Shortly before midnight on Dec. 6 1982, convicted murderer Charles Brooks was strapped to a hospital cart in a room adjacent to the death chamber of the Huntsville, Texas, prison.

At 12:09 a.m., Charles Brooks’ right arm received the first lethal injection legally administered in the United States. Seven minutes after the lethal drugs were injected, at 12:16 a.m., Charles Brooks was dead.

Brooks’ execution by lethal injection aroused a sharp debate among members of the legal and medical professions. For example, Harvard law professor William Curran, who is considered “the father of American legal medicine,” was so disturbed about the Brooks execution that he urged the Texas Medical Association to revoke the medical license of any physician involved — directly or indirectly — in the execution.

“Not only is this (execution by lethal injection) unethical, it is illegal,” Professor Curran firmly insists. “There is no medical license that authorizes a physician to use medicines to kill.”

Conversely, proponents of execution by lethal drugs maintain that since society morally approves the death penalty, lethal injection is the most “humane” way to impose capital punishment. For example, Dr. Ruth Baine, the president of the Texas Medical Association, observes that she has become “so incensed with the inadequacies of our judicial system in handling crime that, with the lethal injection, I think I could vote for that death penalty if I were on the jury.” She is quick to add, however, that she believes it is unethical for a physician to play the role of executioner.

Besides Texas, four other states permit execution by lethal injection: Idaho, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Washington. These states insist that execution by lethal drugs is far more humane than by gas chamber or the electric chair.

According to Dr. Michael Nelson, however, medical ethics are violated even when a doctor does not perform the role of executioner. Chemical execution, he contends, is a “flagrant abuse of medical technology” that was intended to help people, “not kill them.”

Consider three closely-related matters:

  • Recently, mass murderer Charles Manson once again was denied parole at a hearing in California in which he quiet justly and appropriately was described as a “walking advertisement for the death penalty.” Manson was sentenced in 1971 to die in the gas chamber for masterminding and participating in the sadistic murders of seven persons, but his sentence unfortunately was reduced to life imprisonment when the California Supreme Court overturned capital punishment the following year.
  • In Illinois, convicted mass murderer John Gacy (sentenced to die for raping and murdering over 30 young men and teenagers) was in the news again. A newsman for the NBC Chicago affiliate, WMAQ, reported that, because of Gacy’s legal appeals, it may be several years before the execution of this convicted mass murderer finally is carried out.
  • Recently in Maryland, a jury refused to recommend the death penalty for Jack Ronald Jones, convicted of kid-napping, repeatedly raping and then sadistically murdering college student Stephanie Ann Roper. Instead, the jury and Circuit Court Judge Walter Haile recommended concurrent sentences of 20 years for kidnapping and life for rape. Ironically and tragically Jones will be eligible for parole in 12 years.

Certainly, the executions (whether by lethal injection, the electric chair or the gas chamber) of such sadistic murderers as Charles Manson, John Gacy and Jack Ronald Jones would be justified for two reasons: First the imposition of the death penalty in these cases would help deter crimes like murder. As the late FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover observed, “The professional law enforcement officer is convinced from experience that the hardened criminal has been and is deterred from killing based on the prospect of the death penalty.”

A study conducted by the Los Angeles Police Department in 1970 and 1971 buttresses Mr. Hoover’s observation. Ninety -nine criminals participated in the survey, each giving his reason why he committed his crime unarmed. The study revealed a 5-1 ratio of deterrence over non-deterrence as reported by people in the best position to make such a judgment: The criminals themselves.

Very significant, too, is the late California Supreme Court Justice Marshall McComb’s dissenting opinion in the 1961 case of People v. Love. In his opinion, Justice McComb referred to comments made by several criminals who had openly and candidly confessed that they were deterred by the death penalty from murdering others in the course of committing violent crimes.

Second, the executions of such murderers as Mason, Gacy and Jones would be justified on moral grounds. To be sure, some maintain that capital punishment is “cruel and unusual punishment” and contrary to religious or humanitarian principles. But when, for example, someone has raped and murdered a child, that person has relinquished his right to live. Capital punishment in such a case is an act of restitution and demonstrates that a society and legal system are genuinely dedicated to preserving and protecting the rights and safety of the people. Charity also must be displayed towards the victims of crimes and their families.

Clearly, if society has the moral right and obligation to act in collective self-defense against aggression emanating from without (for example, against Nazi and Communist assaults on freedom and human rights), then society likewise has the moral right and obligation to defend itself against aggression emanating from within (for example, against people who rape and murder children).


Mr. Gow was a Wilbur Foundation Literary Fellow when he wrote this article.

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