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There is a distinction between killing and murder. There are times when killing is justifiable—for self-defense, food, euthanasia, but the Scriptures are unambiguous when they command “Thou shalt not murder” (and that must be interpreted as the premeditated, gratuitous taking of a life for no defensible reason).

Right now with the current Boston Massacre trial, the question is whether Dzhokhar Tsarnaev should be sentenced to death or placed in a maximum-security prison, where he would stay in his cell 23 hours a day) for the rest of his life. It is said that being assigned to the particular Colorado Supermax prison in question is thought to be worse than the death penalty.

But back to the point. . . For me, under no circumstances can I support capital punishment and thus, I must stand faithful to my principles and oppose it even if the crime is heinous and horrific.

I remember when Michael Dukakis—former Governor of Massachusetts—ran for President back in 1988. During one of the debates between Dukakis and George H. W. Bush, Bernard Shaw presented Dukakis with a hypothetical: “Governor, if Kitty Dukakis [his wife] were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?”

Dukakis—perhaps realizing he was jeopardizing his chances for election—answered honestly: “No, I don’t, and I think you know that I’ve opposed the death penalty all of my life.”

Boston Marathon Bomber

Chief Justice Rose Bird

He should have been admired for his stance and his consistency, but the public was not ready for that kind of truthfulness. His polling numbers plummeted that night and his campaign never recovered from it.

Incredibly and perhaps paradoxically, after Bush won, he was comfortable rationalizing his support and encouragement of the Contra War in Nicaragua, which not only resulted in a multitude of needless murders but also devastated that nation’s economy from which it is still trying to recover.

Do you remember California Supreme Court Chief Justice Rose Bird? I do. Her autographed picture continues to hang above my desk. I had the opportunity to speak with her and still treasure the moment. She was a progressive and, among other beliefs, she clearly opposed the death penalty. Her Court found reason on legal grounds to return 64 death penalty appeals to the lower courts for reconsideration.

She was, however, constantly castigated for those decisions—ones she made to insure that before a person is put to death by the State, every right of the accused is taken into consideration. I know, people will ask, What about the rights of the victims and their families?

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Keep in mind, she didn’t come to those conclusions on her own. She had been joined by other justices in those determinations. She and her Court also “re-established” that the State Constitution mandates the State to provide free abortions for poor women. Her opponents, quite contradictorily, considered abortion a form of murder, but for those same opponents, the death penalty was okay. Her Court was also an early advocate of fair and just sentencing. Ultimately, she and two of her Court colleagues were turned out of office by a two-thirds vote of the California electorate.

Bird was just too liberal, too forward-thinking, and way ahead of her time for much of California society back then. It is ironic that polls show a dramatic shift in thinking by the general populace—between the 70s and 80s and now—that more closely reflect her beliefs during her time administering and managing the Court and, thus, no longer align with the views of her contemporary antagonists and critics.

What do we get from putting others to death? Is there some morbid satisfaction? Revenge? A distorted sense of justice?

After the first effort to remove her failed, she could have modified her position to pander to the growing opposition against her in order to retain her post, but she held to her principles. Stanley Mosk, a fellow California Justice, is quoted as saying,

“Rose Bird was pilloried because she generally voted to find some defect in death penalty convictions and to reverse them. . . . I think the death penalty is wrong, that a person has no right to kill, and the state has no right to kill [either].”

Perhaps because Mosk was less consistent in his death penalty rulings, he was saved from recall while three others that shared the bench with him were not so “lucky.”

Only a few days ago, former Congressman Barney Frank from Massachusetts—where the Boston Marathon Massacre took place—affirmed his staunch anti-capital punishment beliefs. Though he stated in the interview that it wouldn’t hurt his feelings if Tsarnaev died, he still could not support the State’s role in putting him to death despite the cruelty and brutality of his crimes.

What do we get from putting others to death? Is there some morbid satisfaction? Revenge? A distorted sense of justice? Nothing we do can bring a murder victim back and assuage the pain of the victims’ relatives and friends. There is no question that crime deserves punishment! But how do we determine what is a fair and just punishment for capital crimes? How do we take on the responsibility for putting another to death?

Those who are God-fearing might want to think twice about taking God’s place in passing such judgements. Those who are agnostic or atheistic or believers in non-god worshipping faiths or have no faith at all must also consider the basis for their personal beliefs.

“Thou shalt not murder” is a universal tenet shared world-wide, a basic construct for all civilizations. It stands to reason, then, that it would behoove us to be clear about the moral and ethical justifications for asking the State to murder in our stead, on our behalf.

These are ideas worth pondering before we execute the next person. The death penalty makes it easier for us not to have to think about the convicted anymore. But these people are also our fellow human beings, sharing many of the same flaws and shortcomings, rage and resentments, weaknesses and frailties that are part of the human condition.

Can our consciences allow us to put to death those who were not born with the inner strength to resist the temptations to act on their feelings? Who are we to murder others in order to make ourselves feel better?!


Rosemary Jenkins