A Matter of Life and Death

“Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment.”
― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

In August 2013, in southern Saskatchewan, a 10 year old boy murdered six year old boy by the name of Lee Bonneau. The Youth Criminal Justice Act prevented police from laying any charges in the case because the killer was under 12 years old.

From the age of six to the time he committed the murder the RCMP had already received 23 complaints about the young boy ranging from sexual assault to the slaughter of a pregnant dog and her unborn puppies.

If this had occurred 10 years later in Canada, when he was 20, he would likely be spending life (25 years not including time off) in prison. If this had occurred 10 years later in Texas he likely would have been executed.

Canada does not have the death penalty, it was abolished in 1976. I, personally, am against capital punishment. The case of the 10 year old boy however forces us to deeply consider our stance on crime, punishment and rehabilitation.

Last week CTV News had an unscientific Yes/No poll on its website which asked the following question:

“Are you in favour of the death penalty?”

In response 72 percent (more than 1,400 people) said Yes while only 27 percent (519 people) said No.

Seven years earlier in 2008 this same question was asked in a scientific poll by Harris-Decima in which 52 percent said they opposed the death penalty while 39 supported it. Prairie residents were least likely to support the death penalty at the time.

Something has changed.

When we consider reasons for capital punishment they are generally pragmatic – it is a deterrent, it eliminates threats to law-abiding citizens, saves costly imprisonment, God is for it (eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth), etc.

Reasons against capital punishment are just as forceful although sometimes more philosophical – What if we execute an innocent person for instance? According to a University of Michigan peer reviewed 2014 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 4.1 percent of people on death row are innocent. In 2014 there were 3,054 people on death row in the United States – if 4 percent are innocent that amounts to 125 people. That’s a lot of innocent people waiting to die.

It is more costly to sentence a person to death in the United States than to life in prison. A 2011 article by Forbes magazine noted that it costs California an extra $90,000 per year per inmate to keep a person on death row compared to regular incarceration or as Fox News once stated to sum up the cost of the death penalty:

“Every time a killer is sentenced to die, a school closes.”

God is against it. Just as there are many people of faith who use God to support the death penalty there are many who use God to oppose it. A significant portion of the Catholic Church (the largest Christian denomination on planet Earth) and of course Mennonites stand staunchly against capital punishment for reasons of faith.

In 1999 Pope John Paul II, appealed for a consensus to end the death penalty on the ground that it was “both cruel and unnecessary” while more recently Pope Francis advocated against the death penalty.

The famous Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder staunchly opposed the death penalty writing “Since the death of Jesus brought a decisive end to sacrifices for sin, Christians should proclaim its abolition, and death penalty advocates should no longer claim biblical validation.”

In the end we return to the case of the 10 year old boy who murdered a six year old and shows a history of sexual and physical violence. If one supports the death penalty than why spare this child?

One day we may be able to genetically screen the unborn for inherited criminal pathologies…If one supports the death penalty than logically one would support the aborting of such lives before they are born.

One day we might be able to even determine the likelihood a person’s offspring would be a psychopath…again why not sterilize these people to prevent that likelihood from ever happening? It’s called eugenics.

I hope these questions make you uncomfortable. Sometimes what seems “logical” is not the human or humane way to act. As Canadians we need to think about these things and we need to respectfully dialogue about them.

Too often though we avoid the tough issues and do nothing, but if we do not regularly ruminate on these moral issues we run the risk of being caught bereft of content and depth when we are required to make a critical decision as a country and simply fall back on the “logical” and this is no way to deal with issues of life and death.

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