This morning I read a letter to the editor of the Augusta (GA) Chronicle wherein the author proposed streamlining the dead penalty process. The author had, I think, a mild semblance of good intentions behind his missive. He certainly picked a sympathetic test case. However, his proposal is extraordinarily dangerous. And, unfortunately, his thinking is all too common in modern America.
His letter recounted the guilty plea entered by a South Carolina defendant accused of murdering a police officer. As I have written elsewhere most criminal cases end in plea “bargains.” By entering his plea the defendant avoided the possibility of the death penalty. This is a common practice.
The author argued the defendant deserved to die for his actions. Perhaps he does. I am not opposed to the death penalty per se. Under the right circumstances it is a fitting punishment. But, as I have written before, an American courtroom is one of the last places on earth one may find appropriate circumstances.
The author notes, correctly, that in South Carolina and Georgia (all civilized jurisdictions) a jury’s decision in a death penalty case must be unanimous – all of the jurors must agree the crime of murder was committed by the accused. After reaching that conclusion they must separately and unanimously decide if death is the appropriate punishment.
Our letter writer calls on “both state legislatures of Georgia and South Carolina to change the law that requires a unanimous decision by a jury for the defendant to receive the death penalty.” He proclaims: “When heinous crimes are committed, it should only take a simple majority of jurors for the person to receive the death penalty.”
His most disturbing and telling comment is: “The government should be the sword of God, and the guilty party should be hanged in public in front of the courthouse.” The government should be the sword of God… I submit he really believes the government should be … God. This sentiment is as common as it is alarming.
First, as a legal matter, there is a sober reason why jury verdicts should be unanimous. In a criminal case, especially a death penalty case, the burden of proving the underlying facts and elements of the crime rests solely on the state. The state must prove these elements beyond all reasonable doubt. This means a reasonably prudent man (twelve of them) must have no logical reason to question the defendant’s guilt.
I’m working an article about the origins and logic behind the jury system. In short, it is a last check against a tyrannical prosecution. Should a corrupt government bring a baseless (or sloppy) case against an accused individual, the jury stands between that individual and injustice – or so it was intended. Having multiple jurors eliminates the possibility of individual juror prejudice co-opting justice. In critical murder cases the unanimity rule adds a final layer of protection. If only one juror maintains doubt, the whole jury is “hung.”
This protection is in place for all of us. The Chronicle letter was followed (online) by several reader comments. All but one wholeheartedly agreed with the author. The lone holdout noted a Ohio case where three men were convicted or murder and sentenced to death. After 39 years in prison they were exonerated in a crime they never committed. This too is an all to common occurrence in America. Hang them and let God sort them out?
If I read the author’s thought correctly, then I suppose he would really like to dispense with the jury and trial altogether. In his mind an accusation should lead to immediate execution … for God’s glory, no doubt.
I also suspect he subscribes to the simplistic reading of Romans 13 – that government is a righteous extension of God’s will. Paul qualified this passage in terms of just law and order. Should that government derive its authority and actions from Natural Law this assumption would be correct. I do not know of any government, ever, which has so existed. By their logic, blanket 13’ers would have to sanction any and all government actions as the will of God – including those of Stalin and Hitler.
The “sword of God?” Government is just a sword – pure brute force – imposing the will of the ruling (Godly or not) on its subjects. As I said above, I think the writer would supplant the Almighty with earthly governance. This blasphemy is in vogue across the political spectrum.
CNN news anchor and Fordham Law School educated Chris Cuomo recently espoused the view that laws and rights come from earthly government and not God. ‘Our Laws Do Not Come From God’.
Maryland Congressman Elijah Cummings goes further – he says people “come to government to feed their souls.” Rep. Cummings: People ‘Come to Government To Feed Their Souls’.
The views and quotes show plainly that the new American religion is statism (a pitiful, second-rate brand of Satanism).
As to the suggestion the South Carolina defendant deserved to die, I recall several lines from The Lord of the Rings. While discussing Gollum’s crimes, Frodo asserted that Gollum deserved to die. Tentatively agreeing, Gandalf answered masterfully: “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 judgement.” As true in South Carolina or Georgia as in Middle Earth.