These arguments resonate with many people – they would not have become standard talking points if they didn’t – but I don’t believe they withstand scrutiny. Here’s why:
First, the fact that the death penalty will not bring back the victim(s) is not the point. Putting Bernard Madoff in jail will not bring back the millions he stole from investors. Does that mean he should go free? Of course not. Punishment is not meant to undo a crime.
The “death-penalty-costs-more” argument is equally irrelevant. It would be vastly cheaper simply to revoke Tsarnaev’s citizenship and deport him. He wouldn’t be a threat to anyone in America any more, and think of all the money we’d save.
Indeed, the entire American justice system is vastly more expensive than it would be if we didn’t go to such lengths to grant a fair trial to accused criminals. The economic argument was dismissed long ago.
To call the death penalty “cruel and unusual” is to turn those terms on their heads. Cruel and unusual is what the killers did to their victims. In virtually all death penalty cases, atrocity is also part of the rationale, beyond premeditation. That refers to horrific, unspeakable suffering of victims, who in many cases endured psychological as well as physical trauma as they were killed.
Contrast that with the efforts government makes to kill murderers quickly and painlessly. In some cases they are rendered unconscious before they die so they feel no pain at all, unlike their victims. That is humane, not cruel.
Then there is the “respect for life” argument: What do we accomplish by taking another life, when one or more have already been taken? Why compound the tragedy?
I contend that the death penalty, carefully and judiciously applied in extreme cases like this, shows profound respect for life – the lives of victims and their families. It tells them, and society at large, that their lives mattered. It tells those who contemplate killing others that they will forfeit their own right to life if they willfully take that from another.