A small newspaper in central Pennsylvania published an editorial
on Monday hailing Governor Tom Wolf's statewide moratorium on the death penalty. It begins with a quote from novelist Raymond
Chandler claiming that law is not justice but rather an imperfect mechanism
that randomly jets out results - sometimes we get what we call justice;
The editorial proceeds by mentioning the case that led to
the moratorium: Hubert Lester Michael
Jr. Michael was convicted of the murder
of 16 year old Trista Eng. Eng had
posted an ad to sell a chair, which Michael responded to. Later Michael picked her up while she was hitchhiking. He bound, raped and killed her. Eng's
life was over at 16 because she posted an ad to sell someone a chair. Her
family is left to pick up the pieces.
To which the editorial staff at the York Daily Record state:
All of us feel for these families. Many of us will
never fully understand what they are going through.
And certainly, for them, and for many others, the
death penalty is an emotional issue. But for the sake of justice, however
imperfect, we have to be able to take a rational look at the death penalty and
its purpose, its cost and its flaws, no matter how difficult that may be.
Mr. Michael is a poor candidate for this kind of rational
reflection. He admitted his crimes. He had a history of brutality. He is a
monster. It is easy to say, as York County District Attorney Thomas Kearney
did, that he is "the poster child" for the death penalty.
Perhaps Mr. Michael deserves death.
But he is not what this debate is entirely about.
The rational debate about the death penalty is - at base - really about
retributive justice. The abolition
movement is fond of recounting the "death is different" motto, which the
Supreme Court invoked at least as far back as 1977. But that is precisely the point: murder is a
uniquely grievous crime that calls upon any civilized and orderly society to
punish in an exceptional manner. Society, of course, wants to deter murder and
it wants to preserve the safety of its citizens, but justice, at least in this
world, is an entirely human enterprise and it derives from the simple idea that
people deserve to be punished when they have transgressed seriously against the
social norms embodied in the law.
There is no "perhaps" in Michael's just deserts; what he deserves is worse
than death but he mercifully gets less.
The conversation, though, is about deserving. It is emotional but that does not render it
irrational. The touchstone of our
humanity is that we can feel for others: the families of the victims; the
outrage at the conduct of someone like Michael; the loss of safety that we all experience upon hearing of a horrendous crime; the brief thought: that could have been my child. It is this same emotional affair that lends
us to extend a lesser punishment for those who have truly extenuating circumstances.
Justice is not cold nor should it be because
it is an entirely human endeavor not a mechanical one. The
debate about the death penalty does include concerns about its reliability as
does the entire criminal justice system, but it is, at heart, a debate about what
people like Hubert Lester Michael deserve and that is reason at its