The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion It’s reasonable to want to rid the world of evil. But the death penalty can’t do that.

The lethal injection chamber at San Quentin State Prison in California in August 2010. (California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation/AP)

There are the crimes you hear about every day, and then the crimes that are difficult to ever get out of your head. Theft, fraud, drunken driving — all of it is terrible, and all of it blurs in headlines and news broadcasts into background noise. Earth is populated by the imperfect; we know that. But then there are the criminal acts that seem to test the notion that people are flawed but generally suited to our common life; offenses which, even decades after their commission, continue to inspire documentaries and explanatory essays, deep dives and revisitations, as though we are still trying, in some futile way, to understand them. The murders committed by Ted Bundy, for instance, or the innumerable crimes of the Golden State Killer, or the ever-growing list of abrupt mass killings, here and abroad.

Maybe it’s the inhumanity of their evil acts — not even strictly their brutality but their senselessness, their bizarre and pointless ends — that makes these perpetrators such a sticking point in our national debates about the death penalty. If they only look human, then the usual inhibitions we have around preserving human life feel less applicable.

Perhaps this is why New Hampshire state Rep. Jeanine Notter (R) brought up the murder of Kimberly Cates during the state’s recent debates over abolition of the death penalty. Cates was hacked to death with a machete in 2009 as she lay in her bed, by a pair of killers who were, by their own admission, just looking for a thrill. “I believe that life in prison is not justice for a heinous crime like this,” Notter argued in favor of retaining capital punishment in New Hampshire. Some Californians aired similar feelings earlier this month when Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) announced a statewide moratorium on the death penalty. “When [Newsom] told me that, a little bit of me died,” Marc Klaas said of the news. Klaas’s 12-year-old daughter, Polly, was kidnapped from her bedroom and murdered in 1993. If her killer were finally executed, Klaas said, “his influence would stop, that I’d never have to think about him again.”

New Hampshire’s House of Representatives voted to abolish the death penalty, with numbers high enough to override a potential veto. And, despite some protest, Newsom’s decision to suspend California’s use of capital punishment stands. As the United States inches closer to total abolition of the death penalty, what do we do about the profound emotional reservations people air when capital punishment comes up for debate?

I wonder, in part, because I am not immune to those kinds of feelings — which were intensified when my sister-in-law was murdered three years ago — even though I rationally understand the death penalty to be an unjust and untenable institution. I know that capital punishment means the execution of innocent people, the disproportionate and unfair destruction of black lives, the killing of mentally ill people who could not reasonably be considered culpable for their crimes and, ultimately, the snuffing out of human life, no matter what the guilty have done. For all those reasons, I believe it should be abolished.

But any believer knows that true faith is a process of permanent conversion. And so this month, I sat down with a group of people who spend much of their time elbow-deep in hard missionary work.

Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty (CCADP) is a group of right-leaning activists who advocate for the abolition of capital punishment, often in red states. Heather Beaudoin, CCADP’s senior manager, told me that she came into this cause through her involvement in the pro-life movement in Montana, where she experienced what “felt like a clear call from God” to work to end executions in the United States. An evangelical herself, Beaudoin took the call seriously. When she thinks about those emotional reservations people have about capital punishment, she considers an alternative reservoir of feelings: her own belief in redemption. “God has a plan for each of us,” she said, “even when we make terrible decisions.”

Meanwhile, Hannah Cox, CCADP’s national manager, has a conversion story of her own. “I have an innate and intense need for justice,” Cox told me. “It’s why I formerly supported the death penalty, and it’s why I changed my mind.” Cox remarked on a number of reasons why she had come to believe, over a period of research, that the death penalty is inherently unjust: There are the high estimated rates of mental illness among death row inmates, the fact that prosecutors often ignore victims’ families who oppose the death penalty and the preponderance of abuse and victimization in the backgrounds of criminals themselves.

“The people who get [the death penalty] are not the worst of the worst,” Cox said, but rather the poorest of the poor, the sickest of the sick. I pressed her: What about the worst of the worst, the serial killers and the unrepentant monsters, those so morally degenerate it’s hard to imagine them wanting redemption, much less achieving it? “You don’t get to have a utopia where only the most monstrous person gets the death penalty,” she said. As long as it exists, it’s going to destroy the redeemable, the sick, the innocent and the monstrous — and even then, only sometimes.

It’s a reasonable impulse to want to rid the world of evil. But there’s no earthly institution capable of reliably doing that, or even coming close. Perhaps that will only be possible in the final accounting of all things. Until then, I think, it’s better to hold out hope for redemption — and not to pursue evil so far that one moves away from justice altogether. Then evil wins anyway.

Read more:

Elizabeth Bruenig: My husband lost his job. His sister was murdered. Here’s what it did to my faith.

Brandon L. Garrett: The end of the death penalty in America as we know it

David Von Drehle: The death penalty makes a mockery of our justice system. Abolish it.

The Post’s View: Death sentences are in decline. It’s time to do away with them entirely.

George F. Will: Abolish the death penalty