The Death Penalty: To Kill or Not to Kill, Cosmo DiNardo & the Value (or Lack thereof) of Human Life

The Death Penalty: To Kill or Not to Kill, Cosmo DiNardo & the Value (or Lack thereof) of Human Life

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.

― J.R.R. Tolkien

Unless you live off the grid, you’ve probably heard of the recent murders in Pennsylvania.  On July 14, 2017, 20 year old Cosmo DiNardo was charged with the particularly gruesome murders of four young men on his parents’ farm property located north of Philadelphia in Bucks County.  According to several news reports, DiNardo admitted to enticing the four young men to his farm to sell them marijuana, shooting them, and using a “pig roaster” to discard the bodies with the help of his cousin, who has also been charged.  Police uncovered the remains of the following four men: Jimi Tar Patrick, 19, Dean Finocchiaro, 19, Tom Meo, 21, and Mark Sturgis, 22.  DiNardo has claimed to have allegedly killed two more people, the truth of which law enforcement has yet to confirm. He reportedly suffers from mental health issues.

According to DiNardo’s attorney, he confessed to the murders in exchange for a prosecutor’s promise not to seek the death penalty. Perhaps not surprisingly, the public outcry is against such a deal, with many members of the public calling for the death of both DiNardo and his cousin.

Question: Do DiNardo and his cousin deserve to die?  Maybe.  Depends on your point of view, I suppose. I’m not making an argument either way.  I’m more interested in the following question raised by the public’s reaction:

How valuable, really, is human life to people?  Seems like many people proclaim life is sacred out of one side of their mouth while saying it’s disposable out the other side.

Putting Life in Context

I’m a lawyer, not a philosopher, but everyone can probably agree that human nature can be horrifically violent. History is wrought with wars, genocide, heinous crimes, and the list goes on. Many people view conflict and crimes in simple terms of good guys and bad guys.  Generally, for example, good guys win and bad guys get what they deserve.

Take notorious serial killer Ted Bundy, who was executed in 1989 by electric chair in a Florida state prison – as people both cheered and protested outside.  He was responsible for the rapes and murders of 36 women throughout the 1970’s, including 12 year old Kimberly Leach.  Many people believe he got what he deserved, even got off easy.

Take John Wayne Gacy, executed in 1994 by gas chamber in an Illinois state prison.  He was responsible for the murders of 33 innocent young men who he buried in a crawl space in his basement, with the identities of some victims being identified as recently as this year.  Same thing: many people believe Gacy got what he deserved.

Take Timothy McVeigh, executed in 2001 by lethal injection in Indiana. He was responsible for the 1995 Oklahoma City bombings, which killed 168 people, including young children, and injured over 600. Again, many people believed he got off easy.

Point is: The average person calls for blood all the time, or at least doesn’t have a problem with it. Therefore, isn’t the real issue whether killing a person is deserved or justified?

The Death Penalty

In the public arena, the issue is volatile.  The polarization of opinions in America’s two-party system has created two camps, each with staunchly held beliefs regarding the morality and legality of the death penalty.  Each side tends to craft arguments to try to point out the hypocrisy of the other—often using the issue of abortion as their evidence — to advance the agenda of whatever side one supports.  For example, for the pro-death penalty/pro-life crowd, only an innocent human life is sacred, which begins at conception.  However, if you breach the social contract by committed an “evil” act, to the gallows you go.  For the anti-death penalty/pro-choice side, the death penalty is inhumane, outdated barbarism with no place in modern society, which has no appreciable effect in deterring crime.  For this crowd, all human life is sacred, which perhaps ironically begins at birth.

The point is it’s not unreasonable to infer that – to many average people – the value of human life is conditional, which oftentimes hinges upon their political beliefs.

A Brief History

America’s history with the death penalty consists of a lurid assortment of execution methods that we’ve come to accept as cultural commonplace: hangings, firing squads, electric chairs, gas chambers, and lethal injections.  In the U.S., Pennsylvania became the first state to move executions to a correctional facility in the 1830’s.  In 1846, Michigan was the first state to abolish the death penalty for all crimes except treason.  In 1890, the first person was executed by “old sparky”, otherwise known as the electric chair.  From 1907 to 1917, nine states abolished it or limited it, but five of those states reinstated it by 1920.  In 1924, cyanide gas chambers were introduced. In the 1930s, executions hit a fever pitch, averaging 167 per year, which was the highest in U.S. history.  In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court suspended the death penalty, but it was reinstated in 1976.  Lethal injection was introduced in 1977.  Since the death penalty was reinstated, 1,448 inmates have been executed as of April 2017.

Importantly, the process of executing people is far from graceful, with several reports of gory botched executions. According to the 2014 book Gruesome Spectacles: Botched Executions and America’s Death Penalty, 276 executions went wrong in some way throughout its tenure in America thus far.  Some say good, let them suffer, while others find this unacceptable.

Fast (Morbid) Facts

The last use of firing squad was used in 2010 in Utah.

The last use of hanging was used in 1996 in Delaware.

As of 2017, 31 states have the death penalty.

The Government’s Role

As far as the death penalty is concerned, the government is supposed to be an objective arbiter of justice. If history is any guide, intense emotion and fear has a way of clouding rational judgment, which can lead to mistakes.  In theory, the judicial process prevents witch hunts — fueled by mass hysteric rage — through due process.  Its purpose is to be a filter between an angry mob’s blood lust for revenge and actual justice. In practice, however, this isn’t always the case.  According to the Innocence Project, 350 people have been exonerated by DNA evidence since the first exoneration in 1989.  Between 1973 and 2014, 144 people on death row have been exonerated.  Since 1989, there have been tens of thousands of cases where prime suspects were identified and pursued—until DNA testing (prior to conviction) proved that they were wrongly accused. There is no way to tell how many people have been wrongfully executed because courts generally don’t review cases after a person is dead.  One thing is sure: The process is flawed, which has caused the deaths of an unknown number of innocent people – at least 40 that we know of. In the words of Illinois Supreme Court Justice Moses Harrison II:

Despite the courts efforts to fashion a death penalty scheme that is just, fair and reliable, the system is not working. Innocent people are being sentenced to death……It is no answer to say that we are doing the best that we can. If this is the best our state can do, we have no business sending people to their deaths.

Unlike a court of law, the court of public opinion is quick to judge and commonly all too trigger happy to convict.  According to the Pew Research Center, about half of all Americans currently support the death penalty.  Many of these people publicly voice their support on social media and online news outlets when particular stories break about a violent crime.  Many people routinely call for, in various terms, a suspect’s mutilation, torture, and death because that’s what “killers deserve”.  What’s interesting is many of these people calling for retribution just seem to be your regular folks – they might live in a townhouse, maybe have a kid or two, a cute dog, shop at Whole Foods, and play competitive disc golf on the weekends.  Others might volunteer at the local church, feed the homeless, serve on the school board, and play in a dart league every Thursday at the neighborhood bar.  Yet at the break of the next big news story involving murder, they’re calling for the death of someone they just spent two minutes reading about in an article online – ready to pull the lever themselves if they had the chance, while ironically proclaiming that no person deserves to die like the victim.  Again, I’m not commenting on whether this is right or wrong, it’s merely an observation.

In other words, it would seem that the actual taking of human life isn’t what the average person has a problem with – the taking of human life is not the issue. Rather, again it’s whether the taking of human life was deserved or justified.  For example, killing a person in self-defense may be unavoidable and therefore justified.

For your average person, it appears the only difference between them and a Cosmo DiNardo – or a Ted Bundy, or even a Timothy McVeigh — is that the average person doesn’t kill to satisfy some sadistic psycho-sexual impulse or to antisocially spur mass political anarchy against the federal government.  They just need, say, a socially acceptable reason to kill, such as self-defense, or a retribution killing for the taking of innocent life.  While this may seem like a big difference, regardless, it would seem that human life isn’t as sacred as many people would have you believe because conditions do exist for many people.  Although some situations may be more clear than others, distinguishing “good” from “evil” isn’t always clear, and oftentimes is in the eye of the beholder, which can be an unsettling thought indeed.

And the debate trudges on…

What do you think?

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