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Larry Flynt and the Justice of Capital Punishment

In an article that appeared in The Hollywood Reporter on October 17, Hustler publisher Larry Flynt argued strenuously against the enforcement of the death penalty for Joseph Franklin, the man who confessed to shooting and wounding him so severely that he has spent the last 35 years in a wheelchair.  Franklin is scheduled to die by lethal injection in Missouri on November 20.  In addition to allegedly firing the bullet that ultimately paralyzed Flynt, Franklin stands convicted of murdering several individuals and has confessed to dozens of murders, assaults and bombings, the vast majority of which were apparently motivated by racial prejudices.  Despite being confined to a wheelchair as a result of Franklin’s crime, Larry Flynt insists that the death penalty is not an acceptable practice for a government which forbids killing on the part of its citizens.  And although the power of Flynt’s point is diminished significantly by his confession that he would love to have “an hour in a room with [Franklin] and a pair of wire-cutters and pliers, so I could inflict the same damage on him that he inflicted on me,” his sentiment is nevertheless shared by a significant portion of Americans.  Amnesty USA, a country section of Amnesty International, reports that only 33% of Americans still believe in the efficacy of the death penalty.
            The reasons for this lack of faith in capital punishment are certainly understandable.  Death row convictions have been overturned scores of times in recent decades, demonstrating the frightening fallibility of human justice systems.  Over 75% of our nation’s executions in recent years have been those of African-Americans convicted of killing white Americans, while nearly half of the homicides in America involve African-American victims.  There does seem to be a disturbing connection between death penalty convictions and the poor and otherwise marginalized in this country.  Taking these and other factors into consideration, it is hard to deny that it would be prudent to support a moratorium on the death penalty until such a time as these inequities can be remedied.
            That being said, must we conclude from the horrors of its inequitable application that the death penalty itself is unjust?  It is telling, after all, that many of those who desire to abolish the death penalty altogether regularly juxtapose two conflicting arguments.  On the one hand is the line of reasoning that argues that the death penalty is inhumane, a violation of human rights, hypocritical, cruel and unusual punishment, and the like.  On the other hand is the line of reasoning that suggests (with a bit of a smirk) that, all things considered, life in prison is a preferable punishment for our worst offenders, since it is a much worse fate than simple execution.  Mr. Flynt, in his article mentioned above, provides us with a perfect example of this emotional schizophrenia.  Toward the end of his article he writes, “As far as the severity of punishment is concerned, to me, a life spent in a 3-by-6-foot cell is far harsher than the quick release of a lethal injection” and not six sentences later he concludes that, “the sole motivating factor behind the death penalty is vengeance, not justice . . . .”  Well, which is it to be, sir?  For we cannot play both tunes at once.  We cannot argue that justice should be harsh while simultaneously condemning harsh justice as despicable vengeance.
            At the same time, the question of the death penalty cannot be satisfactorily handled by merely appealing to the need for justice for the victim or for society.  The argument can at least be made, if not universally accepted, that life in prison is a perfectly adequate consequence for the crime of homicide.  A life cut short by wasting away in a prison cell can be seen to be roughly equivalent to a life cut short by murder.  It is not, then, for the purpose of justice for the victim or for society that we demand the life of the murderer.  Instead, we hear the overwhelming clamor for justice proceeding from two other voices.
            The first is God’s.  The bible is very clear that every human being is made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26) and that it is according to the standard of this image that the value of every human life is to be calculated.  The taking of a human life, therefore, is not just a violation of the rights of the human victim, it is a defacement of God’s image and thus is personally reprehensible to him.  In his inscrutable wisdom, God delegated the punishment of this defacement to humanity itself (Genesis 9:6).  To set a lower price on the defacing of God’s image than death is to devalue God.  Life in prison simply won’t do for a person who has so dishonored God as to destroy his ordained image.
            The second voice crying out for justice proceeds from a somewhat surprising source: it is the criminal’s own.  Whether he knows it or not, every offender is in desperate need of a wakeup call.  This is one of the purposes of justice: to awaken offenders to the weight of their offense.  When we remove the severity of a punishment from a criminal, we actually become guilty of defrauding him of one of the things God might use to awaken him from his sinful state.  Punishment, in this sense, is most surely not about vengeance, but about mercy.  This is just as true for a murderer as it is for rebellious child.  Withholding consequences from a wayward child will ultimately do the most harm to the child himself.  Withholding just consequences from the murderer is to do the murderer himself a severe injustice.  It is with something like this principle of justice for the offender in mind that Paul pronounces his judgment on the sexually immoral man in I Corinthians 5:5—“You are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.”  God can use the impending doom of execution to awaken a convict to his sinfulness and his need of forgiveness.  CashThis is, to steal a phrase from C.S. Lewis, via Sheldon Vanauken, a “severe mercy” to be sure, but a mercy it is, nonetheless.  Johnny Cash spoke of this reality in the progressive confession of the death row inmate in his song, The Mercy Seat (American Recordings LLC, 2000):
Into the mercy seat I climb
My head is shaved, my head is wired
And like a moth that tries to enter the bright eye
I go shuffling out of life
Just to hide in death awhile
And anyway I never lied.
And the mercy seat is waiting
And I think my head is burning
And in a way I’m yearning
To be done with all this twisting of the truth.
An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth
And anyway I told the truth
And I’m not afraid to die.
And the mercy seat is burning
And I think my head is glowing
And in a way I’m hoping
To be done with all this twisting of the truth,
An eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth
And anyway there was no proof
And I’m not afraid to die.
And the mercy seat is glowing
And I think my head is smoking
And in a way I’m hoping
To be done with all these looks of disbelief.
A life for a life and truth for a truth
And I’ve got nothing left to loose
And I’m not afraid to die.
And the mercy seat is smoking
And I think my head is melting
And in way that’s helping
To be done with all this twisting of the truth
An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth
And anyway I told the truth
But I’m afraid I told a lie.
There are many good arguments for a provisional suspending of the death penalty for the purposes of insuring fair treatment of all persons under the law.  But we must not allow this fact to obscure the vital importance of the death penalty itself, firstly as a safeguard to our understanding of the dignity of humanity as grounded in the image of God and secondly as a final appeal to the conscience of the convicted themselves.  
  1. Tim Bredamus says:

    I couldn’t agree more, Andrew. Well said – thank you for posting this!

  2. Thanks as always, Tim. You are an encouragement.

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