Yesterday, my home state of Tennessee executed a man named Billy Ray Irick. It was the state’s first execution since 2009, and it was the final punishment for a crime so heinous that I hesitate to type the details. The short version is that Irick raped and asphyxiated a little girl. (If you want to read about the last moments of his victim, seven-year-old Paula Dyer, this story from the Knoxville News Sentinel is worth your time.)
He deserved to die.
The morality of the death penalty is up for renewed debate largely because Pope Francis is leading the Catholic Church to take a stronger stand against capital punishment. I’m not a Catholic, but it would be foolish for Protestants to ignore the teachings of the church and to not carefully consider its arguments. Moreover, colleagues I deeply respect, like my friend Kevin Williamson, share the Pope’s view.
Nevertheless, I disagree. I still support the death penalty — not because it’s a deterrent or a fitting act of vengeance, but because, properly carried out, it is the only penalty that truly reflects the enormous value of innocent life. There are times when it is the only punishment that truly fits the crime.
It is for this reason that the same scriptures that so clearly direct the children of Israel to “choose life” also direct that “whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.” Nor was the power of the sword taken from government by the New Testament. To the contrary, in Romans 13, Paul explicitly acknowledges that the power of the sword should rest with government, and that it holds “terror” for those who do wrong.
The sword, it should be noted, is designed to kill.
These declarations aren’t merely practical compromises from a time before the rise of consistent, reliable life imprisonment. They are grounded — as Dennis Prager argued recently here in National Review — in the understanding that murder represents a direct attack on “human dignity and inviolability.”
It is interesting to me that as the modern West has grown increasingly post-Christian, it has increasingly signaled a desire to move beyond the death penalty. Even as it grows opposed to capital punishment, ours is a culture that protects a very different right to kill: the right to kill an innocent child in the womb. This represents the deepest possible perversion of justice: The law protects the right to kill the innocent, while prohibiting the imposition of true justice on the guilty.
I am deeply sympathetic to arguments that any given government is too corrupt or venal to be entrusted with such an awesome power. I know and understand that American jurisdictions have abused that power in the past, especially jurisdictions in the South, where bone-deep, evil racism permeated the criminal-justice system.
But acknowledging this reality should cause us to cleanse the corruption from the process, not to deny justice to slain innocents. That means maintaining rigorous appellate review and ensuring that defendants have access to high-quality representation at every stage of the proceedings. It means supporting and sustaining the work of outside groups like the Innocence Project that provide yet another check and balance on a system that will never be flawless.
At the same time, however, we should not permit the inevitable imperfection of human justice to serve as a pretext for prohibiting capital punishment. After all, God knows the full extent of human frailty, and He didn’t just permit capital punishment — He mandated it from the dawn of recorded history.
The Constitution explicitly and repeatedly grants government the power to take life. Biblical tradition explicitly and repeatedly grants government the power to take life. There are legitimate and important debates, however, about the proper method for carrying out the ultimate punishment. I’m concerned that the modern trend of medicalizing the procedure carries its own perils. I agree with Kevin that “the conscription of the medical profession into the service of the executioner, through reliance upon the quasi-clinical procedure of lethal injection, is particularly ugly.”
Nevertheless, so long as the method of execution does not violate the Constitution’s prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment, it is less important than the outcome. And last night in Tennessee, the outcome was right. Billy Ray Irick received the punishment justice required.