The Value of Justice

“For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil, and by craving it some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.” -1 Timothy 6:10

Before you sideswipe your keyboard with your mouse after reading a Bible verse, pump the brakes and hear me out. Yes, I am a follower of Jeeesus (Southern Baptist emphasis added), but the point to be made here is not one centered on theology. The point here to be made is one that is plaguing our society to the point that the most ardent atheist would have a difficult time denying. That is, if they looked at the world objectively and were truly….TRULY… honest about the reality of what we are all witnessing together. 

The catalyst of this discussion was a podcast I listened to recently. To be more accurate, I have listened to this podcast multiple times. I will not mention their names out of courtesy because they are not here to defend their views. There is no doubt that what I took away from the podcast was most likely not the intention of the host and the guest. But the world and its history has been replete with unintended consequences. 

The podcast in question centered around issues pertaining to the death penalty. This led me down Memory Lane and my time as an undergraduate student… then a graduate student… then a PhD candidate. If you want to be ostracized in modern Criminology programs, support the death penalty. That is especially true at the doctoral level. And then, my dear friends, comes the job interview amongst your “peers.” 

I’ll go ahead and let the cat out of the bag. I don’t support the electric chair. I do support the electric couch. Let justice be served three at a time.

I’ll give you a few seconds to wipe your drink off of your screen….. 

A running joke in American courthouses revolves around the desire for justice. Many lawyers will jokingly then ask how much you can afford. The problem is they aren’t joking. This is true in civil and criminal courts. During my 47 trips around the sun, I have had the misfortune of having to hire an attorney twice. The first time it financially devastated me and I still came out of that situation with a rectum the size of the Chesapeake Tunnel. We look at money on the front end of the spectrum in American justice without even realizing that we also do it on the tail end of the argument as well. 

I recall a professor whom I deeply admired relating once that on average, it cost $8 million to execute a person in America. By the time we tallied up investigation and prosecution costs, the cost of confinement, and the resulting appeals process that would in many cases be paid by the taxpayer on behalf of an indigent defendant, the final bill tallied up to around $8 million. These numbers that I am recalling were related by a professor I had in the early 1990s. Imagine what that cost is today. 

Alongside the argument of the death penalty come very real concerns about racial, social, and economic inequality. Black people, it is reported, are sentenced to the ultimate punishment at much higher rates than their neighbors of other ethnic makeups we are told. In modern parlance, they are sentenced at a disproportionate rate considering their statistical makeup of the total population coupled with the similar circumstances of their crimes. True? False? I have my opinions, but that is for another day.

We have a very real problem in America, and it centers on that nugget of wisdom that served as a prelude for our discussion tonight. America has a love of money problem, and it has allowed evil to flourish. Everything we do, especially when it relates to our government, has a cost/benefit analysis. We look at the cost of housing inmates on death row, how much it costs to investigate their crimes, and how much it will eventually cost to hear their appeals. Indeed, it does cost money. I would ask you though to think about something that is missing in this discussion, and it has nothing to do with costs. It has nothing to do with the idea of specific or general deterrence. It has nothing to do, surprisingly, with “justice,” whatever that may mean to you individually. So, what is missing?

It’s rather simple, actually. Is the death penalty, in appropriate cases, a punishment that fits the crime? Put another way, is it the right thing to do? 

We are focusing on the wrong things. We have no issue with spending trillions of dollars stationing soldiers on foreign soil under the misguided notion of protecting the “Homeland,” even though the mastermind behind the attacks of 9/11 was brought to justice by a team of Navy SEALs. Ironically, the death penalty in this case was looked on as a form of heroism devoid of any discussion of profit and loss. Yet, when our own citizens slaughter one another, thus leaving a trail of destruction for generations, only then do we take into account how much of a chunk of Joe Nebraska’s paycheck will it impact. In other words, as long as we are killing foreigners for the same crime, money isn’t an issue. 

In 1998, I had a rather unique experience. I stood in the gas chamber in North Carolina’s Central Prison, also known as the Big House, weeks after Ricky Lee Sanderson was executed. He would be the last convicted murderer to meet his demise by the gas chamber. It was a surreal experience. A small metal kneeling bench restrained the inmate. The angle of the kneeling bench forced his face into a bowl. Inside the bowl would be acid that would be mixed with cyanide, producing a poisonous gas. Admittedly, the death was excruciating.

Is the death penalty the right thing to do, despite the cost? Let’s ask the family of Hazel Alexander, a church secretary that was butchered inside a Lutheran Church in rural North Carolina as she prepared for choir practice. If you haven’t heard of this case, do not fret. It occurred in 1977, during supposed simpler times. 

Is the death penalty the right thing to do, despite the cost? Does the punishment fit the crime? Let’s ask the family of Michael Craig Walser. I recall this case vividly because I was the Magistrate on duty that set in motion the legal travels of his killer, Stanley Earl Corbett. Walser, a small-time marijuana peddler, was shot inside his home by Corbett and his accomplices. As Walser lie bleeding to death, laughter erupted as they exclaimed: “Look at that fat mother fucker bleed!” Corbett did not receive the death penalty in lieu of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. 

You see, not everything of value has a price tag. No system of government or justice has ever been perfect, nor will any system concocted by the flawed human be foolproof. I will concede that errors of fact have been made in death penalty cases. But in cases in which the evidence is presented allowing a reasonable person to deduce guilt with a clear conscience, at what price does this come? 

Our society has devolved to a level of savagery, and it is not by accident. When everything becomes an issue of cost and value from a monetary perspective, individual and collective morals have been deprived of their rightful place in a civilized society. 

Lady Justice is a liar. She is blindfolded, and she holds her scales. But I’m willing to bet that underneath her flowing robe is a garter belt overflowing with dollar bills. What Lady Justice does not see, that she should, are the tears of those left behind. What Lady Justice refuses to acknowledge are those that stand over the graves of their loved ones who left this world by the hands of those whom now have a price tag placed on their existence.  

Can you place a price on morality? Can you place a price on virtue? Absolutely, in America that is being done as we speak, and we are reaping what we are sowing. 

“You must show no pity; life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, and foot for foot.” -Deuteronomy 19:21

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