They did it, the blood-hungry fools. Last night, just after midnight out in Draper, Utah, they trussed up Ronnie Lee Gardner like a scarecrow, pinned a target on him, and pumped four .30-caliber bullets into his chest.
This execution was so unnecessary, and because it was unnecessary, it was simply and completely wrong. They shouldn’t have done it—because they didn’t have to do it.
The odd thing is that Gardner might have made a good example for legitimate imposition of the death penalty, once upon a time. He had a history of escapes, and, on trial in 1985 for the barroom murder of Melvyn Otterstrom, he was smuggled a gun and shot down an attorney named Michael Burdell in a botched attempt at a getaway from the Salt Lake courthouse. He was an open threat to the public, and the system appeared incapable of containing him. The ordinary course of social justice might well have required his death.
But that was twenty-five years ago. For more than two decades, the Utah State prison proved competent to restrain him—and to age him from the murderous twenty-four-year-old into a less dangerous forty-nine-year old.
The usual arguments one hears for the death penalty are risible. As all who’ve examined the studies know, the evidence about impact on crime is so riddled with contradictions and counter-indications that it’s meaningless. Some studies say that capital punishment does decrease crime. Some say that it doesn’t. Some even say that it increases crime (Clarence Darrow’s old claim). Don’t trust any strong conclusion on the topic: There is simply no determination that can be drawn from the data.
And as for the economic argument that sometimes gets made—the claim that it’s so much less expensive to kill prisoners than to jail them—the answer is that the argument just isn’t true. In the current legal regime, it is an astonishing expense to bring someone to execution. Besides, a government that kills to save money would be a government that had lost anything resembling legitimacy.
There is, in fact, only a single reason that Ronnie Lee Gardner died last night—a single explanation that makes any sense at all. And it is that he deserved it. The murder he committed twenty-five years ago still cries to the heavens for justice.
And maybe it does. Certainly it does. But where, exactly, does the State of Utah get the authority to answer the calls on heaven? Where, exactly, does a modern nation, founded on no deliberate godly principle, derive its power to kill in the name of high justice? This is a nation, after all, that refused—with the infamous “mystery” passage in Casey v. Planned Parenthood—to protect the unborn, precisely because, the Supreme Court said, no such metaphysical foundation can be imposed by government. So where do these assertions of divinely based power for the death penalty come from?
It cannot be simply that the government is the one in power; there has surely been, sometime in the history of the world, such a thing as an illegitimate government. For that matter, there has surely been, at some point, an illegitimate claim of power by an otherwise legitimate government. The question of authority for a government’s action cannot be simply dismissed or ignored. Justice there must, and will be, for Ronnie Lee Gardner’s crimes—but political theory demands some account of why the prison system of Utah gets to enact and impose that justice.
I have written of this before, and those who disagree point to biblical passages that suggest otherwise, particular Romans 13: “Rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? Do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.”
But the Christian theological tradition has always understood, as well, that there can be illegitimate rulers—and the Christian tradition is fundamentally the tradition that brought to the West the understanding that there are powers that governments cannot claim or exercise. For that matter, Paul in Romans is using the word sword as a metaphor for all forms of punishment—of which death is only one. Paul cannot be read here as demanding capital punishment for every crime.
Nor can he be read as licensing every claim of power by every form of government through the history of the world. The pagan Roman empire still understood itself to have a divine foundation that offered, in some confused way, an account of how it possessed the authority for high justice and revenge. What has that to do with a modern, social-contract democracy like ours?
More to the point, there is nothing in Paul that demands death in every situation of punishment. And if we don’t have to kill a prisoner, in the ordinary social justice that demands protection of citizens, then we have a responsibility not to kill a prisoner. The death of Ronnie Lee Gardner last night, four .30-caliber bullets in his heart, was unauthorized, wrong, and foolish.
We have so devolved that we kill even while we cannot explain how we are allowed to take matters of life and death into our hands. And that is a door I fear to watch our government—or any government—walk through.
Joseph Bottum is editor of First Things.