The death penalty and the American conscience

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.
November 27, 2021

The death penalty is back in the headlines and back before the Supreme Court. It is the issue that erupts again and again, revealing a basic moral fault line that runs right through the American people—and perhaps through the American heart. The situation is also very confusing, and the confusion starts in the Oval Office.

President Joe Biden seems to believe that the death penalty is a very bad idea, except when it isn’t. He ran for president on a pledge to end federal executions, tweeting: “Because we can’t ensure that we get these cases right every time, we must eliminate the death penalty.” Soon after his election, his spokesperson T.J. Ducklo said Biden “opposes the death penalty now and in the future.” In June, under increased pressure from opponents of the death penalty, Biden’s attorney general, Merrick Garland, announced a moratorium on federal executions.

And yet, earlier this month the Biden administration went before the Supreme Court to argue for the reinstatement of the federal death penalty in the case of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. With his older brother, Tamerlan, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev planned and carried out the deadly 2013 bombings. Tamerlan was later killed in a shootout with police, after the brothers had murdered a police officer in the wake of the bombing.

Captured after a massive manhunt, Dzhokhar was arrested, tried, and convicted of 30 crimes, including murder and using a weapon of mass destruction resulting in death. He was sentenced to death by lethal injection on six capital counts. Tsarnaev later appealed the death penalty sentence, and the U. S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit overturned his death penalty sentence, largely based on charges that evidence had been wrongly excluded from Tsarnaev’s trial.

The Trump Administration had asked the Supreme Court to reinstate Tsarnaev’s death sentence. But the really interesting development came when the Biden Administration continued to make the same case to the Court. President Biden said he was against the death penalty, his attorney general announced a stop to federal executions, and yet attorneys for the same administration recently went before the Supreme Court to argue for the reinstatement of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s death sentence? That’s exactly what happened.

What explains this apparent contradiction? We should note that Tsarnaev’s trial was moved to the federal court so that the death penalty could be applied. Massachusetts does not have a death penalty, but the crimes of the Tsarnaev brothers were so heinous that the public rightly demanded the death sentence. That death sentence was sought by the Department of Justice while Barack Obama was president of the United States and Eric Holder was his attorney general. Both had been very critical of the death penalty but allowed federal prosecutors to seek the death sentence in this case. Now, the Biden Administration seems to be asking for the reinstatement of a death sentence it will not carry out?

At the high court, Justice Amy Coney Barrett noted the contradiction in the administration’s argument. “I’m wondering what the government’s endgame is here,” the justice wondered aloud. The American people must be wondering as well.

Why would the Biden Administration make apparently contradictory arguments on a matter of life and death? The clearest explanation is that the president knows that a clear majority of the American people believe in the death penalty for premeditated murder, especially mass murder. Like President Obama, President Biden is not about to deny that the death penalty fits the crime in the case of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. The bare political truth is that the American people know by moral conscience that at least some crimes demand the ultimate punishment by law.

This is not evidence of bloodlust or revenge, but of the basic hunger for justice that can only be explained by the fact that God made us in his image as moral creatures. Furthermore, the Noahic Covenant, found in Genesis chapter 9, demands the death penalty for a willful act of murder, precisely because murder is the intentional killing of a fellow image-bearer.

If you accept that the death penalty is demanded by any crime, you are not categorically opposed to the death penalty. A responsible society reforms the criminal justice process in order to improve the justice of the entire system, and that includes the death penalty. But we need political leaders who speak consistently, and avoid saying one thing on the campaign trail and another thing when before the Supreme Court.

The crimes of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev cry out for the death penalty, and the American people know it. It’s high time for an honest conversation about the death penalty and the future, and the American people deserve a straight answer on the issue, right from the Oval Office.

This article originally appeared at WORLD opinions on October 27, 2021. 

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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