I think I have discussed this moral problem to an extent on this blog. Just type keywords into the search box, or look at the Moral questions category. My own opinion is about the same as it always has been – abolitionist. However, there are horrifying cases of serial killers, terrorists, cannibals who rape and eat children, etc. that seem only to deserve execution after a fair trial with rock-solid evidence.
One problem is that human justice is fallible, and many cases call for mercy as well as justice. For example, a man who has murdered his wife because she abused him. He has committed something heinous and terrible, but is he a danger to society generally? Would it not suffice to give him a relatively short prison sentence in an open facility where he can reflect, expiate, put his soul right with God and seek psychological help if appropriate?
There are solutions by which society can rid itself of dangerous individuals without killing them. In the past, there were penal colonies, but they were usually rife with corruption, rape and bullying like in normal high-security prisons. There are successful examples in Northern Europe of open air prisons, where inmates are not allowed outside the outer walls, but live a more or less normal life inside. They can get a job and engage in hobbies, and socialise as human beings. The ideal is that the facility would be entirely paid for by the work of the inmates so as not to be a burden on the taxpayer.
What about the really depraved psychopaths? There are perhaps cases where they should be killed because no other solution can be envisaged. Method of execution? Nothing fancy, just a single bullet in the back of the head in a prison cell, Russian style. The body would then be certified as dead by a doctor and then cremated in an officially witnessed event. Perhaps, this could be a discretionary sentence in very extreme cases.
It is a difficult moral problem, and we can easily develop an unhealthy interest in electric chairs and guillotines (simply type those words into Google). Some people take the same interest in guillotines as in classic cars! It is tempting, and we English have a dark sense of “gallows humour”. It is unhealthy.
Justice should be positive and merciful whenever possible, and as concerned for the offender’s rehabilitation as for the safety of society. We are sickened by the way Jihadist groups and countries like Saudi Arabia still behead and hang people in public, and we discuss the possibility of bringing all that back into western society! There are no simple solutions, yet I am not a lawyer. There are principles so that the law should be impartial and apply to all alike, but there is a notion of equity and mercy. This should be considered next time any of us is called for Jury Service (I can’t be because I am a clergyman).