Perhaps nowhere is the true nature of the American soul more in evidence than in criminal cases involving the death penalty.
Americans want justice against the perpetrators of violent crimes. But they also want to make sure we don't execute innocent people. This is why, as William Baude explains ("Last Chance on Death Row," The Wilson Quarterly, Autumn 2010), criminals convicted of capital offenses have so many routes they can travel along the road of appeal.
A criminal convicted of a capital offense by a jury of his peers can, first of all, appeal to higher federal courts for a reconsideration, up to and including the US Supreme Court. If that does not overturn his conviction he can take a second line of appeal in which he argues, against the decision of the original jury, that the evidence in the case was insufficient to convict. If this fails, he can appeal to higher state courts and, if necessary, to the US Supreme Court again. And if all that fails, he can appeal for a pardon.
Of course, all this takes time and an enormous amount of money, much of it from tax revenues. But we want to be sure, don't we? Yes, but how sure is sure? Right, right, but if we don't exhaust every line of appeal, we might execute an innocent person. I get that, but that's the price we pay for justice in a democracy, isn't it?
And so forth. I'm sympathetic with the appeal process, in general. I don't want innocent people to be executed, either. I think the time such appeals take may give those who are truly guilty some space to reflect more seriously on their crimes and, perhaps, come to some remorse and repentance before they take their last meal. There's grace in the appeal process. I'm not for outlawing the death penalty, which might cut down some of these appeals. However, I am for making sure, as sure as we can, before we take another person's life.
Do you feel the tension here? The schizophrenia the nation feels in such matters? Do you see how the nation's soul is strained between the demand for justice and the need to protect the innocent? Why is that? Why should we care for either of these? What makes us a people who know - inherently, it seems—that justice is right but that justice works both ways, for victims and for the accused?
If we needed any evidence that the works of God's Law are written on the hearts of all people, surely this is it. The Law teaches us that all life is significant and valuable; it also demands that societies maintain justice and order. Made in God's image, His Law written on our hearts, we cannot escape the affects of these on how we look on life and its many issues, no matter how officially and fervently we deny God and His Law a place in our public squares. It's that simple, really.
Why should we care? Try to get your unbelieving friend at the office to explain this conundrum on purely evolutionary and rational grounds.