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​BERNSTEIN: Don’t give Jesse Matthew the death penalty

No matter how horrific the crime, we should not condone capital punishment

Jesse Matthew’s jury trial for murder charges against second-year College student Hannah Graham has been set for July 5, 2016 — just under a full year from now. For some, his trial, should he be found guilty, may serve as a form of closure: the removal of a serial offender from our streets, while it cannot bring Hannah back, will protect other potential victims. But though this trial seeks to answer questions, it brings up even more, because in this case the prosecution has decided to seek the death penalty — a possible result we should not support.

The prosecution’s decision renews an ongoing debate about the value of capital punishment. Most arguments against the death penalty are much broader than Matthew’s individual case. There is little to no evidence that it deters crime; it is less cost-efficient even than life without parole (by a whopping $1 million per trial); and for every nine people executed, we can identify one innocent person who has been exonerated and released from death row — and this is just a small sampling of arguments against capital punishment. Conversely, death penalty advocates tend to focus on the value of retribution and closure for victims’ families.

While I encourage everyone to investigate the arguments outlined above closely, in this particular instance, our community should look internally to confront moral questions about execution, and what executing Matthew would mean in our small corner of the world. We are taught from a young age that two wrongs don’t make a right, and when it comes down to it, willfully executing another human — when self-defense or safety is not a concern — is wrong.

Often, when approaching capital punishment, we are tempted to consider the issue of whether someone deserves to die. And if he committed this crime, Matthew may well deserve that fate. But perhaps that is not the issue we should consider. Bryan Stevenson, in a brilliant TED Talk, turns the question of the death penalty on its head. He argues we should ask ourselves not whether the perpetrator deserves to die, but instead: do we deserve to kill?

The answer to his question is unequivocally no. If we expect our citizens not to kill — if we contend they do not deserve to do so — then why would we deserve to kill them in response to their actions? Moreover, why would we want to? Life in prison readily answers calls for justice; execution only serves as vengeance. We all felt, so deeply, the pain of losing our classmate, our peer. Would another death alleviate that pain? If the answer is yes, that should trouble us, not encourage us to kill more.

For many of us, Hannah’s disappearance is too close to home to allow us to address this issue. But because it is so close to home, we should feel empowered to address these questions head on and, ultimately, follow a moral path. In Aurora, Colorado, a jury opted not to give James Holmes the death penalty after convicting him of killing 12 people and injuring 70 more in a shooting rampage. In the face of a horrific tragedy, that community maintained a strong moral standard. We were horrified at the injustice committed in our community; why, then, commit a different kind of injustice in that one’s wake?

If Matthew is guilty, an appropriate punishment awaits him in prison. But if he ends up on death row, just as Hannah’s death is on her assailant’s conscience, Matthew’s death would be on ours.

Dani Bernstein is the executive editor of The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at