News & Politics

We Need the Death Penalty for Jacob Wetterling's Killer

(AP Photo/Jim Mone, file)

Few things bring a community together like tragedy. It’s a sad aspect of the human condition. We tend to ignore each other until a moment when our essential sameness manifests. Minnesotans find themselves in such a moment, having recently learned chilling answers to long held questions in the Jacob Wetterling case.

Wetterling was twelve years old when he was abducted at gunpoint on a dead-end rural road, snatched while two of his friends were forced to look away. For 27 years, his family and the broader community held out hope that he might somehow remain alive. Alas, a vile creature recently led authorities to Jacob’s remains. In court on Tuesday, that killer detailed his actions, as reported by the Minneapolis Star Tribune:

It began with a question: “On Oct. 22, 1989, did you kidnap, sexually assault and murder Jacob Wetterling?”

“Yes, I did,” Danny Heinrich said.

The hushed courtroom — packed with family members, reporters and law enforcement officers — began to buzz. Sitting in the front row, Patty and Jerry Wetterling listened, stoically at first, as Heinrich described that warm October night.

How he spotted the three boys on the dead-end road. How he put on a mask and reached for his revolver. How he warned Trevor and Aaron not to look back.

With a clear, low voice, Heinrich said he then handcuffed Jacob and put him in the passenger seat. At that point, the prosecutor asked, what did Jacob say to you?

“ ’What did I do wrong?’ ” Heinrich answered.

A few in the courtroom gasped. Several began sobbing.

The only justice for Jacob would be Heinrich’s death. That will not happen. Minnesota has no death penalty. On top of that, authorities presumably have these answers in the Wetterling case because Heinrich cut a deal. Faced with life in prison due to conviction on other charges, Heinrich reportedly seeks accommodations that will protect him from other prisoners. The irony is that those other prisoners understand something which the rest of us increasingly don’t. Monsters must be put down.

The death penalty has lost much of its support over the past few decades, even among conservatives. Here are a few objections to the death penalty floating around conservative circles, and why they are wrong:

1. Government Cannot Be Trusted

Conservatives don’t trust government to run health care or fix the economy. Why would we trust them with something as important as a human life? There have been improper convictions in the past, and an innocent person might be killed.

Let’s just shut the whole thing down then. Seriously. Why have government at all? If they can’t get anything right, why trust them with any of it? This is silly. If people are being wrongly convicted, let’s stop that! We don’t fix that problem by nerfing sentences.

How is it better for someone to be falsely convicted to a life sentence than to be falsely convicted to a death sentence? Either way, it’s a false conviction. Are we to regard the world as a better place because an innocent person might spend his life in prison rather than be executed? Is that really the standard?

How about we focus on minimizing mistakes? How about we focus on making sound convictions? That seems like a much better plan than settling for a world where innocent people spend their remaining years in hell, and guilty people don’t get what they deserve.

2. Death Is Not an Adequate Punishment

If you kill someone, that’s it, it’s over. They don’t suffer. They don’t have to pay with the lifetime of horror which prison presents. Let’s make them suffer by keeping them alive.

This is odd in light of the first argument. If a lifetime in prison proves so much worse than death, why should we be okay with errant life sentences while objecting to errant death sentences? If killing someone gets it over with, while letting them live makes them suffer, wouldn’t we rather kill the wrong person than imprison them for life? You can’t have it both ways.

A life sentence in a case which warrants death comes at a financial and moral cost. Why should taxpayers foot the bill to keep a murdering rapist alive? More importantly, why should we suffer a murdering rapist’s continued existence? Each breath he draws insults life itself. But more on that later.

3. It’s Cheaper to Keep Them Alive

“Cases without the death penalty cost $740,000, while cases where the death penalty is sought cost $1.26 million.” That’s from the Death Penalty Information Center. Therefore, some conservatives argue, it proves more fiscally responsible to pursue life sentences rather than death sentences.

The cheapest option would be to let them back out onto the street and be done with it. Let’s concede, first and foremost, that our goal is justice at whatever cost.

The reason that it is more expensive to prosecute a death penalty case is because we have made it more expensive. In a long forgotten past, getting the death penalty meant that you were actually going to die, and soon. Today, getting the death penalty means that you are going to spend an untold number of years in prison while your case goes through seemingly infinite appeals. On the one hand, it is understandable why we would want a vigorous appeals process in a death penalty case. At a certain point, however, there is a diminishing return.

How about we strengthen the process by which initial convictions occur, then limit appeals to something more reasonable. It shouldn’t cost $1.26 million to kill a murdering rapist. Rope is cheap.

4. Death Is Not a Deterrent

The presence of a death penalty, or lack thereof, has no effect upon the rate of violent crime.

Accepting that premise for a moment, so what? Deterring crime is not the point. A death sentence is an administration of justice. You kill a murdering rapist because he deserves to die, not to strike fear in the hearts of other murdering rapists.

Even so, let’s consider some anecdotal evidence which affirms the deterrent value of the death penalty. Recall that the reason we now have answers in the Wetterling case is because Heinrich seeks protection from fellow inmates. That suggests that he values his life. Weird, huh? Indeed, the one instance in which forgoing the death penalty proves acceptable is when such clemency can be leveraged to secure a broader justice. But doing so clearly demonstrates the value in the death penalty as a means for securing that justice.

It also reveals hypocrisy. Let’s not kid ourselves. Whether there is an official death penalty on the books or not, this whole case hinges on the fact that throwing Heinrich in with the general prison population effectively assures his demise. Clearly, we’re already benefiting from a de facto death penalty. Why pretend we have a problem with it? If we truly objected to the death penalty as such, we would protect Heinrich on principle regardless of his cooperation.

5. Life Is Precious

As conservatives, we’re pro-life. We believe that life is precious and ought to be preserved. How can the same people who wring hands over the death of an unborn child be perfectly content with injecting a lethal chemical cocktail into grown adults?

This is face-palming dumb. If I have to explain the moral distinction between an unborn child and a murdering rapist, we have bigger problems than criminal justice policy. I’ll do so anyway for the sake of argument.

Being pro-life is not, and has never been, blind and equal support of any life in every context. This is the PETA mentality. A chicken lives, they note, therefore it is as valuable as a human being. No, it isn’t. A chicken and a human being have two different natures which define their relative value.

Human beings make choices. Unlike lesser animals, we cannot get by on instinct. We have to think. We have to act on that thought in order to survive and thrive. We stand accountable for the consequences of those choices. Obviously, an unborn child has not made any choices which might warrant death. A murdering rapist clearly has. His nature, defined by his choices, defines his relative value.

Indeed, blind and equal support of any life in every context is explicitly anti-life. It is because life is precious that we must kill those who take it, certainly when the crime proves heinous and wholly intentional. That is what justice requires. By killing the killer, you affirm the value of his victim’s life. It says that the victim’s life held value which demands the ultimate price. To do less is to diminish the victim, to effectively victimize her again, to say that her life was worth less than the monster who killed her.

To oppose the death penalty on the grounds that life is precious is to say that Danny Heinrich proves as precious as Jacob Wetterling. He doesn’t. Jacob deserved to live. His killer deserves to die.