I remembered first hearing about Jessica Lunsford’s disappearance when it happened. She’d only been gone a few weeks when a man named John Couey confessed to her kidnap, rape and murder. He’d buried her alive in trash bags.
He’s been found guilty. Sentencing is due next week, either life in prison without parole — or death.
I’m not generally a proponent of killing criminals. I think some states — notably Texas — are disturbingly gung-ho about it, all but forming lynch mobs in their eagerness to kill convicts, even those who were teenagers when convicted, or who are mentally retarded.
But if there’s an argument in favor of execution, Couey is as strong as they come.
I’m not blinkered by the notion that there’s inherent worth in a human. That suggests something dangerously close to ensoulment or divine blessing, neither of which seems possible to me. After all, if we believe in a soul and we accept the fact of evolution, we must concede that at some point in our evolutionary development an animal mother, lacking a soul, gave birth to a human infant that did have a soul. This idea should damned well be troubling to anyone who believes in the ghost story. As to some kind of deity blessing humans specifically … there just isn’t any evidence for such a claim.
This means that, to me, while anyone can arguably have a certain baseline level of arbitrary worth (everyone is someone’s child, after all), it’s possible for that worth to be enriched through certain acts, and it’s also possible for the worth to be reduced by other acts.
For instance, if you spend your life working tirelessly as a physician or firefighter or police officer or soldier, trying every day to help or defend others, putting yourself in harm’s way to assist others or so on, I think that imparts a measure of value to your life that simply would be lacking if instead you lived off your parents and spent all your time playing Xbox. Given a choice to save either a shiftless console addict or a nurse, I know which life I’d consider more worthy of sparing.
Then, too, people can and sometimes do change; a life that seemed doomed to end in pointless dissipation can be turned around; if it’s possible to do so, it should be. So while it can be argued that our video-game freak is currently worth less than the nurse, it’s conceivable that, in ten years’ time, he will have made up for his lassitude and turned out to be a pretty decent human being.
The flipside should be obvious. A murderer tests — profoundly — the idea of inherent human worth, but it can be argued that a murderer might come to realize the nature of his deed, might develop a better understanding of what he’d done, and may go on to eloquently speak against the act, possibly even helping prevent murders by others in the future. I don’t know offhand of any verifiable examples of this, but the possibility of it makes me think that by and large killing killers isn’t the best reflex.
And then we have creatures such as Couey. He doesn’t even have the argument in his favor of youthful indiscretion — he was nearly 50 when he raped that preteen girl and, in total callousness to her dread, buried her alive. She was conscious and aware when he did it; she poked some fingers through the trash bags before she died. She choked on her own waste gas with a wretched man’s semen in her body.
I’m pretty sure Couey doesn’t deserve to live. But it’s not just because of the particularly vicious nature of his crime. It’s not just because of the deliberate way he terrorized and murdered a child. It’s because he could have chosen not to do it at any time, and because he so obviously doesn’t care about others’ suffering. That’s bad enough and, had his victim been an adult, might warrant life in prison; but his victim was not an adult. Jessica was nine years old. She didn’t even have enough time to make a substantial volume of mistakes or victories. Her opportunities were taken from her. She hadn’t really even begun to live before she was assaulted and murdered for the sins of being young, pretty and naïve.
That, to me, makes his crime unforgivable. The rape was terrible. The murder was the capper.
We already have a world full of heartless killers. We already groan under the weight of discompassionate behavior. We already suffer at the hands of those who seem to enjoy imparting suffering. So should Couey get the death sentence I won’t be celebrating; but in this particular case I think a cool, deliberate termination of a life rendered utterly worthless is in order.
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