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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