Marin: An unjust judgment in Virginia

The fire slowly burned his flesh, and the iron bed upon which he was strapped must have glowed a dull red. Saint Lawrence suffered as he was slowly burned at the stake. He called out to the judge: “Let my body be turned; one side is broiled enough.” Joan of Arc was turned to ash within a roaring flame, and the blood of thousands guillotined during the Reign of Terror stained the soil of France. The lives of so many have been stripped away by governments across the ages.

Last night, ours was no different. John Allen Muhammad was executed at 9:11 p.m. by the Commonwealth of Virginia, as his victims’ families looked on. Cheryll Witz, like many of these relatives, felt she had a reason to be there: “He basically watched my dad breathe his last breath, why shouldn’t I watch his last breath?”

Mohammed and then-17-year-old Lee Boyd Malvo were the snipers behind the 2002 attacks in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area. I was in middle school at the time, so my own memories of the area’s reaction are hazy. However, it was clear that the shooting inspired anxiety and fear in a city weighed down by the September 11th attacks only a year earlier. A rumor that a white van was seen leaving the scene after every attack meant every white van was stopped and inspected. My school wouldn’t allow students to cross the street between buildings. I have memories of crossing the grassy East Terrace with my choir by running in zig-zags to make it harder for the sniper to shoot us. At the end of three long weeks, six had been killed in Maryland, my home state, three in Virginia and one in Washington. The killings were senseless, and the emotional toll on the city was large. The two men were eagerly brought to justice. Maryland sentenced Muhammad to six life terms in prison — one for each victim.

However, seven years later, Muhammad is dead, the result of a capital conviction in Virginia.

Though Muhammad clearly disdained the lives of others, Virginia’s decision to administer capital punishment is not an appropriate response. Human life cannot be reduced to choice. The state should not condemn our humanity because of our choices, but seek to rehabilitate those who make evil ones.

The state’s prerogative to prevent individuals from being murdered makes the state a handmaiden to a higher judge of life. When the state is allowed to judge who deserves to be killed, we allow the handmaiden to violently seize the throne and become a tyrant over us. The death penalty, unlike any other law or penalty, places the state in the highest seat of judgment — the only seat that can judge a human’s nature — a seat it should not have.

We are not capable of judging if another individual deserves to die. If we affirm the legitimacy of the state to use the death penalty, then we believe that humans are capable of judging the worth of another’s life.

Killing in war or in self-defense is very different — it does not constitute a judgment of the worth of another human being. When attacked, our reaction, whether it results in the death of the attacker or not, reflects only our need to protect ourselves. We begin to judge only once the circumstances are under our control.

One might contend, however, that the state can derive an understanding of a criminal’s nature from his choices and determine the appropriate penalty. The state is judging a choice, and in doing so weights this choice equally with a human life. But can a single choice in a human’s life be judged to forfeit every other moment and choice, an entire life? If we acknowledge that we cannot judge the worth of another human being, we should not reduce life to a set of choices in order to let us off the hook.

The state should not see morality as a series of choices, but instead as a question of nature. The state should only intervene to protect life or rehabilitate it. Last night, Virginia did neither. It usurped the seat of judgment by deciding that life of John Allen Muhammad was one that should be taken

Isabel Marin is a sophomore in Trumbull College.


  • Lorraine

    The article makes an excellent point and I totally agree. These words however caught my attention like a light bulb to my brain: “Human life cannot be reduced to choice.” I could not agree with that more and yet this is what we do when we “choose” to end the life of an unborn child. Someone “chooses” to pay someone to end that “inconvenient” life. Either we have a right to choose between life and death or we do not and of course we do not.

  • Yale 08

    Legitimate public authority has the right and duty to inflict punishment proportionate to the gravity of the offense. Punishment has the primary aim of redressing the disorder introduced by the offense. When it is willingly accepted by the guilty party, it assumes the value of expiation. Punishment then, in addition to defending public order and protecting people’s safety, has a medicinal purpose: as far as possible, it must contribute to the correction of the guilty party.

  • HDT

    “The state’s prerogative to prevent individuals from being murdered makes the state a handmaiden to a higher judge of life.”

    If your arguments are predicated on your religious convictions, please just come out and say so.

    Also, comparing a serial murderer to martyrs and innocents massacred in France is incredibly disingenuous. It belies the whole idea behind capital punishment in our society.

  • C.S. Lewis

    “You have overshot the mark. Mercy, detached from Justice, grows unmerciful. That is the important paradox. As there are plants which will flourish only in mountain soil, so it appears that Mercy will flower only when it grows in the crannies of the rock of Justice; transplanted to the marshlands of mere Humanitarianism, it becomes a man-eating weed, all the more dangerous because it is still called by the same name as the mountain variety. But we ought long ago to have learned our lesson. We should be too old now to be deceived by those humane pretensions which have served to usher in every cruelty of the revolutionary period in which we live.”

  • septcasey

    So the victim’s lives are less valuable than the murderers is that what this article is saying? Punishment must fit the crime. If you kill 1 person, you should give your life in return.

    Eye for an eye. Do not insult the lives of the victims by saying otherwise.

  • yalemom

    “But can a single choice in a human’s life be judged to forfeit every other moment and choice, an entire life?”

    I do believe John Allen Muhammad made quite more than a “single choice” in taking many human lives!!!!

    Yes, I believe in the death penalty. I believe in laws, whether they are made by God or by man(inspired by God)!

  • Goldie ’08

    I am not a supporter of the death penalty in the vast majority of cases, but John Muhammed deserved this punishment.

  • MJG

    I think the logical conclusion of your argument requires that all justice meted out by human hands is a usurpation of God (from whence the authority of justice derives). The attempt to carve out a special space for killing presumes a significance to death that I don’t think is in line with orthodox Christianity.

    That being said, plenty of ink could be justly spilled on the topic of people watching and delighting in executions. I think we would agree on that.

  • Many issues here

    A brief preface: I do not support the death penalty (for reasons completely different from those mentioned here).

    Now, to some constructive criticism. YDN Opinion editor, you need to do a better job selecting opinion writers and do a better job of editing the pieces.

    1.) The piece has many grammatical issues (for instance, the lack of a clear antecedent for “ours” in the phrase “Last night, ours was no different”)

    2.) The level of writing here is sufficiently poor in places that it interferes with the message. Consider the mixed metaphor in the following passage: “we allow the handmaiden to violently seize the throne and become a tyrant.” Am I the only one who finds this hilariously funny? A handmaiden violently seizing a throne? Is this a bad medieval action screenplay or a YDN opinion piece?

    3.) The article is incoherent. The argument is fragmented and the opening non-sequitur about martyrs is certainly peculiar. Most of all, paragraphs do not flow well, and the author has trouble articulating her views. It is choppy, all over the place, and altogether painful to read.

    This has been occurring in many opinion pieces lately, and I encourage the editor in charge of the op-ed page to spend more time editing and working with the writers or select pieces that are more coherently written to begin with. If you do not do so, you will begin to lose many readers (including this one).


    Interesting. When the author says “the state’s prerogative to prevent individuals from being murdered makes the state a handmaiden to a higher judge of life,” she seems to be alluding to God. But she also says, when the state usurps that seat of judgment, it becomes a “tyrant over us.” Is the logical corollary that the author envisions God as a tyrant? If so, the author’s position is less a throwback to religious discourse than a subtle post-Calvinist (ie. secular) defense of anarchy.

  • y’11

    Then, why should victims’ lives be taken, brutally, crudely, and inhumanely, by the CHOICES of the murderers, while criminals’ lives are made out to be sacred and untouchable as you argued?

  • yalie ’11

    The writer’s argument is only valid if one believes in a higher power (i.e. “God”) that will mete out the appropriate punishment when the alleged murderer finally meets his maker. I don’t believe in such a higher power or an afterlife, and if there isn’t a designated God ready judge us on our deeds when we die, then humans must take on that role, not out of vengeance, but in support of the victims of the murderer. Whether humans are capable of making just and sensible decisions is irrelevant. I don’t believe God would necessarily be a better judge than those on this Earth who witness the destruction of those who take others’ lives without the least bit of consideration. If a crazed murderer has the choice of taking lives, why should a jury and a judge be deemed incapable of making the same choice, especially when the punishment is fitting, and would act as a deterrent for future crimes? The writer rests smugly on the assumption that God will readily and justly punish those who commit crimes on Earth, but isn’t the same God supposed forgive sins as long as the sinner is a believer? This in itself gives me doubts about whether or not the Christian God is capable of making clear-headed judgements in regards to these manners. But who knew? The person in this case is a Muslim, so he’ll burn in hell in either case. Thank God there isn’t a sky bully ready to make these judgements as soon as we die. Therefore, the judgement of real human beings are necessary to punish criminals, and along the way, deter future criminals, for humans act more justly and swiftly than a perceived God ever can.

  • septcasey

    People simply aren’t afraid of the justice system anymore. If criminals were afraid of it, we wouldn’t have as much crime as we do. Its too much in favor of criminals because today defense lawyers can claim all kinds of bull crap in court and get even a murderer a weak sentence. And even if they do go to jail, alot of these murderers get more than what they had before anyway. 3 meals a day right?

  • CCE

    The simple fact is humans don’t have the power to create a single strand of human hair, talk less of human life, therefore we lack the power to take any human being’s life. If a criminal chooses to take anyone’s life, the solution is not the death penalty. Willfully killing a human being like a fowl, in the name of death penalty is a very heinous crime in itself.

  • rc

    This man should have been rehabilitated?? Say what you will about governments playing God, it is heinous to argue that this man deserved to live and be sent back to freedom. If the death penalty is worth anything, it is used to demonstrate what a grievous crime is. VA did the right thing by showing that this murderer did something so truly awful that he no longer deserved life.

  • Howard Roark

    Prisoners require meals. We pay for those meals! Those are our tax dollars! That money COULD go to strengthening our military or our schools. How can you possibly justify spending all that money on feckless prisoners?!??!

  • Nope

    Wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. This is silly and untrue. The DC snipers deserved to die. They were not saints. The author is crazy.

  • Peter Johnston

    The lady severely ignores Justice in her argumentation. I would advise the lady to spend more time with me, and perhaps she would understand. The Category of the Will will reveal to her the truth!

  • Old Blue ’73

    I don’t find it immoral or unjust for the state to execute cold-blooded murderers like this guy. However, I have come to oppose the death penalty because of the error rate in convictions. We can’t be certain we have the right guy and extraneous biases sometimes interfere with sound judgment. Because of that uncertainty and the unevenness with which the death penalty has been used, I am against it. The cost difference cited by Roark above doesn’t work because it is often more costly for the endless appeal process than life imprisonment. The answer to this problem and to the problem of a lack of deterrence because of the lengthy time from crime to punishment, i.e. to quicken the time to execution, is probably unacceptable to most of us. China managaged to execute in October offenders in an uprising in July this year.