Until recently conservatives had strong views on crime (it should be punished). They dug in their heels around the death penalty as the ultimate vindication of the law and the social order that created that law. If an eye-for-an eye was good enough for God, it was good enough for most Republicans.

Liberals traditionally took a relative view of crime, considering all the environmental issues that twisted a person toward crime. The major implication: most criminals are merely conforming to what society expects of them. So you see, in certain relativistic, liberal perspective, most criminals became victims. The bleeding hearts wondered how such victimization could be undone. They sought therapeutic closure over swift, definitive punishment. They even wondered by what authority they could derive this godlike power to tinker with a criminal's life.

That was in a simpler time, when the battle lines were clearly drawn. Nowadays, the pendulum swings. First, outgoing Illinois Governor George Ryan suspended the use of the death penalty. Now others are joining him in the call to eliminate capitol punishment. The Maryland General Assembly is debating a bill that would outlaw the practice. Alarming evidence that innocent people are being sent to death row buoys their call.

In their book, "Actual Innocence," superlawyers Barry Scheck, Peter Neufeld and Jim Dwyer tell the story of ten men who were wrongly convicted. Backed by advances in DNA testing, the book implies that countless other wrongfully convicted prisoners are languishing in jail, some on death row. The book offers compelling evidence of police negligence, while noting that blacks and the poor are given the death penalty in disproportionate numbers.

Needless to say, the reaction among conservatives has been panic. Prominent conservatives George W. Will and Pat Robertson have led a call for a moratorium on the death penalty. They believe that if prejudice and ineptitude corrupt the legal system, the death penalty will no longer serve to maintain the social order.

Will and Robertson have a good point--they just don't know what it is. The morality of the death penalty and the flaws in our legal system are two separate issues. One issue deals with prejudices in the machinery of the court system or a cop's belief in the infallibility of his instincts. The other deals with whether it is actually moral for the state to take another's life. If we say the system is so flawed that we cannot trust it to administer the death penalty, then, by that same logic, we should place a moratorium on jail time--at least until we rethink our entire legal system.

Get it? Placing a moratorium on the death penalty does little to address the actual flaws in the legal process. Increased DNA testing, not a death penalty moratorium, would go a long way toward accomplishing this.

As for the morality of the death penalty, the decision to end a criminal's life is perhaps the most solemn decision the state can make. This tinkering with life is never easy. We apply the death penalty as a final punishment, in hopes that the very existence of the death penalty will, in the long run, form some sort of deterrence to capital crimes.

In this sense, the death penalty is not only a final testament to the sanctity of innocent life, but to the sanctity of our social order as well.

Of course, there are those who will argue that the government is violating the sanctity of life when it administers a toxic gas designed specifically to kill a criminal. What this argument fails to consider is that a criminal makes a conscious choice to commit a crime. He considers the risk of getting caught and punished, and chooses to proceed anyway. When the legal system demands that a criminal take responsibility for a capital crime, it is not the legal system that is showing a disregard for the sanctity of life. Rather, it is the criminal who showed disregard for the sanctity of his own life when he knowingly chose to commit a crime that carried the death penalty.

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