Death Penalty Opponent Advocates System of Vigilantism

South Dakota State Prison

South Dakota State Prison

Last Wednesday, the House State Affairs Committee heard testimony on two anti-death penalty bills brought by “Republican” Rep. Steve Hickey of Sioux Falls.  The first was HB 1158 to “require that a victim’s opposition to the death penalty be presented at a presentence hearing,” and the second was HB 1159 to “permit South Dakotans to express opposition to the death penalty when applying for a state issued identification card.”

It’s interesting that Hickey in his proponent testimony of this bill paints a picture where the desires of the victim of the victim’s family is paramount, with justice taking a backseat–if it shows up at all.

He claims he doesn’t want a victim pursuing justice for themselves, yet a perverted image of that is exactly what he’s promoting here–one where the convicted murderer gets to leverage misguided people to pursue his own version of watered-down justice.

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If a victim or victim’s family believes in the death penalty, he wants the court to IGNORE that when he seeks to get rid of the death penalty. But until such time as he can get rid of the death penalty, he wants the court to listen to a victim or victim’s family’s opposition to the death penalty.

What should we do if some family members of the victim support the death penalty and some oppose it?  Do we let them all testify, and turn the trial into an emotional circus?  To which family members to we give deference (obviously Hickey would have us defer to the family members who OPPOSE the death penalty, not those who support it)?

In the case of a murder, the family of the victim isn’t really the aggrieved party. To be certain, they suffer horrible pain because of what the convicted murderer did, but the offense was actually against the victim…and the victim cannot speak at the trial to offer forgiveness or state any potential opposition to the death penalty.

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As Rapid City State’s Attorney Mark Vargo said in opponent testimony, the focus needs to remain on the crime and the criminal, not the well-meaning but ultimately irrelevant wishes of someone who cannot offer fresh testimony at the trial (because they were murdered by the defendant) or is not the ultimate victim of the crime (i.e. a family member).

Even if the victim were able to do that, or their opposition (at the time they got a driver’s license and potentially registered opposition to the death penalty…which could have changed by the time they were murdered) was on record, society has been offended by the crime. Society has been injured by the crime, as the sanctity of innocent human life (upon which we all depend for our safety) has been violated. As we know, the victim does not carry out trial and punishment against a murderer. The victim’s family does not carry out trial and punishment against a murderer. Society carries out trial and punishment against a murderer, because when crimes such as murder are allowed to happen without proper punishment, society is placed in peril. And (thankfully) society has made the statement through our constitutionally passed laws that we value innocent human life so highly that the wrongful taking of innocent human life should be punished by the forfeiture of one’s own life. So until society decides to register its opposition to the death penalty by constitutionally outlawing it, the desires of the victim or the victim’s family are not really relevant to the administration of justice.

Interestingly, as State’s Attorney Aaron McGowan from Sioux Falls pointed out in opponent testimony, it is highly likely that even a victim who might (academically) be opposed to the death penalty (prior to the time they are seconds away from being murdered) might change their minds about opposition to the death penalty once faced with the reality of the cold-blooded barbarism of the actual act of murder. Most people–unless you are a homicide investigator or an actual murder victim–have probably never fully evaluated the contempt that a murderer has toward innocent human life, nor have they fully appreciated the pain and horror faced by the murder victim as they recognize their life has now come to a brutal, immediate end. It is therefore highly likely that if you could query a murder victim at the moment of their murder or immediately thereafter, they just might have a new appreciation for the barbarity of the act and might actually change their mind to support the death penalty for such a cold-blooded murderer.

Why aren’t the wishes of the victim or victim’s family relevant to the issue at hand. Because justice isn’t about doing what the victim or victim’s family wants done. Our justice system is supposed to be a dispassionate, impartial application of justice. Did someone violate the law?  If yes, then they are found guilty and given the punishment appropriate to their crime. No ifs, ands or buts. We don’t punish a criminal more harshly because the victim or victim’s family wants us to, and we don’t punish a criminal less harshly because the victim or the victim’s family wants us to.

I frequently disagree with Rep. Brian Gosch due to his frequent forays Leftward, but he said it well when he stated incredulity that this bill would seek to allow a convicted murderer to bring into the mix the voice of the victim, when the convicted murderer deliberately chose to silence completely and forever the voice of his victim. His victim. The murderer’s victim. The murderer wants to leverage the voice of his victim to help get him out of the justice he deserves (out of the same “sentence” he carried out against his victim, even without the benefit of due process). What a crock!

If we’re going to make justice about what the victim or victim’s family wants, then we truly will adopt a system of vigilante justice.

Our justice system is supposed to be based on the solid foundation of law, not the wishy-washy sea of turbulent and dangerous emotion. With all its flaws, our justice system has served us well over most of our nation’s history when we have followed the rule of law over the opinions and emotions of men.

We don’t need vigilantism of any form. We don’t need emotionalism. We don’t need the dispensation of justice to be based on or even influenced by emotion and emotionalism.

Let’s not depart further from the rule of law and into the abyss of liberal emotionalism. Let’s stick with law. Let’s stick with justice, and justice indicates that if you demonstrate the ultimate contempt toward innocent human life, you have forfeited your own life.

Thankfully, the committee agreed, voting 10-2 against 1158 and 10-2 against 1159.

Two more direct assaults on the death penalty, SB 121 and SB 122, were also heard in the Senate and thankfully both were put down 7-2 and 7-2 respectively.

Four bad bills met the death they deserved–just like the death the convicted murderer has chosen for himself with his contempt for innocent human life.


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Bob Ellis has been the owner of media company Dakota Voice, LLC since 2005. He is a 10-year U.S. Air Force veteran, a political reporter and commentator for the past decade, and has been involved in numerous election and public policy campaigns for over 20 years. He was a founding member and board member of the Tea Party groups Citizens for Liberty and the South Dakota Tea Party Alliance. He lives in Rapid City, South Dakota with his wife and two children.
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