The death penalty should be reserved for the most heinous killers, the ones who are a threat to society, the ones for whom no other punishment is sufficient, the ones about whose guilt there can be no doubt.
We had a textbook example of the perfect death-penalty case a few years back, when an evil man-child massacred nine clergy and parishioners at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church — pulling the trigger more than 75 times, reloading seven times and shooting his victims repeatedly. After spending nearly an hour in a Bible study with them. After doing his racist research to locate the perfect place to kill black people. In an effort to spark a race war.
But while it was a textbook case, it was far from typical. Our state — and indeed our nation — hasn’t put many white men on death row for killing black people. In fact, racial bias is one of the strongest arguments against the death penalty. Although South Carolina’s current death row numbers don’t skew as badly as they do if you consider the past century or two, they still skew black. That’s caused at least in part by the way we decide who qualifies and who doesn’t. By this we don’t mean the factors in state law; we mean who makes the decisions.
The problems with South Carolina’s death penalty could and should be addressed by the Legislature — by, for instance, requiring decisions about seeking the death penalty to be made by a statewide panel of solicitors rather than an individual solicitor who has to stand for reelection and can too easily be swayed by public emotion.
They are, in other words, problems that we should address by erecting new guardrails to ensure that we really do reserve the death penalty for the tiny percentage of cases that are in an entirely different category than the hundreds of other murders that occur in our state every year.
They are not problems that should be addressed by artificially inflating the number of white people or rich people or women or any other underrepresented group on death row.
The argument for seeking the death penalty against Alex Murdaugh is that we should treat this rich white guy the same way we treat all those poor black men on death row.
That would be a good argument if Mr. Murdaugh were accused of committing those most heinous murders — the ones that are particularly gruesome or that are done in the context of another violent crime, that target strangers or terrorize the public. But unless there are shocking details that police have somehow managed to keep under wraps in more than a year of an international media circus, the murders of Maggie and Paul Murdaugh do not fit that definition. They instead appear to be an all-too-common reminder that it is those closest to us who are most likely to kill us.
And there are two sides to the racial argument: If we were to execute Mr. Murdaugh for killing his wife and son — as prosecutors allege — how would we explain that to all the poor black people who lost loved ones at the hands of a relative?
Do poor black women not deserve for the state to take the murders of their daughters and grandchildren as seriously as the state would be taking the deaths of Maggie and Paul Murdaugh?
Yes, Mr. Murdaugh has been indicted on many other charges. But there are no allegations that the murders occurred in the commission of those crimes, like a botched robbery or kidnapping that ends in murder.
Now, we can debate whether our penalties are too harsh for violent crimes and too light for white-collar crimes — indeed, that would be a good debate to have — but not in the middle of a murder case, which must be decided based on the law as it stands right now.
We don’t mean to downplay the significance of any of the crimes. If Mr. Murdaugh is convicted, he deserves to spend a lot of time in jail — the rest of his life in the case of the murders — and be stripped of any remaining wealth he might have squirreled away.
But Attorney General Alan Wilson should resist pressure to show that he can be just as tough on rich white attorneys as he is on poor black convenience store robbers. To give in to such pressure would make him no different than racist prosecutors down through history who sent so terribly many black people to the executioner.