Genny Rojas was four years old when her aunt and uncle, Veronica and Ivan Gonzales, tortured and murdered her. They suspended her alive by a hook on the closet wall in their apartment. They shook her violently, strangled her, beat her with a hairbrush, and handcuffed her for days. She died after she was forced into a scalding bath tub for three minutes.
A California jury sentenced Veronica and Ivan to death, and the California Supreme Court upheld their convictions. If anyone deserved the ultimate punishment, they did.
There are, to be sure, heartfelt arguments for people to be against the death penalty, not the least of which are religious, moral, or other reasons and beliefs. There are also valid arguments regarding the historical use of the death penalty against minorities, especially in the South.
Yet a majority of Americans, quite reasonably, support the death penalty in appropriate cases, and believe that, despite its imperfections, it is constitutional.
The Supreme Court has held the death penalty to be constitutional. The 5th and 14th Amendments carry express approval of the death penalty: a person may not be “deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law.”
A majority of states (29) have the death penalty on the books. Similarly, the federal government, and the military have the ultimate punishment for the most heinous crimes.
Since 1976, when the Supreme Court reinstated the punishment, there have been 1,512 executions, with whites making up the majority of defendants executed (55%), followed by blacks (34%). Whites make up the majority of victims in death penalty cases (76%), followed by blacks (15%). A majority of Americans support the death penalty, and have since polling began in 1938.
But for the death penalty to be applied fairly, we must strive to make the criminal justice system work as it was intended. We should all agree that all defendants in capital cases should have competent and zealous lawyers representing them at all stages in the trial and appeals process.
Any remnant of racism in the criminal justice system is wrong, and we should work to eliminate it. Nobody is in favor of racist prosecutors, bad judges or incompetent defense attorneys. If problems arise in particular cases, they should be corrected—and often are.
That said, the death penalty serves three legitimate penological objectives: general deterrence, specific deterrence, and retribution.
The first, general deterrence, is the message that gets sent to people who are thinking about committing heinous crimes that they shouldn’t do it or else they might end up being sentenced to death.
The second, specific deterrence, is specific to the defendant. It simply means that the person who is subjected to the death penalty won’t be alive to kill other people.
The third penological goal, retribution, is an expression of society’s right to make a moral judgment by imposing a punishment on a wrongdoer befitting the crime he has committed. Twenty-nine states, and the people’s representatives in Congress have spoken loudly; the death penalty should be available for the worst of the worst.
Opponents also argue that since other countries have abolished the death penalty, we should also. But Thailand, India, Japan, Singapore, and many other countries retain the death penalty.
Yes, many European countries have abolished the death penalty. But they are less democratic than we are, and its lawmakers are less accountable to the people in their countries.
Death penalty opponents, quite understandably, note that there have been a number of death row inmates who have been exonerated through groups like the Innocence Project. Sadly, mistakes can happen. Indeed mistakes can happen on both sides when it comes to the death penalty.
However, acknowledging that mistakes can occasionally occur in capital cases does not render the death penalty unjust any more than imposing a sentence of incarceration for a term of years is not rendered unjust simply because mistakes occasionally occur in non-capital cases.
Today, there are built-in checks and balances in the criminal justice system, from jury selection to the penalty phase to the appeals process that are designed to provide fair process for each defendant. The system is not perfect, and we must work to make it better for everyone involved.
But we cannot forget the victims either. Genny Gonzales would be 28 years old this year. She never went to high school, attended college, or fell in love. She is gone. Her murderers richly deserve the death penalty, though justice won’t be complete until their sentence is carried out.
This piece originally appeared in Tribune News Service