There Is No Mercy Without Crime

A man stands in the dock accused of murder. Killed a man just to watch him die. He’s guilty. He knows he’s guilty. The judge knows he’s guilty. Everybody knows he’s guilty. He’s guilty.

The punishment is death, to be carried out immediately or eventually. Doesn’t matter. The man is guilty, the penalty is clear. He has to die.

The man has no excuse. He knew what he did was wrong. He did it anyway. He wanted to do it. He made the choice to do it. He did it.

He knew it was wrong and he knew the penalty. He knew he’d get what was coming to him. He did it anyway. He’s guilty and must be punished, as he knew all along.

So he throws himself on the mercy of the court. He begs for mercy.

Mercy! There are no mitigating circumstances. The man knew what he was going to do was wrong and did it anyway. The man now knows two things. That he did what he intended to do. And that he is now sorry.

He is sorry. He can only be sorry because there was a crime. He begged for mercy, and the judge can choose mercy. But only because there was a crime. There can be no mercy save there was a crime.

There is no mercy without crime.

If the man did not do the crime, then there is no need for mercy. If there was no punishment for his deed, there is no need for mercy.

The man did nothing to deserve mercy. He cannot earn mercy. He cannot buy mercy. He cannot trade for it. He can only ask for it. It’s up to the judge whether to give it.

The judge knows the man cannot earn mercy. He knows the man does not deserve mercy. The judge knows of the crime and knows the punishment.

The man can be sorry. The man can beg for mercy. The man knows he does not deserve it.

No amount of sorry can wash away the man’s crime. The crime will always be there. If the judge grants mercy, the crime has not gone away. It still happened. The crime was still the crime, even if the judge is merciful. The man may escape death, but the deed still happened and everybody will still know it was a crime.

Murder will still be a crime if the judge is merciful. The act of mercy to this man does not eliminate the crime. It does not make the crime a non-crime. The judge being merciful to this man is not an excuse for other men to murder.

Murder will still be a crime if this man is given the gift of mercy. There will be no excuse for future murderers. Nothing has changed except this man is granted a good for which he cannot pay.

There is no encouragement for other men to murder if this man receives mercy. The opposite is true. The evil is made into starker relief if this man is granted mercy. If it is possible, future murderers have even less excuse than this man had. And this man had none.

There is no mercy without crime. It is impossible to speak of mercy without there is crime. You cannot award mercy if there was no crime.

To speak of mercy when you mean instead to say a crime is not a crime is a terrible error. If you want to say the crime is not a crime, it is foolish and unintelligible to say those who commit the non-crime deserve our mercy. If there is no crime, there is no need to speak of mercy.

It is not merciful to say what is known to be a crime is not a crime. It is not merciful to automatically grant mercy to all who commit the crime. It is insane. Automatic mercy is an encouragement for the crime to be committed.

In other news, the second part of the Synod on the family takes place this October.


  1. On the synod: There went any hope the Catholic church would refrain from painting lipstick on pig and calling beautiful. There’s still the Jehovah Witnesses who “solve” this problem by having the cohabitating couple live apart, then marry and then join the church. I have little hope they can hold out much longer, though they are not as dependent on the monetary contributions of their members as the Catholic Church is. When it’s all about money, these things happen. I think there’s even a scripture on that somewhere.

  2. Ken

    Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, recourse to the death penalty is appropriate IF this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against an unjust aggressor. IF non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, the courts ought to limit to such.

    The death penalty removes the possibility of the guilty from redemption. The cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity are very rare, if not practically non-existent.

  3. Gary

    Natural death removes the possibility of redemption too. So what if there’s a sufficient time period before penalty? And redemption from what? Further murderous crime or spiritual salvation?

    Btw, the legal system is so demonstrably flawed that I agree with the certainty criterion.

  4. Adrienne S

    Reads like a good sermon build-up. Waiting for second half…

  5. JH

    I don’t think the concept of mercy is confined to criminal justice. A person displays mercy when letting go of debts owed by poor people. Of course, just like many other virtues, it is preserved by avoiding extremes.

    What would a justice system without mercy be like? For example, all felonies are to be sentenced 15 years in prison. No mercy, i.e., no consideration or understanding of any sort. What would a society without mercy be like? I don’t have answers.

  6. Ken: I too am wondering how the death penalty removes the possibility of redemption in a way that is somehow worse than natural death. Seems to me the death penalty gives a greater impetus to redemption since one knows the date of one’s departure from this earth. Getting hit by a truck and dying has no such warning. Nor did the victim of the crime have such warning.
    I agree that death penalty must be very carefully administered. Using it on a person who committed one homicide with shaky evidence is not acceptable. On the other hand, killing 15 people in a mall would seem a likely candidate, especially if it’s all on video.

  7. I don’t think this was an argument against mercy, but rather against not calling a crime a crime. One can justify using extenuating circumstances, etc in sentencing while still saying that a crime was committed and must be atoned for.

  8. Brandon Gates

    I hold that the purpose of the criminal justice system should be more about rehabilitation — or, failing that — making law abiding citizens safer through incarceration of violent offenders. However, as many do and will continue to define justice as the meting out of punishment for crimes against innocents, consider that death punishes the living more than the dead. Life in prison without possibility of parole for mass murderers keeps society safe from the violent offender, punishes the wrongdoer far more than his or her loved ones as I think is appropriate, and has the added benefit of being reversible in those rare cases — but not unheard of — cases of wrongful conviction.

  9. MattS

    “I hold that the purpose of the criminal justice system should be more about rehabilitation — or, failing that — making law abiding citizens safer through incarceration of violent offenders. ”

    The US doesn’t have, in fact never had a criminal justice system. What we have is a criminal legal system. The system cares about laws, rules and procedures. While the authors of the laws, rules and procedures may have justice in mind, the thought of is this outcome just never enters the minds of the people who run the system on a daily basis.

    To the extent that the system actually produces just results, this is purely accidental.

  10. Brandon Gates


    Well put, I largely agree. However, the fact remains that many see the main purpose of incarceration and/or execution as the just deserts of the wrongdoer’s actions. My message to them is that capital punishment is singularly misdirected justice because it punishes more the people who are less complicit.

  11. Sylvain


    The first things any law student learns is that the finality of laws are not about moral, justice, right or wrong but about the interpretation of the text. But the U.S. Is the only country where the justices are treated like rock star.

    Clarence Thomas wife is very active politically, something that in any other countries of the developed world, where the Supreme Court justices are remote to the society they live in and are completely forbidden of any political activities.

    I do not know a single name of the Canadian Supreme Court, very little of their decision are ever controversial and create such uproars as they do in the USA.

  12. Doug M

    The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
    It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
    Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
    It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
    ‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
    The throned monarch better than his crown;
    His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
    The attribute to awe and majesty,
    Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
    But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
    It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
    It is an attribute to God himself;
    And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
    When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
    Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
    That, in the course of justice, none of us
    Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
    And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
    The deeds of mercy. I have spoke thus much
    To mitigate the justice of thy plea;
    Which if thou follow, this strict court of Venice
    Must needs give sentence ‘gainst the merchant there.

  13. Ken

    I was paraphrasing the Catholic Church’ position on capital punishment:

    Catechism of the Catholic Church (Article 5, part 2267):

    & the Pope’s EVANGELIUM VITAE (see para #56):

    “Killed a man just to watch him die.” suggests a sociopath…however…there are cases on record involving curious kids doing this. The Church’s position on capital punishment omits any consideration that some people do seem to lack any conscience and for whom there is no evidence redemption is possible.

    That aside, the general theme here is very analogous to that portrayed in the book, “The Red Badge of Courage,” where a youth demonstrates the extreme of cowardice in battle (Civil War) but later performs heroically. That’s one manifestation of “redemption” per a particular context. Most cultures/societies have similar stories on the theme. Relative to the specific topic presented here, Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” is arguably the classic.

    Come to think of it, so many of Brigg’s philosophical themes are covered within a handful of Dostoevsky’s stories its somewhat surprising to realize he’s not a big fan of, and often quoting/referencing, the author.

  14. Ken

    RE: “…the Canadian Supreme Court, very little of their decision are ever controversial and create such uproars as they do in the USA”

    Do you think that’s because of the court’s decisions, or, a reflection of that culture to not react so histrionically uproariously (e.g.: )

    The subdued decorum stereotype associated with Canadians might just derive from particular facts of Canadian history — that country did not have a real constitution or bill of rights until our generation (the Canadian Constitution, enacted in 1982, called the Canadian Charter of Freedoms, put some teeth behind the Bill of Rights that came along in 1960).

    Consider Time Magazine’s ranking of the top 10 U.S. Supreme Court cases includes Miranda v Arizona — from which came the familiar Miranda warning of one’s right to maintain silence, have an attorney, etc. (a ritual warning so popular on cop shows). That quick tutorial of one’s existing rights, in the U.S., addressed rights that, then, Canadian’s basically didn’t have.

    So, for all practical purposes, the Canadian Supreme Court hasn’t had the ability to render substantial decisions, controversial or otherwise, until since 1982.

    Before that, the overt expressions of freedom people in the U.S. have long taken for granted were sure to get one arrested & convicted. But give’m time, as they get accustomed to exercising freedoms they previously dared not even discuss, they’re coming around to the U.S. way of overreaction…

  15. Yawrate

    I’m against the death penalty for the reason that too many innocents have been executed or are awaiting execution on death row only to be later exonerated.

    I would be in favor of the death penalty if there was incontrovertible evidence, say eyewitness coupled with DNA perhaps. Then to hell with the delay.

  16. John B()

    You are aware that no one was “shot” in “I Walk the Line”

    The line comes from “Folsum Prison Blues”

  17. Yawrate: From The Guardian
    The research team deployed statistical devices to put a figure on the proportion of cases of hidden innocence. In particular, they deployed a technique known as “survival analysis”, to calculate the percentage of prisoners who have been taken off death row but who might still be innocent.

    They also applied “sensitivity analysis”, to take into account possible cases of exonerations where the released prisoner is nonetheless guilty, and to ensure that the overall findings erred on the side of caution.

    The study, published in a prestigious journal, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, does not solve perhaps the greatest single riddle of the death penalty: how many innocent people have actually been put to death in modern times. That remains a haunting unknown.

    I was wondering how they “know” how many were innocent—models and statistics, which are just sooo accurate. Yet people accept models as real and convictions as fiction.

  18. Hannah Brenten

    Briggs, notwithstanding the apparent cluelessness of some of these comments here from folks who maybe don’t understand irony, I had a great laugh and congratulate you on a brilliant analogy.

  19. Aussietomt

    I wonder if wmbriggs is not drawing our attention to the situation facing us at the Synod, when we have our attention well and truly drawn to the same sex attraction, so called marriage and the divorce and re-marriage of catholics outside the Church.
    Surely the mercy supposedly being talked about fits the whole crime and mercy debate relative to our Catholic doctrine.
    To my understanding built up over a seventy year lifetime, only our Creator and Saviour can deliver the Mercy Judgement not some sacrilegious German Bishop or an American Bishop making his own rules.

  20. Sylvain


    You have some misconceptions of the Canadian constitution.

    First, it was created in 1967 and the Canadian Supreme Court was created then and has been rendering judgment since then. Though until 1931, with the treaty of Westminster the Canadian Supreme Court could be reversed by the British Supreme Court.

    Second, although the British had the last word in any modification of the constitution, I don’t know of any example where they went against the Canadian government wishes.

    3) The treaty of Westminster confirmed to reality the practice. At that point, the British simply signed whatever the Canadian government was asking concerning Canadian affairs.

    4) The 1982, constitution added a few provision like the perequation and Charter of Freedom and Liberties and cut the link with the British.

  21. Jayne

    I don’t believe this, from the article, is a true statement: “There is no encouragement for other men to murder if this man receives mercy. The opposite is true. The evil is made into starker relief if this man is granted mercy.”

  22. Shack Toms

    Many of the comments made about mercy could equally be applied to punishment. Punishment does not erase the crime. It does not atone for the crime. Punishment is a means of encouraging people to do better, but it does not right any wrong. It is a mockery of crime to claim that a criminal can atone for a crime by accepting punishment. It may repay a debt to society, but it does not repay the debt to the victims. It doesn’t undo anything. It doesn’t erase guilt.

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