Let's make two assumptions.
First, the State of Massachusetts' allegations are correct, and Aaron Hernandez, former New England Patriots tight end, has committed three first degree murders in the past two years.
Second, assume that Massachusetts has in place a typical death penalty statute. (It doesn't) The precise details of the statute don't matter; just assume that Hernandez's crimes would be death-penalty eligible as a matter of law.
Here are the allegations:
In his 2012 double murder, Hernandez got into a spat with two men at a nightclub, pursued them in his SUV after they left the club, pulled along side their car, and then unloaded a .38-caliber revolver into the passenger side of their car, killing two and wounding a third.
Assuming the State obtained convictions on all three first-degree-murder counts against Hernandez, how would the general public feel about executing him?
The point I'm getting at is this: Hernandez is universally recognized as a special person. First Team All American. Voted best tight end in the nation during his junior season at Florida. Youngest player since 1960 to have 100 yards receiving in a game. His athletic talent is incredible and undeniable.
Sure, a better tight end will come along (one probably even plays for Hernandez's former team now), but it's weird to think about destroying someone who is universally recognized as so good at something. So good that people are willing to pay him millions of dollars to do it, and tens of millions of people are willing to spend hours watching him do it. And he's in his prime. I'm not aware of any death row inmate in history about whom that could be said.
Given Hernandez's specialness, and assuming capital punishment was in play, would Hernandez's incredible athletic talent somehow militate against executing him? I don't expect to ever see him play again, even if he's acquitted of the charges and completely absolved of suspicion. If the allegations against him are true, he's a monster. But he's a monster with something to offer.
Say Hernandez played for the Dallas Cowboys in the late 1990s, during a time when Texas was going lethal injection crazy. Could we do it? Could we extinguish a know, once-in-a-generation talent?
I've made no secret about my opposition to capital punishment. I think it's a vice. It's primary purpose is to satisfy the hatred of those affected by the crime, and understandably so. But as much as the families and communities deserve some measure of revenge, I can't accept state-sanctioned killing of the defenseless and subdued as the 21st century way of obtaining it. But assuming Hernandez's crimes would normally warrant the ultimate punishment, isn't there something more messed up about putting down someone who has such a high commercial and cultural value?
What if Hernandez, instead of offering unique athletic skill, was a leading thinker in some important field, such as medicine or physics? Would our society execute a cold-blooded killer who might still be worth something to everyone? What about a prolific painter or writer? Would we be okay with forever depriving ourselves of those uniquely talented people (and all that they offer us), even if their crimes were heinous? Even if they were heinous?
It's only food for thought because Hernandez is at no risk of execution in Massachusetts. Instead, something a little like this will probably happen: