I was 12 and in 7th grade in the Washington, D.C. suburb of Falls Church, Virginia when the infamous sniper attacks—later discovered to have been masterminded by John Allen Muhammed with the help of his protégé Lee Boyd Malvo—struck the area and suspended day-to-day activity. I waited inside for my parents to pick me up from school, instead of sitting on a bench outside with friends in the fall weather. We all became afraid of white vans, gas stations, parking lots and public places. More than anything, I remember visiting the shopping center at which, just one day later, a woman was shot and killed.

On Tuesday evening, November 11, 2009, at 9:06 p.m., John Allen Muhammed was injected with the lethal substance that would kill him five minutes later. He spent just four and a half years on death row, because Virginia and its speedy appellate process were chosen by prosecutors as the ideal location for a trial. Even though I can recall vividly the palpable fear of my friends and their families, my neighbors and my parents, I am moved not by the closure supposedly provided by Muhammed's execution, but by the despicable nature of capital punishment in the United States of America more generally.

Since the beginning of his trial, Muhammed's lawyers, Jon Sheldon and James G. Connell III, have argued his mental incompetency, due to the violent beatings he suffered as a child. They claim they saw hints of humanity in a man many would categorize as nothing short of monstrous, and whether or not Muhammed was remorseful, thoughtful and compassionate, he was still a human being. He himself was the product of violence and cruelty, suffering permanent damage from childhood abuse that apparently affected his long- and short-term memory; according to Sheldon and Connell, he truly believed he was in Germany undergoing a dental procedure during the timeline of many of the sniper attacks. His guilt in the issue isn't in question. Without a doubt, he planned and executed one of the most violent examples of domestic terrorism in this country's history.

Even in instances in which capital punishment is deemed appropriate despite ethical evidence to the contrary, execution of anyone whose mental competency is in doubt is the very definition of cruel and unusual punishment.

While acknowledging the nature of a criminal's crimes and the victims involved, execution isn't a proportionate punishment for two reasons. Its implementation cannot be guaranteed, in the sense that the manner in which criminals are executed is often inhumane—it has been argued that the three drugs used for lethal injection cause extreme pain while paralyzing its recipient—in conjunction with the fact that the punishment is used more for minority and indigent criminals. Because minorities and the poor in this country are more likely to be inadequately represented than their Caucasian counterparts, justice can easily become injustice, particularly when public defenders are underpaid and unqualified.

Proponents of the death penalty would argue that it provides crime deterrence and protects the sanctity of the civil state. Contrarily, it is a well-established fact that the death penalty doesn't deter crime, and that states that have abolished the death penalty frequently experience reduced rates of violent crimes. In the South, 970 criminals have been executed since 1976, while the region continues to exhibit the highest crime rate in the country. At the other extreme, the Northeast has executed four criminals and has the lowest number of violent crimes from year to year.

It is worth noting that Texas is consistently one of the most conservative states in the country and one of the few in which the execution of those with verified mental disabilities is legal. The conservative agenda is anti-abortion; if this is the case, and if it is due to a belief in the sanctity of life, how can the death penalty, which is the ultimate denial of existence, fit into that paradigm? To put it simply, it doesn't.

What is the risk in providing a maximum sentence of life without parole? It accomplishes the same goals as capital punishment, without the risk of a permanent, unfixable mistake. For example, in the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, a man in Texas accused of setting the fire that killed his two children and for which he was eventually executed, his innocence is now widely accepted.

Due to outdated methods of arson investigation, Willingham lost his life, despite a report, written by an independent arson expert, refuting much of the erroneously gathered evidence. In this instance, and in many like it, the government is directly guilty of murder, particularly when the appellate committee ignores practically incontrovertible evidence, as was the case in this Texas trial. If Willingham's sentence had been life without the possibility of parole, he could be a free man today.

Juries aren't infallible. Neither is the justice system. The death penalty is an emotional response to heinous crimes, such as the sniper attacks, the murder of children and police officers, and serial killings. There is no question that there exist brutal, reprehensible crimes that deserve harsh but appropriate punishment. In a civil, just society, however, the death penalty is never truly appropriate. It may be tempting to seek revenge for the victims, to appease the general public, but that isn't justice.

When Virginia governor Tim Kaine refused the final appeal of Muhammed and his lawyers on Tuesday, just hours before the scheduled execution, he also refused the legacy offered to him, one in which he could be remembered as an uncommonly just and thoughtful man. Ultimately, how can the government destroy and deny the right to life?

Caitlin Hurwit is a member of the Class of 2012.