The Death Penalty Dilemma–Part 3

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In my second article on capital punishment, I explored why death penalty alternatives for the intractably violent do not work. Life sentences do not ensure violent inmates won’t escape to kill again and upgrading prisons still exposes inmates and employees to threats against their own lives. Supermax prisons aren’t a solution, either, since the extreme isolation is a form of psychological torture not in accord with human dignity.

Is it our right to decide that a person’s behavior merits death as an appropriate punishment? Christian tradition would say, “Yes.” The Fathers and Doctors of the Church are almost unanimous in their support for capital punishment.  It has only been in the past 50 years or so that the tide began to turn, with many prominent Catholic clergy declaring the death penalty all but immoral in Western nations. John Paul II was perhaps the most outspoken opponent of capital punishment, even going so far as to add that the need for executing criminals is “practically non-existent” in Western countries in the 1992 revision of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

The longstanding teaching of the Church is that the death penalty can be used morally. Yet we have our leaders working to abolish capital punishment, agreeing with John Paul II that the practice isn’t actually needed. No wonder there is so much confusion among Catholics that some now equate the death penalty with abortion and euthanasia.

The consensus seems to be that for more than 1900 years, the Church supported the death penalty only because it failed to truly penetrate the truth about man’s God-given dignity. Jews and Christians of the past supported execution out of ignorance, but now, modern Catholics have the benefit of appreciating the incomparable dignity and inalienable rights of the human person. Man has spiritually matured, so now we must work to abolish the death penalty, which we now know to be barbaric and wrong.

In an outstanding article tracing the history of Catholic teaching on the death penalty, the late Cardinal Avery Dulles suggests that the moral progress we imagine we’ve made is more likely due, in part, “to the evaporation of the sense of sin, guilt, and retributive justice, all of which are essential to the biblical religion and Catholic faith.” The abolishment of the death penalty in formerly Christian countries probably has more to do with secular humanism than with a deeper understanding of the Gospel, he says.

Dulles pointed out that the “moral progress” banner has been flown over countless alleged rights claimed by modern man, such as contraception, divorce, abortion, homosexual relations, and the ordination of women to the priesthood. If the Church remains bound by Scripture and tradition in these other areas, “it seems inconsistent for Catholics to proclaim a ‘moral revolution’ on the issue of capital punishment.”

In other words, we modern folk aren’t nearly as “enlightened” as we imagine ourselves to be.

The real issue for Catholics, Dulles says (and I agree) is to determine the circumstances under which the death penalty may be morally applied. One of the most important questions that is rarely if ever asked in death penalty cases is, “What is the likelihood that this person will injure or kill another person, either inside or outside of prison?” It is stunning to me that we invest so little energy into determining if the person convicted of a crime poses an ongoing threat. Shouldn’t that question drive our decision to put the person to death or not?

Even if we have spiritually evolved and can now appreciate the inherent dignity of the accused, there is still a need for execution—as a protective measure, not a punitive one. And this change would cut both ways. Not only would death penalty opponents have to admit that some criminals are intractably violent and do pose a continuing threat to human life (and thus, ought to be executed), but many pro-death penalty folks would have to concede that not every murderer deserves to die. Many criminals, after all, do not have a history of predatory, incorrigible behavior. The person who shoots and kills a store employee during an impromptu robbery does not pose the same ongoing threat as a child molester or serial killer. Exercising a moment of egregiously bad judgment that ends a person’s life is not the same as premeditating a person’s murder.

One of the biggest criticisms of the death penalty is that falsely accused people have been put to death. This is an unspeakable tragedy when it happens, which is why there ought to be the most stringent criteria for condemning someone to be executed. At the very least, we ought to have a confession or DNA evidence linking the person to the crimes. Consider this, too: if we did thoroughly assess whether a person poses a persistent threat, the likelihood of him being wrongly executed virtually disappears. Using the death penalty as a protective measure would reserve the practice for criminals with a history or pattern of committing violent crimes.

Finally, few death penalty opponents are willing to admit that a condemned person has a decided spiritual benefit over the rest of us: the person knows exactly when he is going to die. Sometimes I wonder if we remember what the ultimate goal is: repentance and going to heaven. Is it really better for a person to languish in prison for decades, having his heart hardened toward God by violence, loneliness, and despair…or is it better for him to face his mortality and use the time he has left to make amends, repent, and go humbly to God? We see this all the time in life–faced with his impending death, a person with a terminal illness or fatal injury reaches out to his Creator, sometimes for the first and last time. Death has a way of forcing us to face our spiritual destiny. Which is especially important for those who approach death with mortal sin on their souls.

The death penalty has been called a “necessary evil.” It’s not evil, but it is necessary at times. May God gives us the grace to use this tool with prudence, compassion, and justice, in a way that upholds our condemned brothers’ and sisters’ dignity, as well as our own.

13 Replies to “The Death Penalty Dilemma–Part 3”

  1. I live in NZ where the death penalty was abolished many, many years ago and I find it incredible that any civilised nation can think they have the right to kill one of their citizens, no matter how depraved. Our Lord said “Let he who is without sin throw the first stone.” The Bible says “Thou shall not kill.” Revenge is never God’s will. Let’s leave him to him: when the killer dies he has to face TRUE justice.

    We know so little, we are so weak and flawed. We cannot take another’s life. End of story.

  2. Good article, Misty. The problem I’ve always had with the death penalty is that is so unevenly applied. It should only be reserved for the most heinous criminals who are not going to stop being heinous, even if they’re locked up for life. Instead, emotion and politics always come into play, and as a result we have people who’ve committed one murder and would likely never commit another executed (as well as innocent people who are the victim of zealous prosecuters and a public too eager for “justice” to be done), and we have we life-long, unrepentent, unrehabilitable (not sure if that’s even a word, sorry) murderers given at best life without parole, where they’re free to, as you pointed out, kill other inmates and prison workers, or, worse, not even life sentences (all depends of the judge), where they could be out in sometimes as little as 15 years, to resume their lives of crime. The death penalty MUST be reformed. If it is, very few would be executed, it would be reserved for those who, like John Paul II said, we cannot be protected from any other way (and I believe the late pontiff words in the CCC are that those cases are “practically nonexistant”, so he even leaves the door open for the death penalty in extreme cases).

  3. Jean, the Church as, in Her wisdom, given us recourse to the death penalty. She has provided this because, as I point out in the second article in this series, prisons do NOT adequately protect the public from intractably violent predators. Nor does simply throwing the person in prison keep him from harming other inmates or prison employees. Some criminals will pose an ongoing threat to human life if they are kept alive; there is no denying that fact. We have ever right to defend our lives if someone poses a threat to it (self-defense). We even have the right to take that person’s life morally, if that’s what it takes to protect our own. Why is the life of a violent, predatory criminal worth more to you than the lives of the public, prison officials, and even non-violent inmates that they can victimize even behind bars? We have an obligation to protect ALL human life…and we have the right to take a person’s life when that person has demonstrated they are almost certain to kill again. This isn’t just the wisdom of Mother Church–it is common sense.

    It was fascinating to me to learn that the tradition and history of the Church–as revealed through the writings of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church–uncompromisingly support the death penalty. Not, as Ellen said, unjustly, arbitrarily applied, but as a measure of true justice. If the Church has said the death penalty is sometimes needed, I’m not going to be the one to claim I know better than She does.

  4. Ellen, that is my problem, too. One thing Cardinal Dulles said in his article that struck me was that in the past, societies recognized a higher power and that true justice could only be carried out by God. Thus, the DP was viewed as a LIMIT on man’s ability to obtain justice for a crime: “There is nothing we could do to you that would be justice for what you’ve done, so we’re just going to let God deal with you rather than stoop to your level and torture you, too.” But now, society has lost that sense and we see the DP as a means of expressing the anger of the people against the perpetrator. Although the Church, in her tradition, does say there is a place for retributive justice in the use of the DP, a lot of us are uncomfortable saying that a person “deserves” death. It would definitely be a step in the right direction if the death penalty was applied as a protective measure, on a case-by-case basis, in a more “color-blind” way. It has always bugged me that stats show that when blacks and whites commit the same crime, blacks often get the DP while the whites are given life in prison. It is clearly applied right now in, as you said, a political and vindictive way, without the really important questions being asked at all.

  5. Misty, I agree with the premise of your article. However, I am a bit disappointed that you swallowed the media & anti-death penalty voices do much. I work in forensics with law enforcement officers, prosecutors, AND defense attorneys. I feel somewhat qualified to address a couple of things you mention as troublesome.

    First, don’t believe TV shows, the media, or anti-death penalty rhetoric by believing DNA and or fingerprints are always available. The sad truth is that criminals have gotten much better at hiding these identification pieces of evidence. Even with DNA and/or fingerprints, alternative reasons for their presence (or absence) are widespread. Some crimes don’t provide much opportunity for these gold-standards of identification. That’s when solid police-work and circumstantial evidence come into play.

    Second, don’t automatically assume that prosecutors, law enforcement, or forensic people are going to railroad someone that’s innocent into a death penalty case . At least in my state & my experience, death penalty cases ARE reserved for cases that are particularly heinous — there are laws regulating that. The dp is not entered lightly, nor is it preferred. Additionally, although it may sound slightly crass, another thing to remember is that we do NOT get paid differently whether we convict or not (although defense attorneys might sometimes). So it does us no benefit to wrongly present condemning evidence verses the truth. I’m close friends with a county prosecutor turned public defender. She approaches her cases exactly the same now as she did when she was prosecuting — trying to find the balance between the rights of the victim, defendant, & society as a whole.

    Third, studies have shown that when an innocent person is convicted, more often than forensic errors, lack of evidence, railroading, etc the root cause is bad defense lawyering. Another common factor in wrongful convictions is mid-identification by witnesses. Also, frequently forensics take a hit because technology changes so quickly that what’s available today far out-paces what was available 5, 10, 20, plus years ago. As technology improves, so will forensics & the courts system.

    In conclusion, wrongful convictions do happen despite our (collective) best efforts. However, our courts system is set up to prevent wrongful conviction. Unlike commonly presented on TV, seldom are investigators personally charged to prosecute (persecute) the first person they see. We all try our best to do not only what’s legal, but also what’s ethical. We seldom derive any pleasure from knowing a case is a potential dp case. In fact, when the dp is mentioned that makes us more conservative of our findings and even more thorough (if that’s even possible) to ensure we aren’t responsible for an innocent’s life. Actually, it is rare for me to know a case is dp as I’m working it. I typically don’t even know when I testify.

    I believe that the death penalty is a useful and moral means of protecting society from dangerous criminals. As Christ told us to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, I chose to let the courts system protect me as it deems best.

  6. Misty, we are arguing from quite different positions and will probably never agree, but I’d just like to point out that at least 2 recent Popes have spoken out against capital punishment and so have many Cardinals and Bishops.

    Here in NZ I have never heard of a prisoner murdering another prisoner, and only in unique case has one killed a guard, so it’s not a problem here.

    May God bless us both.

  7. Jean, I realize New Zealand has a very different culture than the United States. However, I simply typed in “New Zealand prison escapes” into Google and came up with a handful of articles about inmates escaping JUST THIS YEAR. I also found an article from the New Zealand Government giving stats on NZ prison breaks–it would seem that NZ experiences approximately 5-10 prison breaks per year. I think that fact directly undermines the opinion that “it’s not a problem here.”

    Here are the links:

    I also don’t understand why the guard’s life is considered more expendable than the inmates…? It really, really troubles me when anti-DP advocates seem so dismissive of the prison employees and police officers who are murdered by inmates who have either escaped or were killed behind bars. It comes across as if the only person whose right to life is to be upheld at all costs are the inmates; it’s perfectly acceptable for us to expose guards, police, and other inmates to violence. Whenever someone dies as a result of us keeping a violent person alive, it’s seen as “collateral damage.”

    I would also submit that we’re naive if we think that every act of violence that goes down in prisons makes it into the newspapers. I’ve known multiple correctional officers; murders between inmates, especially “lifers,” rarely is a news item the way it is if a guard or other employee is murdered.

    Yes, two recent Popes and countless bishops did speak out about the death penalty. And as much credence as we give their guidance, the official teaching of the Church is that the DP has a legitimate role to play in civil justice. I’m willing to admit that as administered in the U.S., the DP desperately needs to be reformed. What I want to know is, when are the anti-DP people going to acknowledge that some people pose a continued threat to life, even from prison? We live in a broken world and ending the life of someone who is intractably violent to protect human life does not make us murderers ourselves.

  8. Dawn, I didn’t say that people don’t escape from NZ prisons – they do. I just said they don’t murder each other or their guards.

    I think we’ll leave it there.

    God bless.

  9. I’m with Jean. Pro-life is anti-death, is it not? Therefore, I remain pro-life and anti-death penalty. Period.

  10. By that logic, you wouldn’t even be justified in killing someone who was attacking you or someone you love. Nor was what the Allies did during WWI in fighting the tyrannical Germans justified. I find it wholly disturbing that so many anti-DP folks care nothing for the lives of the correctional officers and prison employees–not to mention other inmates–whose lives are threatened and sometimes taken by intractably violent murderers.

  11. Misty, I’ve enjoyed the series and you’ve given lots of good food for thought. I suppose I always thought (perhaps because of JPII’s words) that the death penalty isn’t legit these days. But I do see the side as you present it, too, particularly in light of historical Church teaching. You’ve caused me too look more deeply and that’s a good thing.

  12. “By that logic, you wouldn’t even be justified in killing someone who was attacking you or someone you love. Nor was what the Allies did during WWI in fighting the tyrannical Germans justified.”

    I feel that you might be comparing apples and oranges with this. In my mind, they’re not exactly comparable. While I DID say that I felt that pro-life is anti-death, I didn’t say that I was anti-death in cases such as the extreme ones that you mentioned. I said that I was anti-death penalty. There’s a difference.

    “I find it wholly disturbing that so many anti-DP folks care nothing for the lives of the correctional officers and prison employees–not to mention other inmates–whose lives are threatened and sometimes taken by intractably violent murderers.”

    I personally never mentioned guards and employees, and I think it’s a bit unfair to assume that those of us who are anti-DP “care nothing” for them. I am simply morally and intellectually compelled to be against the death penalty. If one innocent person is put to death, it’s a flawed system in my mind, and barbaric as well.

    “Yes, two recent Popes and countless bishops did speak out about the death penalty. And as much credence as we give their guidance, the official teaching of the Church is that the DP has a legitimate role to play in civil justice.”

    I thought the official teaching was that the Church is in fact against the death penalty. I’d be interested to see if I am wrong, of course, so if you could please cite this, I’d like to read it.

  13. Bless God for my having found these blogs, and bless you for your motivation to put them up, and the wisdom and love you show in them!

    I have to admit that the death penalty has always been a bit of a sore spot with me. I used to think, “Who am I to judge whether someone WILL be a threat again? Doesn’t Christianity teach forgiveness and second chances? Why give up on someone and potentially condemn them to HELL when there was a chance they might have repented and known forgiveness and Heaven if they’d been allowed to live longer?”

    Even knowing that God gave the death penalty to pre-Christian Israel as a punishment for mortal sins (to say nothing of God striking His enemies down in the Bible), and knowing that God alone has such authority–since we all die, just a matter of when and how–and even knowing Saint Thomas Aquinas’s argument for it (if the threat of death won’t prompt someone to repent, what will?), I still had trouble accepting it because it is easy to abuse. It is possible to make mistakes and execute an innocent person–and even with that out of the question, there’s the concern of people who say they will “dance on their graves” (even if they don’t actually do it) when the individual in question is dead.

    But now I see the truth, thanks to God and your blog. Your arguments (especially looking at what the alternatives to the death penalty actually entail) force me to recognize that sometimes even death can be a form of mercy–it’s just that it’s a mercy for spiritual sickness beyond healing, not physical (like with euthanasia or abortion of those with physical or mental disorders). God strikes down His enemies because He KNOWS they won’t repent, as a mercy so that they won’t continue to harm others or rack up even more sin and guilt onto their souls which will make it worse for them in the afterlife. Yes, we can never KNOW what’s in a person’s heart, but as you so wisely pointed out, we can look at patterns of behavior and probabilities–and where those are insufficient, there is the real possibility of repentance when faced with their own deaths, as the good thief did on the cross next to Our Lord, and was with Him in Paradise.

    Bless the Lord for bestowing such wisdom and compassion on you!

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