Thoughts on the Death Penalty

The execution of four death penalty inmates in eight days in Arkansas, including two on a single day, has inspired a great deal of conversation about the death penalty in the U. S. The reason Arkansas sought to execute eight inmates before the end of April (four executions were put on hold by the courts) is because it’s supply of one of the drugs used in executions was about to expire. Such a motive for speeding up its schedule of executions spurred a great deal of reflection on the chilling practicality of capital punishment. Many were moved spiritually by the fact that two inmates chose to receive Holy Communion rather than a final meal.

I am opposed to capital punishment. The teaching of the Church, based on the reasoning of St. Thomas Aquinas, is that capital punishment is justified for the purpose of protecting the larger community from the heinous actions of criminals. The Catholic Church, in spite of the motives of individual members, has never justified capital punishment on the grounds of providing justice to the victims of crime, including murder. In the case of murder, justice is out of reach. True justice, remember, is to restore to the one offended what has been unjustly taken from him. If you steal my pig, true justice means you restore my pig (or one of comparable value). This is impossible when someone has been murdered, for there’s no way to restore to the victim the life that has been taken. Also, capital punishment says to the criminal, “You have this much time to get yourself right with God. If you don’t, too bad, we’re going to kill you.” I don’t think it’s for the state to decide how much time anyone has to get himself right with God. In any case, progress in technology has made it possible to incarcerate violent criminals for life with little chance of escape. Life without the possibility of parole seems the most just sentence to impose in our modern era to those who have committed the most terrible crimes.

There are practical reasons for opposition to the death penalty, as well. First, the cost is extraordinary. Many people think this cost is ratcheted up by an appeals process that can be drawn out for several years. In truth, even if all appeals were done away with, just the cost of a capital punishment trial is almost always more than the cost of alternative sentences. According to the “Palm Beach Post” of 2000, the death penalty costs Florida $51 million a year above what it would cost to punish all first-degree murderers to life without parole. Between 1978 – 1999, Maryland taxpayers spent $186,000,000 enforcing the death penalty, for just five executions.

The death penalty is racist. Let’s be real here. The fact is, if you’re black and you kill a white person, the chances you will face the death penalty are much higher than if you are a white and you kill a black person. Since the death penalty was re-instituted in 1976, 1,452 persons have been executed.  Ten white people have been executed for the murder of a black victim. In contrast, 287 black people have been executed for murdering a white victim. It is simply a truth of our justice system that the whiter, more educated and wealthier a victim is, the greater likelihood the murderer will be executed.

The death penalty results in the execution of innocent persons. Since 1976, more than 155 people on death row have been exonerated by evidence that came out after their conviction. This is good news. But, do we really want to pretend that our justice system caught every innocent person convicted of a crime he or she didn’t commit? The Death Penalty Information Center cites thirteen cases of men who were executed before (and, tragically, sometimes after) evidence came out casting doubts on their guilt. To me, the horror of putting even one innocent person to death rules out capital punishment, especially when there are alternatives.

The death penalty is geographically determined. If you murder someone in the South, your chances are much higher than if you murder someone in the North. Are lives in the South of so much greater value that killing a Southerner justifies the death penalty while killing a Yankee doesn’t?  By region, the South has executed 1,184 of the 1,452 total, 654 in Texas and Oklahoma alone.

The death penalty is not a deterrent to violent crime. The murder rate in the South is the highest of any region, yet the South has executed, by far, the highest number of criminals. Police chiefs around the country regard the death penalty as of little value in deterring crime.

More facts on the death penalty can be found at the following link:

The new evangelization calls for followers of Christ who are unconditionally pro-life: who will proclaim, celebrate and serve the Gospel of life in every situation. A sign of hope is the increasing recognition that the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil. . . . I renew the appeal I made . . . for a consensus to end the death penalty, which is both cruel and unnecessary.
—  Pope John Paul II Papal Mass, St. Louis, Missouri, January 27, 1999

I greet the distinguished delegations from various countries taking part in the meeting promoted by the Community of Sant’Egidio on the theme: No Justice without Life.  I express my hope that your deliberations will encourage the political and legislative initiatives being promoted in a growing number of countries to eliminate the death penalty and to continue the substantive progress made in conforming penal law both to the human dignity of prisoners and the effective maintenance of public order.  Upon all the English-speaking pilgrims present, including those from the United States,  I invoke God’s blessings of joy and peace!  — Pope Benedict XVI Address to the Community of Sant’Egidio, November 30, 2011

Indeed, nowadays the death penalty is unacceptable, however grave the crime of the convicted person.  …  It is an offense to the inviolability of life and to the dignity of the human person; it likewise contradicts God’s plan for individuals and society, and his merciful justice.   — Pope Francis Message to the World Congress Against Capital Punishment, June 21, 2016

Be Christ for all.  Bring Christ to all.  See Christ in all.

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