No Mercy for the Sniper

Tonight in Virginia, John Allan Muhammad will be executed for a murder in 2002 that was part of a weeks-long killing spree that left ten dead in the greater Washington, D.C., area.  Known initially only as “the sniper,” Muhammad terrorized the region for weeks before he was finally apprehended. With just hours to go before the execution, Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, a Catholic who opposes the death penalty, declined to grant clemency to Muhammad. In a statement Kaine highlighted the arduous appeals process that cleared the way for the execution.

For the last seven years Virginia has shown that it has the capability to protect the populace from this dangerous and violent man. So why execute him? Numerous studies have shown that executing a prisoner is more expensive than keeping him in prison for life without parole. Kaine is no doubt aware of these facts, yet he refuses to exercise his state-given power to halt Muhammad’s execution. He presumably, and perhaps correctly, thinks that he is charged with upholding the laws in Virginia and respecting his constituents’ beliefs. Yet as a Catholic he subscribes to a different view of life, and it is troubling that he has put aside his personal beliefs at this most important moment.

Where is the outrage on this life issue? Has any bishop threatened to deny the governor communion? It is hard not to conclude that there  is a double standard on life issues, with abortion taking on more urgency than the death penalty. Yes, it is difficult to advocate for the sparing of a vicious killer such as Muhammad, but Catholics in the United States--particularly our leaders--would have all the more credibility if we consistently argued for a theology of life that included all life, especially those whom most want to see die.

Michael O’Loughlin

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Rachel Clark
9 years 4 months ago
This is a great article and I'm glad someone is taking the time to stand up on this issue.
Gabriel McAuliffe
9 years 4 months ago
While I sympathize with Mr. O'Loughlin's comments, I don't think that opposition to the death penalty is on the same level as abortion. The life that is lost with abortion is one that is wholly innocent of any earthly misdeed, major or minor. Also, one is allowed, as I understand it, within the scope of Catholic tradition, to exercise prudential judgement as regards to the execution of a cold-hearted and premeditated killer.

In regards to the Catechism, one may wonder if Governor Kaine is using the death penalty in this circumstance justly, as it should be ''the only practicable way to defend the lives of human beings effectively against the aggressor,'' if it is to be used at all.
Eugene Palumbo
9 years 4 months ago
These paragraphs, from the N.Y. Times story, are worth adding:

While the Supreme Court did not comment in refusing to hear Mr. Muhammad’s appeal, three justices objected to the relative haste accompanying the execution.

Justice John Paul Stevens complained that “under our normal practice,” Mr. Muhammad’s petition for the court to take his case would have been discussed at the justices’ conference scheduled for Nov. 24. But because Virginia scheduled the execution for Tuesday, the judicial process was rushed, Justice Stevens said in a statement joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor.

Justice Stevens wrote that he did not disagree with the majority’s decision to decline the case. However, in declining to stay the execution, he said, “we have allowed Virginia to truncate our deliberative process on a matter — involving a death row inmate — that demands the most careful attention.”
james belna
9 years 4 months ago

I am sure that it is not hard for Michael O'Loughlin to conclude that the execution of John Allem Muhammad demonstrates a double standard on life issues, but only because Mr O'Loughlin has decided to substitute his own standards for those of the Catholic Church. Anyone with access to a library or the internet can consult the Catechism and the encyclical Evangelium Vitae, in which they will find that the Church has drawn a clear distinction between the intentional taking of innocent life, which is always wrong, and the moral right of the state to execute convicted murderers when necessary, which the Church explicitly affirms. The Catechism has just as explicitly acknowledged that such a determination is the responsibility of legitimate civil authorities - juries, judges, prosecutors and governors - not bishops and bloggers. If Mr Loughlin believes that the Catechism is wrong, he ought to address his concerns to the Holy Father, not the governor of Virgina. As to his notion that the last seven years demonstrate that it is not necessary to execute Mohammed, is it too much to ask that he acknowledge the possibility that he is wrong, inasmuch as 12 jurors who have been far more intimately involved with the particualars of this case have reached a contrary conclusion? Perhaps with time Mr Loughlin will gain a more comprehensive view of human dignity, and understand how it is that the right of innocent citizens to live their lives to their natural end is inextricably linked to the distasteful obligation of society to appropriately punish, even by death, those who willfully choose to kill.

James Lindsay
9 years 4 months ago
Actually, Catholic doctrine states that if the prisoner can be kept from harming others by alternate means, the death penalty should not be used.

If the sniper could be treated, he should have been. Barring that, letting him rot in jail in solitary confinement is actually worse than euthanizing him. Experience has shown (from the origins of the penetentiary system to current testimony by lifers) that such treatment will simply make the condemned go mad - as it seems to in this case.

If he can't be treated (and society does not want to treat him - which is tragic), he is better off dead.
Vince Killoran
9 years 4 months ago
Not so fast Jim Belina.  The Catholic Church opposes the death penalty in  almost all cases-they have narrowed their approval for its use so much that it is almost impossible to see where it would apply today. Pope John Paul II spoke out against it at every opportunity so I take your criticism of "bishops and bloggers" to include him.
To call it "the distasteful obligation of society" is chilling. Mr. Belina's interpretation  (and that's what it is-not simply a recitation of a clear-cut of formal guidelines as he presents it) is a political position to thwart social justice and other concerns that conservatives oppose.
Joshua DeCuir
9 years 4 months ago
"If the sniper could be treated, he should have been"
How nice.  What a charitable sentiment. I'm sure the familites of those wholly innocent victims of his, shot down in the light of day like animals, would be so comforted to know that the man could have been (should have been?) "treated" for his maladjustment.  They should be shocked that our society chose not to "treat" him, but instead, to allow him to be tried in a court with a presumption of innocence, appeal his conviction to the United States Supreme Court, all on the taxpayer dime, and die via lethal injection - essentially put to sleep.  The outrage.
Bill Collier
9 years 4 months ago
I agree 100% with Mr. O'Loughlin. We don't need the death penalty. It's value as a deterrent is weak, and justice will be served with Muhammad in prison for life. Time for the U.S. to end its membership in the death penalty club-China, North Korea, etc.-and to join the great majority of the world's democracies in outlawing the death penalty. A consistent ethic of life would enoble us all.
james belna
9 years 4 months ago
I know how frustrating it must be for death penalty opponents to deal with the fact that the Church opposes the death penalty in ''ALMOST all cases'', and has made it ''ALMOST impossible to see where it would apply today'', when it could have - but has not- said that capital punishment can never be morally imposed under any circumstances. In other words, people who invoke the formal teaching of the Catholic Church to oppose the death penalty ALMOST have a point. The circumstances of Mr Muhammed's crimes are extraordinary, and are quite likely of the sort that the Catechism has anticipated in its limited but express approval of capital punishment. In any event, while Pope John Paul II routinely asked for authorities to exercise clemency for convicted murderers facing death, and expressed his hope that society would no longer find it necessary to actually execute murderers, he never said that it was immoral for the state to impose capital punishment in cases where it was deemed necessary to protect society; nor did he claim any authority for himself or any other bishops to pass judgment on a decision by state officials to impose the death penalty in any particular case; nor did he ever equate capital punsishment with abortion.
Pearce Shea
9 years 4 months ago
I thought Bp. Loverde's letter on this was very strong; it should be noted that he has never called for the host to be withheld from a pro-abortion politician:
The simple fact is abortion is more talked about because (a) it is legal in every state, whereas something like 20 states have outlawed capital punishment and many more rarely exercise their right to murder a citizen; (b) Federal law mandates abortion be permitted, whereas Federal law leaves capital punishment up to each respective state (which I think is huge here: this means there is a lot less impetus behind grand political gestures - just talk to your governor instead); (c) abortion is the murder of an always innocent human life we are naturally (read: biologically) inclined to want to nurture and protect, whereas capital punishment is classically (read: perceived as) the murder of sometimes innocent life to which we have no more connection than any other; (d) a great many innocent lives are murdered in abortion clinics each year, whereas capital punishment claims a drastically smaller number (by a large order of magnitude smaller);(e) the Church is pretty clear that the primary directive in question here is one of preserving life so abortion is clearly a very _simple_ sin to address, whereas the algebra of murders on the street+murders while incarcerated may be of greater import than the murder of a convict makes the death penalty murkier (hence the qualification in "practically non-existent" in the Catechism).
It's also worth pointing out that a lot of the fervor on abortion doesn't come from Catholics alone. Many Christian faiths which decry abortion have no similar prohibition on the death penalty.
Ought people be outraged over the death penalty? Absolutely. It's a repugnant practice. That said, it is also not as pressing or of the magnitude as abortion is.
And worse, what party panders to its base using the death penalty (any more, anyway)? None. Being pro-life is such a core tenant of the Republican party and being pro-abortion is such a core tenant of the Democratic party that we've entered this situation where abortion is held in front of our noses every election as a sort of proverbial carrot. 
Vince Killoran
9 years 4 months ago
I'm not certain what Jim Belna means when he writes about ''claiming authority.'' As citizens we have the right to weigh in when we think our government is doing something immoral. 
Jim Belna misses the point about JPII-because of the severely limited conditions under which the death penalty might be imposed, its permissibility exist only in theory. Belna engages in a lot of verbal gymnastics to make a point that has absolutely no bearing on our lives or the criminal justice system.
Finally, Belna writes,''The circumstances of Mr Muhammed's crimes are extraordinary, and are quite likely of the sort that the Catechism has anticipated in its limited but express approval of capital punishment.'' On what authority does he make this determination? For someone who is tethered to his ecclesiastical reference books he seems to be making a bold self-assertion. In EVANGELIUM VITAE JPII stated that the death penalty could only be considered if it was the only way to defend society from the offender.
Brian Thompson
9 years 4 months ago
I was taught by a very wise priest that one of the great statements made when we diliberatly choose not to execute criminals is that it sends the message that what they did was so evil, we don't even have the right to inflict the same harm on the purpetrator.
That said, we chop up children in this country, so I dont really give the left much creedence when they oppose the death penalty, other than the merit of their arguments (that is, im not edified by thir "boldness" and "humaneness)
All that said, it is unfortunate that this man was killed. There is no good reason to retain the death penalty almost anywhere in the modern world. I pray that he was forgiven for his sins, and that he might have some part in the Kingdom.
Dudley Sharp
9 years 4 months ago
Mr. O'Loughlin makes several errors.

The murderer was executed because it was found to be the just and appropriate sanction for the crimes commited.

Almost certainly, the cost of this murderers trial and 7 years of appeals was cheaper than a trial and a life sentence.

The death penalty is a matter of prudential judgement for all Catholics,

It is well known in Catholic teachings that all life issues are not the same.

Cardinal Avery Dulles, SJL:

"Pope John Paul II spoke for the whole Catholic tradition when he proclaimed, in Evangelium Vitae, that the direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being is always gravely immoral (EV 57). But he wisely included in that statement the word innocent. He has never said that every criminal has a right to live nor has he denied that the State has the right in some cases to execute the guilty. '' ''No passage in the New Testament disapproves of the death penalty.''
Marc Monmouth
9 years 4 months ago
I am happy to see Michelle O'Loughlin take a position on this issue.  In pointing out Governor Tim Kaine's Catholicism, she failed to not that he is a Democrat.  I am sure she would have pointed this out had he been a Republican.  Now Michelle, you see your inconsistency.  Catholic politicians, on the abortion issue, have stated that they must uphold the laws and you defended them on this point in the past. The likes of Ted Kennedy, Joe Biden, John Kerry etc have said they personally oppose abortion but can not impose their beliefs on others. You seemed to have agreed with this position in the past on the abortion issue.  Do you have two standards Michelle?  
Nichole Flores
9 years 4 months ago
Mr. O'Loughlin hit the nail on the head.  The principle is to respect the dignity of human life, not to respect the dignity of only innocent human life.
Joe Garcia
9 years 4 months ago
At the risk of revealing my inherent impertinence, I am prompted to ask "Why isn't capital punishment declared (by the Church) to be, always and everywhere and without the slightest exception, a grave moral evil?"
9 years 4 months ago
In every image I've ever seen of George W. Bush meeting with John-Paul II, the late Holy Father is leaning forward and speaking with great consternation while the former president is sitting back and looking like a deer in the moral, so to speak, headlights. I've long wondered if this was because of Bush's decision to invade Iraq and his support for the death penalty which was and is so widely employed in Texas. As we know, JP2 was against both the Iraq war and capital punishment and made no secret of either stand. 
My sister and her three kids live in DC, and I was down there on business during the Beltway Sniper rampage. There were a lot of killings near her house in Chevy Chase. The whole city was scared. It was eerie. It was one of the few times I didn't refuel my rental car before returning it to the Hertz lot at National. I figured this was the one time I'd stick my company with the exhorbitant refeuling charge. Call it life insurance...
9 years 4 months ago
BTW Michael, this is a thoughtful and challenging piece, tersely presented.
Michael Widner
9 years 4 months ago
"For someone who is tethered to his ecclesiastical reference books"...  Good one!  I like that!
Eric Stoltz
9 years 4 months ago
''No passage in the New Testament disapproves of the death penalty.''
Oh really? What about this:
''Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.''
I think we could find plenty more if we're looking for ways to live our life rather than Googling through scripture for ''death penalty'' and then proclaiming victory for one side because there was no exact proof-text available.
david power
9 years 4 months ago
Sorry Michael Bindner what gives you the impression he had lost his mind.Did you read something to that effect?I see that at least in this way the European system is better.He looked so lost in the photo I saw of him
Jim McCrea
9 years 4 months ago
Catechism of the Catholic Church Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.
If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people‘s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity with the dignity of the human person. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, Second Edition, 2267)
Pope John Paul IIThe 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. Modern society has the means of protecting itself, without definitively denying criminals the chance to reform. I renew the appeal I made most recently at Christmas for a consensus to end the death penalty, which is both cruel and unnecessary. (Pope John Paul II, Mass in St. Louis, MO, January 27, 1999)
Bishops of Florida The abolition of the death penalty would help to break the cycle of violence. It would manifest belief in the unique dignity of every individual and the sacredness of human life. It would acknowledge God as the Lord of life and it would be more consonant with the spirit of the Gospel. (Bishops of Florida, Pastoral Statement, Protection, Punishment, But Not Death, 1990)
United States Catholic Bishops Increasingly, our society looks to violent measures to deal with some of our most difficult social problems – millions of abortions to address problem pregnancies, advocacy of euthanasia and assisted suicide to cope with the burdens of age and illness, and increased reliance on the death penalty to deal with crime. We are tragically turning to violence in the search for quick and easy answers to complex human problems . . . We are losing our respect for human life . . . We cannot teach that killing is wrong by killing. (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Pastoral Statement, Confronting A Culture of Violence: A Catholic Framework for Action, 1994)
 Our witness to respect for life shines most brightly when we demand respect for each and every human life, including the lives of those who fail to show that respect for others. The antidote to violence is love, not more violence. (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics, No. 22, 1998)
James Lindsay
9 years 4 months ago
PS, there is no federal abortion "law" rather there is a Supreme Court ruling that states cannot enact abortion laws because under the Constitution legal personhood occurs at birth. Of course, the same amendment that draws this line also includes a congressional enforcement power, so that the line may change. That would take a federal law, rather than the turning one's opinion on Roe v Wade into a Republican electoral issue (which sadly the bishops have been complicit in).
Bill Bordas
9 years 4 months ago
There are obviously strong feelings and moral issues on this subject. I would just ask this question: how many of you who have commented thus far actually live in the area which was terrorized by Mr Muhammad? My family and I DO live in Northern Virginia. We lived in terror for three weeks during which time ten innocent people were murdered in cold blood and many others injured. One of the victims was killed in a shopping center parking lot my wife frequently visits. For three weeks we lived in fear of the bullet from nowhere as we tried to go about our daily lives. Mr Muhammad has received the punishment he deserved; indeed, he met death much more peacefully than his victims - as Josh noted above, he was essentially "put to sleep" ... not ripped apart by the bullets he deliberately fired into innocent bystanders. I am sure Mr Muhammad is now in Hell, waiting to greet his accomplice who, because he was a juvenile at the time of the murders, received a sentence of life in prison. He should have received the same sentence as Mr Muhammad.


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