Very slowly, the American public is moving away from the death penalty. A recent Gallup Poll puts its acceptance at 63 percent, down from 80 percent in 1994. Unfortunately, according to a survey by the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at the Catholic University of America, Catholics ranked abolition of the death penalty low among the Catholic teachings they accepted. Only 29 percent ranked it as important, far below the faith in the resurrection (73 percent), devotion to Mary (64 percent) and opposition to abortion (40 percent). (The good news is that Catholic support for the death penalty has dropped significantly.)
Perhaps it is because the church’s public opposition to the death penalty is relatively recent, expressed in the new catechism and supported by Pope John Paul II. Or perhaps it is a belief that the Catholic public considers personal, like the approval of all kinds of sexual behavior that meet general acceptance in the popular culture. Or because Catholics are as vulnerable as the public at large to media messages endorsing revenge, torture and the drone bombing of suspicious characters and their bystanders. Or because from time to time “spectacular” or at least headline fodder crimes send tabloid messages that “these guys deserve to die. Really die.”
For example: the Fort Hood trial of Major Nidal Malik Hasan, who shot and killed 13 soldiers and injured 30 on the base in 2009 and the retrial of Ronell Wilson, who killed two undercover New York City police detectives in 2003. Sentenced to death in 2007, the Wilson case was overturned because of prosecutorial misconduct. But, because “future dangerousness” is a factor in sentencing, in July he was tried again in federal court and re-convicted partly because he has been a “bad” prisoner, and sentenced to death again. The formal sentence will be in the fall.
The two cases are geographically and in motivation far apart, but have two qualities in common: the apparent heartlessness of the culprits and the evidence that both killers themselves want to die. And by sending them to the execution chamber the state is giving them exactly what they want. They are drawn either by the dream of the celebrity status that accompanies capital prosecution or a penchant for self destruction. Under those circumstances, death is neither just nor wise punishment.
In New York between 1991 and 2001 at least 9 men and women facing either execution or a life sentence killed themselves—hanging, jumping off a bridge, or begging to be shot. One study showed that 10 percent of fatal cop shootings were suicidal.
A more detailed consideration of these two cases indicates that for the state to kill them would be immoral, at least in the calculation of Catholic social ethics or by the ecumenical norms that have inspired the anti-death penalty movement: respect for the dignity of every human being, from birth to natural death; belief that, since we never really know the future, everyone deserves the opportunity to turn his/her life around; that the obligation to forgive is absolute, and the refusal to forgive is morally self-destructive.
Major Hasan, bearded, confined to a wheelchair because he was paralyzed from the waist down in the battle to stop him, conducting his own defense admitted he was the shooter. Ironically, he is a psychiatrist. He was motivated, he said, by the news that he was about to be sent to Afghanistan with mental health specialists to help soldiers deal with combat stress, and he came to believe he had a duty to kill as many soldiers as possible. So he took classes to receive a state concealed handgun license and spent hours practicing at a nearby shooting range shouting “God is great!” in Arabic as he fired away. His lawyer told the judge that Major Hasan’s goal was to receive the death penalty, and that helping him achieve that goal violated his ethical obligations.
In Mr. Wilson’s case, no one has been executed in New York for half a century, and the state’s highest court abolished the death penalty in 2004; so this was a federal prosecution, arguing that the family of the murdered policemen, who demanded the “satisfaction” of an execution, demanded “closure,” and that Mr. Wilson’s prison behavior demonstrated that he would never change. He started fights, exploited his membership in the Bloods, intimidated fellow prisoners and had sex several times with a guard, fathering a child. The defense described a deprived childhood, an alcoholic drug-addicted, often absent mother, growing up in a squalid home with adult criminals. He depicted a future aging convict with a sagging tattooed chest, weak knees, deaf ears in ragged prison garb alone and forgotten — his apt punishment deserved.
It seems reasonable to conclude that if Mr. Wilson wanted to live longer he would have lived differently; but if we kill him we make ourselves collectively more like him, playing the game of life by the criminal’s rules—and losing. Maybe some day our belief in the resurrection will carry over to our belief in the value of every human life.