Readings: Death on Demand

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.”

Advertisement

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.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
katarina petrova
4 years 4 months ago
Great topic and discussion, its about the death penalties which everybody can relate and share their side. For me, death penalty is not a solution to every person who committed heavy crimes, we are not God to condemn them to death, even do they commit mistakes they still have the opportunities to be forgiven. If we sentence them to death, we are almost like them nothings different. buying facebook likes
Kevin Murphy
4 years 4 months ago
I thought, as Catholics, we believed in protecting life from conception to natural death, and not from "birth to natural death," as Father Schroth states. However, since Father Schroth is the hagiographer of the late pro-choice advocate Father Drinnan, I am not surprised by his distinction.
Dudley Sharp
4 years 2 months ago
The value of human life guided the Church's support for the death penalty, for 2000 years. In breadth and depth, traditional and eternal Catholic teachings, in support of the death penalty, overwhelm any teachings to the contrary, as we see from Popes, Saints, Doctors and Fathers of the Church, church leadership, biblical scholars and theologians. A few: The Death Penalty: Mercy, Expiation, Redemption & Salvation http://prodpinnc.blogspot.com/2013/06/the-death-penalty-mercy-expiation.html Jesus and the Death Penalty http://prodpinnc.blogspot.com/2013/06/jesus-and-death-penalty.html The Catechism and the Death Penalty http://prodpinnc.blogspot.com/2013/06/the-catechism-death-penalty.html Saint (& Pope) Pius V, "The just use of (executions), far from involving the crime of murder, is an act of paramount obedience to this (Fifth) Commandment which prohibits murder." "The Roman Catechism of the Council of Trent" (1566). Pope Pius XII: "When it is a question of the execution of a man condemned to death it is then reserved to the public power to deprive the condemned of the benefit of life, in expiation of his fault, when already, by his fault, he has dispossessed himself of the right to live." 9/14/52. "Moral/ethical Death Penalty Support: Modern Catholic Scholars" http://prodpinnc.blogspot.com/2009/07/death-penalty-support-modern-catholic.html Christianity and the death penalty. http://www.prodeathpenalty.com/DP.html#F.Christianity Catholic and other Christian References: Support for the Death Penalty, http://homicidesurvivors.com/2006/10/12/catholic-and-other-christian-references-support-for-the-death-penalty.aspx
Aleesha Sultan
3 years 9 months ago
The two cases are geologically and in inspiration far separated, however have two qualities in like manner: the evident inhumanity of the guilty parties and the confirmation that both executioners themselves need to bite the dust. Also by sending them to the execution chamber the state is providing for them precisely what they need. They are drawn either by the long for the big name status that goes hand in hand with capital arraignment or an inclination for self decimation. Under those circumstances, passing is not simply or shrewd discipline.cover letter for a resume
Katty Perry
3 years 6 months ago
Most likely for the reason that the particular church’s general public competitors for the passing away charge will be comparatively latest, stated in the completely new catechism in addition to reinforced by means of Pope Ruben John II. http://www.justabouthealth.org/ As well as it is a belief that this Catholic general public takes particular, much like the agreement involving many lovemaking actions in which match common endorsement in the well-known tradition.

Advertisement

Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

As Pope Francis writes in “Laudato Si’,” we face “one complex crisis which is both social and environmental.”
Jim McDermottDecember 18, 2017
(Images: Gage Skidmore, Wikipedia Commons, Antonio De Loera-Brust, Sikelia Productions; Illustration by Antonio De Loera-Brust) 
“Gangs of New York” reminds us that for as long as the United States has been a nation of immigrants, it has been infected by xenophobia.
Antonio De Loera-BrustDecember 18, 2017
South African Deputy President, Cyril Ramaphosa, laughs at President Jacob Zuma, right, at the start of the ruling African National Congress elective conference in Johannesburg on Dec. 16. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe, File)
Although Mr. Ramaphosa is a relatively acceptable leader of the A.N.C. in the eyes of some opposition parties, his economic stance will put him in tension with the populist left Economic Freedom Fighters and many trade unions.
Anthony EganDecember 18, 2017
The pope spoke Dec. 16 with members of the Italian Periodical Press Union and members of the Italian Federation of Catholic Weeklies, which represents nearly 200 Catholic newspapers.