Why the Death Penalty is Wrong

Note: The Connecticut General Assembly began debate on the future of capital punishment. This is an issue that creates conflict among all manner of communities – including our Catholic communities. Please read this essay, reflect on it with a heart free of preconceptions, prejudices, and empathy for victims of violent crime. Then call your representatives…and I pray you make a call for Life.

The Citizen never ceases to be amazed to hear someone who is against abortion but supports the death penalty.

“Abortion kills the innocent, the death penalty punishes the guilty.” This is the common response that I hear. While on a very basic level, this may make some sort of sense…if life was a commodity and not a gift from God.

Yes, a gift. All human life is a gift. We have all been created by God’s will and His plan; this is the essence of our Christian belief. There are situations when the taking of life is morally justified, but the death penalty is not an acceptable taking of life.

Just War theory is essentially a ‘checklist’ that must be satisfied in order for the taking of life in combat to be acceptable. Police officers are sometimes compelled to take life in order to preserve others. Both the soldier and police officer in a combat situation are forced to make decisions in an instant, following rules of engagement and proper procedures.

2265. Legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for one who is responsible for the lives of others. The defense of the common good requires that an unjust aggressor be rendered unable to cause harm. For this reason, those who legitimately hold authority also have the right to use arms to repel aggressors against the civil community entrusted to their responsibility. – The Catholic Catechism, 1992 edition

The death penalty does not fall in this category. This next quote is lengthy, but I believe that it is important that the reader understand it in the context of the entire passage.

2267. 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.
Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm — without definitively taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself — the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity “are very rare, if not practically non-existent.” (John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, 56)

– The Catholic Catechism, 1992 edition

“…if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against an unjust aggressor.” This is telling. In the United States, there are very few instances when the death penalty falls under this caveat. Frankly, I can only imagine a situation when there has been a total breakdown of civil order on a state or national level and there is no possible means of protecting society. The Catechism emphatically states that if non-lethal means are available and sufficient to protect society, then they should be employed to preserve the Christian ideal of the ‘dignity of the person.’ The Catechism does not consider issues of convenience or cost in the equation; the only acceptable employment of the death penalty is predicated on immediate and real danger to others.

The United States has the capability to employ life incarceration. 35  states have the death penalty, and fifteen  do not. Since 1976, 1,165 people have been executed. 120 people on death row were exonerated when new evidence proved they did not commit the crime they were convicted of committing. According to a 2006 FBI report, southern states had the highest murder rate – and account for 964 of the 1,165 total executions. This clearly discounts the effectiveness of capital punishment as a deterrent.  Of even greater significance is the surprising number of people who were scheduled to be executed – and were innocent of the crime that they were to be executed for committing. Should we support a practice that has no deterrent effect? Is it acceptable to kill one innocent person unjustly?

The Citizen came to embrace the pro-life movement somewhat late in life, and the death penalty was a hard one to give up. There is that visceral ‘eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, life for a life’ approach to justice that is appealing. Would I want to look at a person who murdered someone dear to me and know that they would not pay for the life that they took with their own? I pray I never have to experience that. I would like to think that my convictions will hold true and I would realize that taking the killer’s life will not return anything of value to me or my family. To seek vengeance is wrong. Period.

Pro-life means All Life – not just the infant in the womb. Not just the newly developing embryo that should be defended from being ‘harvested’. Not just the elderly, the homeless, the ill, and the infirm. All life. How can we as a religion devoted to the sanctity of life differentiate? How can we say that we are ‘pro-some-life’. If aborting a child in the womb is wrong, ending a life by lethal injection is wrong. The state has an obligation to protect society from those who would practice evil upon it. Unless the situation is dire, we should do so by incarcerating them for the rest of their life.

It’s the right thing to do. The Christian thing to do. The pro-life thing to do.

Thank you and God Bless you all!

  3 comments for “Why the Death Penalty is Wrong

  1. Banastre Tarleton
    March 8, 2011 at 6:43 pm

    Hello John.

    Thanks for the thought provoking article. This is one of the few times I disagree with you.

    I believe your opinion is based upon some false premises.

    The first and most lethal to your argument is that life without parole (LWOP) can keep society safe. Would you consider me part of "society?"

    I would hope your answer is "yes." I worked for 10 years as a teacher for the NYS Department of Corrections along with 20,000 other employees. Not only were we not protected as part of society by LWOP, neither were the 60,000+ inmates that were not cold-blooded killers. Donna Payant, a NYS corrections officer and also part of society, was not adequately protected from Lemuel Smith. She is not the only case by far.

    This brings us to another of your points, that somehow it is inconsistent to be pro-life regarding abortion and for the death penalty. Unfortunately, either decision (for or against the DP) has a cost of human life. It is true that the DP kills guilty people but it is also true that innocent people will die when we do not exercise the DP. It is not a case of being "pro-life" or not, but whose life are you going to protect?

    There are also some incorrect or misunderstood statistics in your article.

    You state that there have been 120 "exonerations" of death row inmates. This is only true of you take the definition of "exoneration" from the ACLU or Death Penalty Information Center. A HUGE number of those exonerations are cases where a retrial was ordered for technical reasons and charges were dropped or the retrial was lost because evidence was lost, witnesses died, and other unfortunate incidents that can happen over a 20 year appeals process. This is far from proving factual innocence.

    A more important statistic is this. No neutral organization has decided that there have been any innocents executed during the era of the modern death penalty (since 1976).

    You also state that there is "clearly" no deterrent effect, based on one cherrypicked statistic. Actually, it proves no such thing. Murder rates were higher in the South during the 1972-1976 moratorium as well. The truth is that murder rates went down significantly in DP states after the reinstitution of the DP in 1976. In addition, Emory University professors Hashem Dezhbakhsh and Paul Ruben found a deterrent effect of 18 fewer murders for every execution.

    Your final paragraph states that all life is sacred. OK, I understand your point but again, both being for or against the DP causes loss of life. To be consistent with your point, you would literally have to take up Anabaptist style pacifism.

    • The Citizen
      March 9, 2011 at 11:13 am

      Interesting points, Banastre – and thank you for your thoughtful contribution.

      I do indeed consider you part of society, but a part that accepted a job that carried inherent risks. Soldiers, cops, firefighters, CO's, and – unfortunately – educators and support staff in prisons are cognizant that they have dangerous jobs. For that matter, being a teacher or principal in a public school was pretty dangerous for a while.

      I'll have to do some more digging into the exoneration issue. I got my information from some prolife seminar or another – and it's likely that if could be skewed data. I'll have to do some digging. I'll also have to find the Emory study you mention and spend some quality time with it – thanks for the lead.

      I certainly would never be accused of Anabaptist style pacifism – and if there is no option, then there are certainly instances where execution is not only warranted but may actually be the morally correct decision. My point is that we don't have to assume the expense and the potential of making an error out of what may very well be expediency.

  2. Banastre Tarleton
    March 10, 2011 at 9:58 am

    Hello again!

    I agree that I and other corrections personnel took that job knowing the inherent risks. However, I would note that you referred to protecting society, not society minus those who work in a prison. In addition, even though their actions put them there, other inmates who could be victimized by the worst of the worst did not choose to go to prison. They will be forced to work in the mess hall next to or live in the same cell with the Ted Bundys of the world.

    On this point, I would only further add that public school teachers enter the profession with the knowledge that a school shooting is a possibility. Does this mean that the public school system is not required to at least provide a good faith attempt to protect them from that possibility?

    The Catholic Advocate covered this topic just today. In a nutshell, those who ask for "consistency" between "pro-life" and the "death penalty" are forgetting that one act has been deemed intrinsically evil by the church and the other has not. (I would provide link but your interface does not allow it)

    As far as the Emory study, let me know on facebook if you would like a pdf copy. I have online access to two university libraries and can download it for email.

    God Bless!

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