Since 1973, 117 inmates on death row have been exonerated. They have won their life as a result of advanced DNA testing. Their exoneration moves the discussion of executing innocent individuals from possibility to fact. No wonder the Governor of Illinois put a moratorium on carrying out the death penalty in Illinois in 2000. Men who had committed no crime had come too close to being executed for a crime someone else committed. In January 2003, Illinois’ governor dramatically commuted the sentences of the remaining 167 death row inmates. Imposing the death penalty places at risk the lives of innocent individuals unjustly condemned, and it carries with it other consequences for today’s society.
Twenty-five years ago the U.S. Bishops issued a statement on capital punishment. This document reminded us that the death penalty brings us face to face with values that demand the highest priority: respect for the sanctity of human life, the protection of human life, the preservation of order in society, and the achievement of justice through law. On March 21 of this year, the bishops began a campaign to end the death penalty.
In principle, to protect society, the state has the right to take the life of a person guilty of an extremely serious crime. Yet, even the state is beginning to rethink this issue. There are only five states that carry out most executions. And twelve states do not impose the death penalty at all.
In 2002, the Supreme Court banned capital punishment for the moderately mentally retarded. And until recently, someone who committed murder as a juvenile could receive the death penalty. Persons under 18 are not treated as adults. They cannot vote or decide their own medical treatment. Yet until March 1, 2005, they were subject to the death penalty. On that day, the Supreme Court abolished capital punishment for juvenile offenders. The court ruled 5 to 4 that it is unconstitutional to sentence anyone to death for a crime he or she committed while younger than 18. It said that the death penalty for minors is cruel and unusual punishment. Yet, before that ruling, 20 states permitted the death penalty for offenders younger than 18.
Some argue that capital punishment deters crimes of violence. Yet empirical studies do not seem to justify the death penalty as an effective deterrent. The only case where this is a proven deterrent is the case of the individual executed! Others favor capital punishment because a criminal on death row facing eternity can have a change of heart and regret the evil done. No doubt a criminal on death row has time to repent. But the imminence of death and judgment before the divine tribunal is not the only incentive for a sinner to repent and reform. Others say that capital punishment is necessary to restore the order of justice that has been ruptured. A life has been taken. A life must pay the price. But the restoration of the order of justice is certainly more complex.
Punishment inflicted on a criminal must be guided by moral norms. It would be destructive of the good order of society if criminals simply were forgiven without any recompense on their part for the harm they caused others. In the final analysis, any punishment for a crime should aim at protecting society, safeguarding the lives of the innocent, reforming the offender and, if possible, reintegrating the offender, once reformed, into society. At a time when violence and hatred continue to erupt across the world, we cannot forget that every one is made in the image and likeness of God. Those who fail, those who disfigure their lives with hatred, violence or anger, still retain their inherent dignity as created by God and destined for life with him.
In a recent survey, less than 48% of Catholics favor the death penalty. And almost 80% of Catholics see opposition to the death penalty as consistent with the defense of human life (Zogby International Poll, December, 2004). It is an interesting fact that Catholics who attend Mass regularly are twice as likely to oppose the death penalty than those who do not attend Mass.
Nonetheless, despite the serious concerns that argue against the death penalty, many Americans and politicians continue to support the death penalty. In fact, victims’ rights movements argue that the survivors of someone murdered have the right to closure. When someone murders another person, this evil act is abhorrent. When there is cruel and brutal violence, the crime is even more heinous. But is the execution of a guilty criminal the only way to achieve closure? Is this even the best way to find peace of soul?
We need to acknowledge that the life of every human person is a gift from God. No one can simply take that gift away at whim. The Church’s moral teaching allows for the loss of life in a just war and for the state’s right to execute criminals to protect society. But the question still remains. Is the execution of an offender the best way to deal with the terrible crime of murder?
Any family or person who experiences a loved one murdered has the right to justice, understanding, compassion and healing. But in a civilized world, the need to take away a life to accomplish this or to protect society no longer seems justified. Anyone who poses a threat to the life of others can be incarcerated and the threat removed without taking the life of that individual. The use of force and violence to punish a criminal only increases the spiral of violence in society. The inability to move beyond hurt to healing, the demand for revenge and vengeance, does more than take away the life of the guilty. It harms those who have been left behind.
As moral agents, all of us need to work for the creation of a just and peaceful society. When we find ways to restore the order of justice and, at the same time, extend compassion that heals and leads to reform, we are modeling the very heart of God. In the death of his innocent Son on the Cross, he has shown us both the evil of the death of the innocent and the grace of compassion.
When Pope John Paul II visited St. Louis in January, 1999, he appealed to the governor of that state to commute the death sentence of convicted murderer Darrell Mease. And the governor did. There have been many other interventions of the Holy See for the same purpose. Not with success.
Each time we face this question of the death penalty, we need to reflect on the teaching of John Paul II. “Today a criminal who is deemed to be a threat to society can be prevented from inflicting more violence on society by being incarcerated. Given the means at the State's disposal to deal with crime and control those who commit it, without abandoning all hope of their redemption, the cases where it is absolutely necessary to do away with an offender are now very rare, even non-existent practically". (Pope John Paul II,
Ecclesia in America
, 63). The increasing recognition that the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has committed the terrible sin of murder, is a new sign of hope that this world can deal with the evils that plague us.