Gary Graham is on Death Row in Texas. When he
was 17 years old, he was sentenced to die for the murder of
Bobby Lambert outside a Houston grocery. Though he is still
awaiting his fate, 24 states permit the execution of offenders
between the ages of 15 and 17, even though international standards
recommend that persons under 18 not be subject to death.
Execution has not always been an allowable punishment
for crime in the United States. Since the death penalty was
reinstated in 1976, the debate has been revived.
Capital punishment is a complex issue. It isn't
simply a question of how to punish criminals. When the death
penalty is debated, people will bring up racism, sociology,
economics and politics: racism because more nonwhite
people are executed; sociology because our neighborhoods
and our class structure play a part in both producing and punishing
criminals; economics because poverty plays a part both
in the reasons for crime and in the ability of people to defend
themselves in the legal system; and politics because
the "war against crime"including the death penaltyis
debated in political campaigns and may even be a reason that
someone is executed or, less often, pardoned.
This Youth Update on the death penalty
is an effort to acquaint you with some of the social conditions
surrounding the death penalty and offer you a look at this issue
from a Catholic moral perspective.
Crime: A Social Problem
Every time you turn on the television, pick up
a newspaper or turn on the radio, you hear news of violence.
Some schools have installed metal detectors to check you for
weapons as you enter. The problems you face today are very different
from the ones I faced when I was in schooland I've been
out of high school only 10 years.
Murder, guns and drugs seem to be on the rise
across the nation, and more and more of you are being pulled
into the action. People are fearful to walk down the street,
drive to a certain section of the city or look at someone the
"wrong" way. It seems that we are quickly becoming
a nation paralyzed by crime.
Politicians want to offer voters their solutions
to the crime problem. For example, many governors in the last
elections promised either to increase the use of the death penalty
in their state or to begin using it if that state did not already
exercise the death penalty.
Congress followed a similar pattern not too long
ago. They passed a crime bill of $30 billion to increase funding
for law enforcement, as well as increase the use of the death
penalty. Basically, the money is being spent to build new correctional
facilities (prisons), to hire more police officers and to train
them to capture more criminals.
Will increasing the use of the death penalty
and expanding police forces adequately deal with the crime problem?
No one can answer for sure, but many people (including sociologists,
police officers and district attorneys) believe that the death
penalty is not the answer. Many believe that preventionthrough
community building, parks, counseling and similar outreach projectsis
more important than eliminating "perks" for prisoners
and stiffening criminal penalties.
It may be difficult for you to imagine joining
a violent gang, robbing a store or committing murder, though
such crimes can be committed by persons who learned at home
and in school that such choices are unloving, immoral and illegal.
You probably have had opportunities to better yourself all your
life, like I've had.
I have a friend, however, who lives in North
Philadelphia and works as a janitor. Every day after work he
walks home. He tells me he's afraid he might not make it home
some day, because "If the gangs don't get me, the cops
My friend lives in a world where he feels forced
to join a gang. He feels that if he doesn't belong to the black
gang, his life is at risk. He also knows that belonging to the
gang puts him at risk of arrest. He doesn't have much opportunity
to get out of this life-and-death danger.
Some people don't have the opportunities to attend
good schools and must learn to survive on the streets. Many
people who commit "street crimes" do so because they
are desperate, hungry or greedy. Many times robberies turn into
murder, a crime of passion in the heat of the moment, and the
robber doesn't even consider the consequences of his or her
Some people believe that we must focus more on
our basic social problemslike inadequate housing, lack
of good education and poor counseling for drug offenders. They
believe that prisons concentrate too much on punishment and
do not try to teach or assist prisoners in improving their attitudes
and behavior. All these factors play a part in crime.
Many believe that the $30 billion in the crime
bill would be put to better use for counseling and improving
our educational system. What do you think?
Death Penalty: Yes
Some lawmakers believe that the death penalty
serves to keep convicted rapists, murderers and other violent
criminals from repeating the acts of violence of which they
have been convicted. Lawmakers also believe that would-be rapists,
murderers and other offenders will be too afraid to commit such
crimes if they know that the death penalty awaits them.
The death penalty has public support. Many citizens
feel that the death penalty is justified. They feel that a murderer
deserves to have his or her life taken away to relieve, as much
as humanly possible, the pain and suffering of the victim's
family. They feel that taking the life of the murderer is some
form of justice. Taking the life of the convicted prisoner is
also a guarantee that the killer cannot take the life of another
Death Penalty: No
You don't need to invoke faith or religious belief
to oppose the death penalty. Many groups that are not religious
in nature disagree with lawmakers and oppose the death penalty.
First, they argue that it costs more to execute
a prisoner than it does to lock someone up for life. Studies
have proven that this is true, mainly due to the cost of legal
The legal appeal process to which a convicted
prisoner is entitled can cost up to two million dollars. Moreover,
because of the court proceedings, many Death Row inmates are
in prison for 12 years or more. It costs quite a bit to feed,
clothe and house prisoners, and those on Death Row do not work
as do other prisoners.
Second, the criminal-justice system appears to
be racially biased. More Hispanics and African Americans have
been executed than white persons. This is an argument against
its use. In actual numbers, more white people than African Americans
wait on Death Row (about 1,500 whites to 1,200 blacks). Percentage-wise,
however, African Americans comprise only 12 percent of the population
while white persons make up 67 percent. This leads us to look
at those numbers more carefully.
Not only is the person executed likely to be
a racial minority, there is some possibility that the person
is innocent. This leads to a third argument against the death
penalty: Innocent people have been executed. It seems difficult
to believe that an innocent person could be executed in a country
that regards freedom so highly. Still, research has shown that
47 innocent people have been executed since the death penalty
was reinstated in 1976.
Most reasons for the death of an innocent person
lie in the legal system. One, limitations exist on the admittance
of evidence in court (in different states there are different
regulations stating that new evidence cannot be admitted in
a case more than a certain number of days after the initial
Two, the legal defense may be inadequate. Many
defense lawyers in death-penalty cases are state-appointed attorneys
with no experience in such cases. Many are overworked. Some
are even convinced that their client is guilty and don't make
a great effort to defend the client's innocence.
Three, the state governor may wish to reassure
the public that he or she is doing a good job dealing with crime.
One political action that governors have taken to express this
is to uphold the death penalty and refuse pardon or leniency
when cases reach their desks.
Opponents of the death penalty also claim that
the death penalty does not serve to keep people from committing
murder. Take the state of Texas as an example. Since 1976, there
have been more executions in Texas than in any other state in
the nation. Last year alone, Texas executed 17 people. The murder
rate in that state, however, actually went up. It is difficult
to see that the death penalty has succeeded in discouraging
Praying Over Punishment
Politicians and lawmakers hear the complaints
of the death-penalty opponents and are drafting legislation
to shorten the legal procedures, making the whole process much
cheaper and quicker. Legislation is also in process to make
selection of Death Row inmates more racially "fair."
Essentially, almost every complaint given by secular groups
can be corrected.
For Christians, especially Catholics, a much
larger question remains. Even if the death penalty was applied
without racial prejudice and was never used to further someone's
political career, we still need to consider its moral and ethical
implications. We have to ask ourselves, "What role does
my faith play in my viewpoint?"
Our Christian faith puts great emphasis on hope.
The Resurrection of Jesus (after an improper application of
the death penalty, it would seem) gives us hope in the healing
and converting power of God. Execution puts an end to the possibility
of a person's conversion in this life.
In the Catechism of the Catholic Church,
in the section on legitimate defense, punishment is described
as having "medicinal value; as far as possible it should
contribute to the correction of the offender" (#2266).
In the next paragraph, the Catechism says means other
than the death penalty are more "in conformity to the dignity
of the human person" if they are sufficient to "protect
How do you think we could protect public order
without using the extreme of the death penalty? What do you
think might be a more dignified way to keep society safe and
still deal with those now on Death Row?
The death penalty seems inconsistent with our
courageous defense of life in many other arenas, such as abortion,
euthanasia and suicide. Another basic tenet of the Catholic
faith is the consistent ethic of lifethe belief that all
life is sacred from conception until its natural end. We are
to express this in our attitudes and actions. Catholics should
be the first to teach love and reconciliation as the means to
confront violence whenever it occurs.
More than 10 years ago, the U.S. Catholic Conference
went on record in opposition to capital punishment. During the
celebration of our nation's bicentennial, the U.S. bishops issued
a more detailed statement on capital punishment. Article nine
begins, "The Church advocates the entitlement of prisoners
to rights as human beings and full human development. The Church
calls for action to insure the following: the cessation [end]
of capital punishment; the development of parish outreach programs
to inmates, ex-offenders and their families to facilitate reentry
into the community."
In 1995, Pope John Paul II wrote a letter to
the whole Church (an encyclical, it's called) "on the value
and inviolability of human life." He called increased opposition
to the death penalty a "sign of hope." He also said
that reasons requiring the death penalty today are "very
rare, if not practically nonexistent."
The pope strongly suggests that the death penalty
is no longer a proper solution to our crime problems. We must
look to the root of our social problems to find the answer.
Our U.S. bishops, in their message, "Confronting
a Culture of Violence," call the death penalty "relying
on vengeance." They write, "How do we teach the young
to curb their violence when we embrace it as the solution to
social problems? We cannot teach that killing is wrong by killing."
Jesus tells us to love God and our neighbor,
to love our enemies and to turn the other cheek. We must find
creative ways to be reconcilers. Reconciliation does not mean
just rejecting the taking of another person's life. It also
Many families of murder victims know only emptiness
because a person now on Death Row has taken the life of their
loved one. The role of the Church must be to provide support
for the family and healing between the offender and the victim's
Sister Helen Prejean, on whose work with prisoners
and victims the film Dead Man Walking is based, has tried
to do this in her life. She has acted on Christ's words, "Whatever
you did for one of these least brothers [and sisters] of mine,
you did for me" (Matthew 25:40). Now consider how you can
act on this in your life.