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Wrestling with the Death Penalty

by Andy Prince

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 penalty—is 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 school—and 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 prevention—through community building, parks, counseling and similar outreach projects—is 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 will."

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 actions.

Some people believe that we must focus more on our basic social problems—like 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 innocent victim.

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 proceedings.

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 trial date).

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 criminal activity.

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 public order."

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 life—the 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 means healing.

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 family.

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.

Andy Prince is a founding member of the Catholic Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty in Austin, Texas, and is the former youth coordinator of Pax Christi USA, the national Catholic peace movement.


Wrestle With These Words

Dead Man Walking, an autobiographical account by Sister Helen Prejean, C.S.J., is the basis of the film for which Susan Sarandon, playing Sister Helen, won an Academy Award. In both book and film, Sister Helen reaches out to Death Row inmates and to the families of victims as well. These excerpts from her book challenge the death penalty on many levels.

"I would not want my death avenged. Especially by government—which can't be trusted to control its own bureaucrats or collect taxes equitably or fill a pothole...."

"...[N]ine times out of ten when the death penalty is sought it's because the victim is white, even though blacks are most often the victims of violent crime."

"Each death sentence is estimated to cost approximately $3.18 million [due to costs of expert witnesses, investigators, longer jury-selection process, expense of housing jury, two trials—one to determine guilt, one to determine sentence—state and federal appeals, maximum-security facilities], compared to the cost of life imprisonment (40 years) of about $516,000."

"The death penalty costs too much. Allowing our government to kill citizens compromises the deepest moral values upon which this country was conceived: the inviolable dignity of human persons."

Ben Allen (15), Tom McAninch (15), Jennifer Shoudt (15) and Nicole Whatley (16)—all members of St. Lawrence Parish in Indianapolis, Indiana—were invited by Eva Corsaro, parish youth minister, to read and critique this issue of Youth Update. Meg Claxton, adult member of the parish Youth Ministry Advisory Team, also participated in the evening session.



What can young people do to affect the use of the death penalty?


You are the voice of the future. The best thing you can do to influence the use of the death penalty and to shape many related issues is to educate yourselves (just as you are doing right now). Write your opinion to your state and national representatives and senators. Ask that speakers on this subject be invited to your school or parish. Learn all that you can and pray to use your knowledge well.


You say innocent people have been executed. How could that be discovered?


The most common way is that the actual killer steps forward and confesses to the murder. A second method of proving a person's innocence after an execution is for an independent researcher to explore the case further. My point in mentioning this is that the execution of even one innocent person is a great injustice and a terrible, irreversible tragedy.


Since some people on Death Row want to die, isn't it all right to execute them?


The Church clearly teaches that we may not participate in or allow mercy killing or euthanasia. But, of course, that's not why people are on Death Row nor is it why they may be executed. The government, being responsible for the common good, has the duty to defend us from criminals. The Supreme Court has included the use of the death penalty among the means of defense. In his 1995 encyclical letter, "The Gospel of Life," Pope John Paul II says that the death penalty is "extreme" and should only be used in "cases of absolute necessity," which would not include a criminal's wish to die.


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