Bishop Wenski - Column
DEATH PENALTY - JANUARY 2006
Last month while California’s governor contemplated the fate of Stanley Tookie Williams whom he later had executed, Governor Bush signed two death warrants for two men on Florida’s death row. Later this month, Clarence Hill, 47, and Arthur Rutherford, 56, will be also be executed by lethal injection.
Both men were guilty of shedding innocent blood. And both have been imprisoned for some years: their crimes were committed more than 20 years ago. Yet, is it any more necessary for the State of Florida to kill these men than it was for California to kill Williams? Does society really make a coherent statement against killing by killing?
The argument has been made that the application of the death penalty represents the legitimate self defense of society from an unjust aggressor, i.e. the murderer. And, historically, the Church has conceded the point that the State can rightly apply capital punishment when absolutely necessary, i.e. when otherwise impossible to defend society. There is, in Church teaching, no moral equivalence between the execution of the guilty after due process of law and the willful destruction of innocent life that happens with abortion or euthanasia. However, Pope John Paul II has pointed out in Evangelium Vitae (no. 56): given the organization of today’s penal system and the option of imposing life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, such an “absolute necessity” is “practically non-existent”.
Also, it is difficult to defend the “necessity” of executing someone when often his accomplice, in exchange for information or testimony, is given through plea bargaining a lesser sentence. And while some loved ones seek “closure”, it is hard to see how capital punishment as “social retribution” or “institutional vengeance” really serves the purpose of punishment which should be designed to redress the disorder caused by the offense. The death penalty cannot bring the victims back to life.
Even from a purely pragmatic or utilitarian point of view, the death penalty cannot be defended. It is not an effective deterrent to crime. Texas has executed more criminal than any other state; yet, it still has one of the highest murder rates in the nation. And the death penalty is not cost effective. It costs the state less to imprison someone for the remainder of his natural life than to execute him. Given that it is irreversible, society has rightly provided that it be applied only after lengthy and expensive legal appeals. And, in spite of this, there are more than 400 documented cases of wrongly convicted persons executed in the U.S. during the last century.
Willful murder is a heinous crime; it cries to God for justice. Yet, God did not require Cain’s life for having spilt Abel’s blood. While God certainly punished history’s first murderer, he nevertheless put a mark on him to protect Cain from those wishing to kill him to avenge Abel’s murder (cf. Gn 4:15). Like Cain, the condemned prisoner on death row – for all the evil of his crimes – remains a person. Human dignity – that of the convicted as well as our own – is best served by not resorting to this extreme and unnecessary punishment. Modern society has the means to protect itself without the death penalty.