One of the many excuses many conservative American Catholics make for blowing off the Church’s teaching about the death penalty and the call of the last three popes to abolish it is the Good Thief Argument. Briefly, it goes like this: The inspired word of God tells us that the death penalty is just when the Good Thief declares “we are receiving the due reward of our deeds”.
What the argument overlooks, of course, is that what the Bible asserts is that the Good Thief said it, not that he was correct in saying it. The fact that the Good Thief thought his punishment just in no way obliges us to think him right.
And, in fact, almost nobody (including people who support the death penalty and appeal to him really think that). Why? Because conservative American Catholic death penalty supporters also tend to be the most vocal in condemning the barbaric cruelty of Our Friends the Saudis and other Bronze Age Islamic regimes who routinely practice crucifixion as a form of capital punishment.
I suppose, of course, that you could find a few nuts out there who would like to restore truly biblical crucifixion as the purest and most just form of execution. (I well recall torture supporters seriously telling me that torture was good because without it Jesus could not have redeemed the world). But such people are a vanishingly small minority of kooks. Most of the people who appeal to the Good Thief calling the death penalty “just” studiously avoid calling crucifixion–much less crucifixion for theft–“just”. They know, in their heart o hearts, that their argument is rubbish. Like almost all death penalty supporters, they are extremely selective in their reading of Scripture as they labor to ignore the Magisterium.
Now if they would only admit it and apologize to the people they have led astray with that argument.