Three Reasons Why I No Longer Actively Support The Death Penalty

Three Reasons Why I No Longer Actively Support The Death Penalty March 5, 2015

File:SQ Lethal Injection Room.jpg

Other than a required law school course in criminal procedure, I have had no training and have developed no special expertise in matters of criminal justice since becoming an attorney some 30 years ago. In fact, the closest that I’ve ever come to associating with any criminal element was when I ran for public office back in 1998 – but I digress.

So I speak here not as some kind of expert, but rather as a fellow citizen.

And I speak as someone who does not take lightly the teachings of the Catholic Church, with its deposit of knowledge and experience that has been actively debated, prayerfully considered, and faithfully transmitted for over 2,000 years.

I have never really given much thought to the imposition of the death penalty.

For as long as I can remember, I have more or less accepted its use both as a deterrent to others and as an expression of societal retribution imposed by the state acting on our behalf. I especially saw its efficacy for those prisoners already serving life sentences who somehow manage to murder prison guards. After all, they have nothing more to lose if no additional punishment can be meted out – all but surely endangering the lives of other prison guards and fellow inmates.

But as with many things, change often comes on the heels of revelation. And so it is here for me.

Where once I stood in silent acceptance, I today find myself in concerned and growing opposition.

At least in most cases.

Three factors have moved me.

But first, let’s start with the Church’s teaching on the death penalty, as set forth in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), while noting that a killing in self-defense has never been in question:

2267    Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.

If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity with the dignity of the human person.

Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm—without definitively taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself—the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity “are very rare, if not practically non-existent.”

Observe that while the Church does not explicitly bar the death penalty, it does seek to impose conditions which render its use practically non-existent:

  • the defendant’s guilt must be fully determined;
  • the death penalty must be the “only possible way” of defending other lives; and
  • non-lethal means, if sufficient to defend and protect, are first necessary.

Taking one step back, the CCC is additionally clear that whatever punishment is imposed must be both proportionate to the crime, and corrective – and, I’d argue, that the Church sees its ultimate purpose as redemptive as well (as do I):

2266 [ ] Legitimate public authority has the right and the duty to inflict punishment proportionate to the gravity of the offense. Punishment has the primary aim of redressing the disorder introduced by the offense. When it is willingly accepted by the guilty party, it assumes the value of expiation. Punishment then, in addition to defending public order and protecting people’s safety, has a medicinal purpose: as far as possible, it must contribute to the correction of the guilty party.

Now, as for the death penalty itself, my basic opposition is grounded here:

First, as a proponent of limited government, I am instinctively and initially skeptical of most, if not all, governmental undertakings. The criminal justice system, although worthy of all due respect, is of course still a part and parcel of some governmental entity – comprising both very good and very bad actors who assert their authority and power in our name and stead.

As a lawyer, I have witnessed enough failure and “shortcutting” in the civil judicial system to recognize that it must surely also occur in the criminal justice system with all too much frequency. Erroneous convictions, and outright abuse of the process, is certainly not unheard of. One wrongful death penalty conviction is one too many. And, while still vigorously and hotly debated, there does exist an extensive body of research which at least points to a conclusion that the death penalty has often been imposed disproportionately – whether on the poor, or on minorities, or on anyone, for that matter, whose access to the effective assistance of counsel is limited. Writer S.E. Cupp has summarized conservative opposition to the death penalty with much more clarity than I have done here. It’s well worth your time.

Second, many recent, highly-publicized failures during its implementation have raised questions of the humanity, the dignity, and the morality of the death penalty. To be clear, no one should take a higher priority in our consciousness than the victim and his or her family. That is certainly consistent with Catholic teaching. But that does not and cannot absolve us of our responsibility to implement any punishment while being fully mindful of the dignity of all persons, even when imposed on our enemies – perhaps especially then. While my first emotional reaction may be, in some cases, for pain, hurt, revenge, and bodily destruction, allowing those emotions to overtake me would ultimately be destructive and deadly, for me and others. The death penalty, at least as implemented currently, all too often fails the test of morality, dignity and, yes, compassion.

Third and finally, I am all too aware of my own fallen nature. While I have never committed a physical act of murder, Christ reminds us, through John, that “everyone who hates his brother is a murderer” (1 John 3:15), and so I cannot say, if I am being honest, that I have never “murdered” in my heart – or even that I could never be capable of  doing something more than feeling hate. Christ articulated this mental-hate-to-physical-murder connection for a reason – and we are well advised to take all of His words seriously, if we are to take any of them seriously at all. He is well aware of our nature, and well aware of how one innocuous step can inevitably lead to another – fatal – one.

Christ redeems us. He can change me. He has changed me. And he can change and redeem the least and most evil among us.

I stand in no better place before Him than they do.

In fact, He took up His cross to stand in their very place, even as He did so to stand in my very place.

Again, I speak with no authority or special insight. I can only reveal what lies heavy on my heart.

And so, my vocal opposition to the death penalty continues to grow.

For a thoughtful call to end all capital punishment, please read the following March 5, 2015 joint editorial by America Magazine, the National Catholic Register, The National Catholic Reporter, and Our Sunday Visitor, found here  and let me know what you think, agree or disagree.

Peace

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain – The lethal injection room at San Quentin State Prison

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  • Connie Maanaum

    The reason I tend to reject the death penalty is that everyone should be given every opportunity to repent and atone. I do agree with your three points.

    • Tom Zampino

      Thank you!

    • Dudley Sharp

      Connie:

      Consider that God has decided that we should all die early and earthly deaths because of our sins, whatever those deaths may be, cancer, car wreck, murder, execution, etc.

      Jesus’ gift is that we are offered eternal salvation, should we choose to embrace it prior to our deaths.

      We are already given every opportunity to repent and atone.

      Was God wrong to establish that we should all die early and earthly deaths, with many, prior to salvation?

      There is a long Church history of teaching that execution offers expiation for those sinners, providing them with an increased probability of salvation, not a lesser one.

      • Scooter Livingston

        Hey Dudley.,.how about the Inquisition? You support the death penalty as applied by that as well?

  • MeanLizzie

    The Catholic channel at Patheos joins in today’s call for an end to the death penalty: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/theanchoress/2015/03/05/patheos-catholic-joins-joint-call-to-end-capital-punishment/

    • Jasper

      Liz,
      will you do the same for an end to legalized abortion and homosexual marriage?

  • Dudley Sharp

    Tom:
    I rebutted all Cupp’s points in the comment section of your linked article.

    • Tom Zampino

      I will look for it. Thank you

  • Dudley Sharp

    Current Problems: Catholic Death Penalty Teaching

    Most recent Catechism (last amended 2003)

    Dudley Sharp

    Any good Catholic may disagree with the Church’s newest teaching on the death penalty (1) and remain a Catholic in good standing (1) and can find that (a) the primary and eternal purpose of sanction is justice and/or redress, as confirmed in this latest CCC, and that (b) justice should not be and cannot be subjugated by a secondary purpose of sanction, the important concern of “defense of society” and that (c) the death penalty offers a greater degree of protection for society and individuals (2) , that being the protection of the potential innocents harmed, now spared, and potential repeat unjust aggressors, also, now spared, by preventing them from harming even more innocents and , thereby, putting their eternal lives more at risk (3&4).

    more

    http://prodpinnc.blogspot.com/2014/10/current-problems-catholic-death-penalty.html

  • Dudley Sharp

    Limited Government

    There is nothing more limited in government than the imposition of the death penalty.

    THE DEATH PENALTY: LEAST ARBITRARY & CAPRICIOUS SANCTION
    Both the guilty & the innocent have the greatest of protections
    http://prodpinnc.blogspot.com/2013/03/the-death-penalty-neither-arbitrary-nor.html

    The Death Penalty: Fair and Just
    http://prodpinnc.blogspot.com/2013/12/is-death-peanalty-fairjust.html

  • Dudley Sharp

    Tom:

    A rebuttal to your poor and minority claims.

    RACE & THE DEATH PENALTY: A REBUTTAL TO THE RACISM CLAIMS
    http://prodpinnc.blogspot.com/2012/07/rebuttal-death-penalty-racism-claims.html

    “There is no race of the offender / victim effect at either the decision to advance a case to penalty hearing or the decision to sentence a defendant to death given a penalty hearing.”

    “As blacks represent 47% of murderers and whites 37%, we see that whites are twice as likely to be executed for committing murder as are their black counterparts.”
    ======

    Is There Class Disparity with Executions?
    http://prodpinnc.blogspot.com/2013/03/is-there-class-disparity-with-executions.html

    “99.8% of poor murderers have avoided execution.

    It may be, solely, dependent upon the definition of “wealthy” and “poor”, as to whether wealthy murderers are any more or less likely to be executed than the poor, based upon the very small number and percentage of capital murders that are committed by the wealthy, as compared to the poor”

    • Tom Zampino

      They are not my claims – I noted the research and mentioned that it is hotly debated. It’s something to consider and, therefore, I appreciate your research as well

      • Dudley Sharp

        Tom:

        You repeated the claims within your article. You accepted them and presented them so that the audience would consider them. . Yes?

        One of the major problems with the Church’s newest teachings on the death penalty is that neither the Bishops, nor apparently, any other Catholic, opposed to the death penalty, fact checks anything the anti death penalty movement produces for them, nor do they consult with any pro death penalty experts — the result of which is one error filled teaching after another, with a balanced review not being presented to the flock, which undermines the truth.

        • Tom Zampino

          True, yes, I do want the audience to consider them – as I want them to now consider yours. And everyone is free to conclude as they like.

          • Dudley Sharp

            In that spirit:
            Did you fact check any of your claims prior to presenting them?

          • Tom Zampino

            My “claim” was that “there does exist an extensive body of research” – which, again, I said was “vigorously and hotly debated.” I stand by that.

          • Dudley Sharp

            Geez Tom:
            My question was quite simple. Did you fact check?

          • Tom Zampino

            Dudley: You know as well as I do that data is easily manipulated to showcase whatever “facts” one wishes to present – and my readers surely get that. I therefore specifically caveated my remarks about the research pointed to, and – with no small amount of humility – revealed in three parts my on-going struggle with this issue. If you were seeking something other than that from my piece – such as you might find in a law review article attempting to proffer evidence to “prove” a legal proposition, for instance – I can understand your disappointment and frustration.

            And, by the way, I didn’t actually bother to fact check my assertion concerning my own fallen nature either. But I have it on good authority that it exists.

          • Dudley Sharp

            Tom:
            Manipulation of data is why folks fact check.
            Clearly, you don’t fact check.
            I do.
            I used to be anti death penalty, fact checked all major anti death penalty claims and switched positions.

          • Tom Zampino

            Your persistence in missing my point is admirable.

    • Scooter Livingston

      Once again Dudley cites his own blog.

      *snore*

  • Dudley Sharp

    Tom:

    The traditional teaching of the Chuch is that the execution of the murderer is based within respect for life and the dignity of that person.

    How did 2000 years of Catholic teaching just vanish?

    Or, are we to say that the Church supported lack of dignity and rejected how precious life was for 2000 years, with Her death penalty support?

  • Dudley Sharp

    Regarding Evangelium Vitae and the CCC:

    “The most reasonable conclusion to draw from this discussion is that, once again, the Catechism is simply wrong from an historical point of view. Traditional Catholic teaching did not contain the (death penalty) restriction enunciated by Pope John Paul II” .” (5)

    “The realm of human affairs is a messy one, full of at least apparent inconsistency and incoherence, and the recent teaching of the Catholic Churh on capital punishment — vitiated, as I intend to show, by errors of historical fact and interpretation—is no exception.”(5)

    NOTE:
    This by Kevin L. Flannery S.J., Consultor of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, appointed by Saint Pope John Paul II:

    from
    http://prodpinnc.blogspot.com/2014/10/current-problems-catholic-death-penalty.html

    • Tom Zampino

      Dudley: Here’s what I propose. I understand that you are deeply involved in these issues. Feel free to reply to this post with ONE link that will direct my readers’ attention to the points you wish make and let them go there for your further insights, rather than piecemeal here. Everyone can then decide how they wish to proceed. I appreciate your thoughts and interactions.

      • Eugene Edward Yeo

        You herd them cats!

  • I’ve expressed my disagreement on this at other Patheos Catholic blogs, but here’s one more point which I think you fail to contemplate. In a world that has become more and more morally relativist, society needs something that a clear moral line, a consequence that is not wishy-washy. The death penalty serves just that.

    • Eugene Edward Yeo

      That line being that if you don’t obey the government, they’ll kill you? The Constitution of the United States does not provide for a death penalty, and the Declaration of Independence states that the right of life is God-Given.

      • I didn’t say anything about the government killing anyone. As to the constitution, then I guess you know more than the Supreme Court, who have ruled the death penalty is constitutional.

        • Eugene Edward Yeo

          The Supreme Court also ruled that Abortion is protected because of Privacy. A supreme court justice is quoted as saying that abortion is vital to this country because she didn’t think we as a nation wanted “Certain types of people to become too populous”.

          But hey, if you support the death penalty, but not the government killing people, who exactly does that task fall to?

          • Both abortion and the death penalty fall under states rights. The Supreme Court was wrong to protect it. It has so far been correct on the death penalty.

            I was referring to your strange “That line…” I did not use any line about the government. I guess you meant “that line of reasoning…” You confused me. Obviously the government has to carry out the death penalty.

      • Dudley Sharp

        No, it is the line that if you murder, you have sacrificed your right to live.

        The right to freedom is God given, as well.

        But we all know that both freedom and life can be taken away as a sanction, in response to a violation of the social contract.

        1) 2260: “For your lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning…. Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for God made man in his own image.” “This teaching remains necessary for all time.” (CCC 1995, 2003)

        This is a commandment.

        2) Saint (& Pope) Pius V, “The just use of (executions), far from involving the crime of murder, is an act of paramount obedience to this (Fifth) Commandment which prohibits murder.” “The Roman Catechism of the Council of Trent” (1566).

        “paramount obedience” What does “paramount obedience mean? It is a requirement.

        3) So much does God abominate homicide that He declares in Holy Writ that of the very beast of the field He will exact vengeance for the life of man, commanding the beast that injures man to be put to death.(1) And if (the Almighty) commanded man to have a horror of blood,’ He did so for no other reason than to impress on his mind the obligation of entirely refraining, both in act and desire, from the enormity of homicide. (1) Gn 9:5-6 (Catechism of Trent)

        4) Pope Pius XII: “When it is a question of the execution of a man condemned to death it is then reserved to the public power to deprive the condemned of the benefit of life, in expiation of his fault, when already, by his fault, he has dispossessed himself of the right to live.” 9/14/52.

        “ALREADY by (the unjust aggressor’s) fault, he has
        DISPOSSESSED himself of the right to life.”

    • Jeff

      The only thing that the death penalty serves is societies desire for revenge and a pat on the back for being tough on crime!

      • O wow. I bet you think that’s really original. I bet you think I never heard that before. *slaps forehead* Why didn’t I ever think of that?

        Here’s what I said recently, but I’ve said it better elsewhere:

        “No, a lynching is vengeance. When a body of legislators deliberate to a retribution, pass it, the executive signs the legislation, a jury of peers comes to a verdict under the guidence of a judge, then that is justice. If you think the death penalty is vengeance, then why wouldn’t life in jail be just as vengeful? Why wouldn’t 10 years in jail be just as vengenful? Why wouldn’t a day in jail be just as vengeful if the criminal apologized and said he wouldn’t do it again? He could even go to confession if that makes you happy. Let out of jail the minute they get absolved of their sins.”

  • Dudley Sharp

    Tom

    You call the four Catholic publications thoughtful in their op/ed for an end to the death penalty.

    It is only thoughtful if you reject Catholic teachings and reason.

    A look, at one of the op/ed statements:

    NCR: Archbishop Thomas Wenski, of Miami stated, “… the use of the death penalty devalues human life and diminishes respect for human dignity. We bishops continue to say, we cannot teach killing is wrong by killing.”

    Sharp reply: For about 2000 years the Church has taught that the death penalty is based upon the value of innocent life and an abiding respect for the dignity of man.

    What the Archbishop is, now saying, is that for 2000 years the Church supported that which devalued human life and that which diminished respect for human dignity, a claim which no knowledgeable Catholic can or should accept.

    The Archbishop is just repeating standard anti death penalty nonsense which has no respect for Catholic teachings and tradition.

    One wonders – why he raises false anti death penalty teachings above Catholic teachings, a common problem for all the bishops.

    The Archbishop states: “We bishops continue to say, we cannot teach killing is wrong by killing.”

    Sadly, they do.

    The Archbishop is just repeating, again, common anti death penalty nonsense.

    We all know that murder is wrong, even if there is no sanction.

    The Bishops are unaware that sanction doesn’t teach that murder is wrong – it is Church morality and tradition, as well as clear biblical texts that teach murder is wrong, as does reason — not sanction.

    Sanction is the outcome of that moral teaching. Those are the rational and traditional teachings, which, somehow, the Archbishop has discarded and replaced with this anti death penalty nonsense. How and why?

    Execution of murderers has never been declared immoral by the Church and never will be. The foundation for the death penalty is justice, just as with all sanctions for all crimes.

  • Jasper

    I wonder if these same Catholic publications will call for an end to legalized abortion and homosexual marriage?

    • Dudley Sharp

      They have, I believe.

      • Jasper

        Oh I didn’t know. Maybe you can show me a link…

  • Tom Zampino
  • Elijah fan

    By seeking abolition, the last three Popes have dissented from their own catechism ccc 2267 which had to go with rare use …not no use …because orherwise they would have blatantly contradicted Romans 13:4 within a catechism inter alia. It’s a train wreck moment in Catholic intellectual life. And the two largest Catholic countries, Brazil and Mexico have no death penalty, prisons that are very shaky unlike the imaginary ones of the catechism and murder rates by UN figures that are over twenty times that of China.