States of Death

States of Death September 21, 2011

While the imminent execution of Troy Davis by the State of Georgia has gained worldwide attention and generated a firestorm of protest, he isn’t the only American facing capital “justice” tonight. In Texas, Lawrence Russell Brewer is scheduled to receive what Michelle Bachmann calls a “government injection” sometime after 6:00 pm. Only this one will truly be lethal.

Brewer was convicted along with two of his white supremacist pals of lynching James Byrd Jr., a black man, in 1998. You remember the case: Byrd accepted a ride from the men, one of whom he recognized. But instead of being taken home, he was driven to a remote location, beaten, urinated on, then chained to the back of a pick-up truck and dragged over an asphalt road until his body literally came apart. The murderers then dumped his torso in front of an African-American cemetery. So horrific was the crime that even Texas Governor Rick Perry was forced to sign into law the James Byrd Jr. Act, which strengthened penalties for hate crimes in Texas. Brewer and his friends, Sean Berry and John King, were convicted. Berry got life. King and Brewer got the needle. Brewer goes first tonight.

From his Georgia death row cell, Troy Davis has managed to convince half the world, if not the Georgia Clemency Board, that he was wrongly convicted, and he may well have been. But no one thinks Lawrence Brewer was wrongly convicted. By the lethal logic of capital punishment, Lawrence Russell Brewer deserves every ounce of the ‘Jesus Juice’ he’ll receive sometime this evening. Such luminaries as Jimmy Carter, Pope Benedict XVI, and Kim Kardashian have joined in calling for Troy Davis to be spared, but considering the nature of Lawrence Brewer’s crime, and in light of the scant national coverage his impending execution has received, one might think that no one is standing up for him.

But in fact someone is pleading for clemency on Brewer’s behalf. Ross Byrd, James Byrd Jr.’s son, who says, “You can’t fight murder with murder.” Martin Luther King III is asking for mercy, too, as is Dick Gregory, the civil rights activist, who will be holding a vigil in Huntsville, outside the prison where Brewer is scheduled to be put to death. Unlike those who cheered capital punishment during a recent Republican presidential debate, these men see the organic connection between the act of senseless violence that occurred on a rural road in Jasper, Texas, and the act of bureaucratic violence that will take place tonight. Gregory, Byrd and King know the Culture of Death when they see it, and this is it.

“I hope they will stand back and look at it before they go down that road of hate,” said Ross Byrd in a recent interview. “Like Ghandi said, an eye for an eye, and the whole world will go blind.”

UPDATE: Both Davis and Brewer were put to death this evening. May God have mercy on them, their victims, and the nation that put them to death.

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  • brettsalkeld

    Humans kill one another with remarkable regularity. We are natural born killers. But the institutionalization of our murderous ways highlights the tragedy of our sinful condition in a way that almost nothing else does. It is no coincidence that it was through this brutality that God chose to reveal to us who we really are.

    • Mark Gordon

      As Girard has shown, the institutionalization of violence is at the heart of all sinful human culture. And just as sin took advantage of the law in order to awaken sin in St. Paul (Romans 7), sin takes advantage of the gospel in us by justifying the victimization of victimizers. Look at all our violence, from war and capital punishment to abortion. We have to twist our consciences into weird forms of moral outrage in order to get it done. That is sin taking advantage of the gospel, and it’s no accident that the American states most committed to bureaucratized killing in the name of life and justice are those that are the most noisily “Christian.”

      • Michael

        And here WE are Mark, in a “civilized and progressive” CT where a horrific home invasion multiple murder trial phase two is now underway. The cry for the blood of perpetrators is just as strong, but a bit more “refined” here. Here a (by all appearance) civilized doctor, taker of the Hippocratic oath, but father of the triple victims publicly campaigns for the perp’s death by injection, and in fact PERSONALLY campaigned and successfully prevented the repeal of state sanction death in the legislature here last year. Maybe the Christians need to be more noisy here. Oremus.

      • Mark Gordon

        As a matter of fact, Michael, I’m just over the state line, in Rhode Island, where I’m proud to say we abolished the death penalty in 1854. Our last execution was in 1845, when a certain John Gordon (no relation), an Irish Catholic immigrant, was wrongly convicted and executed for the murder of Amasa Sprague, a mill owner and member of a prominent Yankee family. Jurors were instructed to give greater weight to Yankee witnesses than Irish ones. Gordon received a pardon in June of this year. For 166 years, the people of Rhode Island, haven’t believed it is necessary to punish killing with killing. And we have a far lower murder rate than either Texas or South Carolina.

  • Ronald King

    May God Bless this world of haters.

  • Mark:

    Thank you for posting this. It is a sad day if anyone in the US is executed, and even VN doesn’t notice. The one comment which shows up in Google News expresses what I think is the “standard” US attitude toward executions: Bad, if we aren’t sure the convict is guilty, but acceptable if we’re “sure” he’s guilty.

    http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/editorial_opinion/blogs/the_angle/2011/09/a_tale_of_two_e.html

    At least we have a substantial fraction of the population willing to put the brakes on executions when they threaten to execute an innocent person. But it seems disturbingly difficult to move attitudes any further, even among the most “enlightened” people among us.

  • Ross Byrd’s stand is astonishing, and the world is a better place for it.

    • David Elton

      Yes, Ross Byrd’s stand is astonishing. It is astonishingly perverse. If anyone deserves the death penalty, this man Brewer does. I’ve heard of “cheap grace”. Now we have “cheap forgiveness”. Let justice roll like a river, and may God have mercy on Brewer’s soul.

      • Cheap forgiveness, eh? I’d say real forgiveness is found in forgiving the unforgivable.

      • Mark Gordon

        “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ To the contrary, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” -Romans 12: 19-21

      • Blackadder

        Kyle,

        If you think Brewer should be forgiven, does that mean you think he should have been let out of prison? If not, then presumably you’d agree whether he should be forgiven and whether he should be spared punishment are two separate questions.

      • Blackadder has a point I agree with: Our modern vocabulary does not effectively distinguish “forgiveness” in the Byrd family’s sense of healing and letting go the desire for retribution, from “forgiveness” in the sense of just forgetting that the perpetrator committed a crime. It’s as if too many among us have lost faith in healing. And so, desperate for some state which at least looks and superficially feels like healing, we (1) forget about healing entirely and fry-the-bastard in hopes that will somehow make things better, or we (2) pretend we can heal by acting as if the offender didn’t really commit a crime at all, or that forces beyond the perpetrator caused the crime.

        The ability to accept the brutality of our our own human nature and distinguish “capital punishment” from “appropriate punishment” for crimes which really get under most peoples’ skin (like that of Brewer and friends) seems to be fading quickly as well.

        “An eye for an eye” leads the world to more than just physical blindness.

      • Michael

        Cheap forgiveness!!!??? Cheap forgiveness can only come from someone who has no personal stake or connection. I cannot forgive this man in any this man in any meaningful sense fo the word. Its just not part of the reality. “Father forgive them…” could only have come from the victim himself..or the the victims beloved…and no one else. The further removed the more meaningless and cheap its is. But this forgiveness, by the son himself is ANYTHING BUT cheap.

    • Blackadder,

      Forgiveness doesn’t mean sparing one from the consequences of an action. Otherwise, we couldn’t very well make sense of purgatory, could we?

      • Mark Gordon

        And “consequences” administered by the state must be in accordance with the dignity of persons, including the offender’s: “If bloodless means are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons, public authority must limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.” (CCC 2266).

      • Blackadder

        Kyle,

        Exactly my point.

        Mark,

        Before a death sentence can be handed down in Texas, the jury has to specifically conclude that the defendant would pose a “continuing threat to society” absent capital punishment.

      • Pinky

        Mark, if public safety is part of the grounds for capital punishment, I think that’d make Brewer a better candidate for leniency than Davis. Davis shot into a car, beat a homeless man, and killed the security guard who tried to stop him. That shows a disregard for societal order. If I were a governor I’d be more worried about the safety of guards and prisoners around Davis.

      • Mark Gordon

        Blackadder,

        The notion that the State of Texas couldn’t keep an incarcerated Lawrence Brewer from endangering the public safety is ludicrous. He was in prison for 13 years and the public was never in danger. Brewer got the death penalty not because jurors honestly believed that the Texas prison system couldn’t contain him, but because his crime was horrific, motivated by hate, and because he showed absolutely no remorse. If I had been on that jury and seen that evidence, I might have joined them (God help me), but that would have been wrong.

        Pinky,

        Davis had never been in trouble with the law before the night he was arrested, and during his 22 years in prison he was a model inmate. There is also no statistical correlation that I can find between the crime for which an inmate was convicted and his likelihood of attacking other prisoners and guards. A rapist, armed robber, or drug dealer is as likely to be a disciplinary problem as a murderer. So, what do you want to do? Kill ’em all?

        Corrections officers volunteer for a nasty, dangerous but necessary job, and they generally do it very well; so well, in fact, that the American penal system easily meets the test established by Pope John Paul II, when he wrote in Evangelium Vitae, “It is clear that … the nature and extent of the punishment must be carefully evaluated and decided upon, and ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Today however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent.”

      • Blackadder

        Mark,

        Prior to 2005 Texas did not have life without parole as a sentencing option, so absent a death sentence, there would be no guarantee that a defendant will not be released. This isn’t just hypothetical. Kenneth McDuff, for example, had his death sentence commuted after the Supreme Court briefly declared the death penalty unconstitutional in the 1970s. He ended up being released and tortured and killed several women before being caught and again sentenced to death (this time it was carried out).

        In addition, I would note that quite a few murders do occur in prison, which is also a part of society, even if an often ignored one.

        Granted, juries don’t have crystal balls that allow them to see with certainty what a defendant will do if he doesn’t receive a death sentence. They have to make a judgment based on the character of his past actions. Another way to deal with the issue would be to provide for a mandatory death sentence for anyone who commits murder while in prison. Is that something you would support?

      • Blackadder

        Mark,

        One other thing that I would add is that death row inmates have a special incentive to behave themselves while in prison because they do not want to do anything to jeopardize a possible commutation and/or successful appeal of their sentence.

      • Mark Gordon

        Blackadder,

        One can always cite exceptions, but they only serve to prove the rule. Most murderers released on parole do not murder again, but you would kill them all prospectively on the basis of the few who do. I am perfectly comfortable with the sentence of life without possibility of parole. And I might even reluctantly agree to the imposition of the death penalty for someone who commits murder while in prison because it could conceivably fit the Church’s extremely narrow license. But that wasn’t the issue in either the Brewer or Davis cases. So, I’ve quoted the Catechism to you. I’ve quoted Pope John Paul II. Please make a Catholic case for the killings of Brewer and Davis, or else just admit that your defense is rooted in your political ideology.

      • Blackadder

        Most murderers released on parole do not murder again, but you would kill them all prospectively on the basis of the few who do.

        That’s not what I said, nor is it what I believe. You should be more careful about jumping to conclusions and ascribing beliefs to people that they may in fact not hold.

        I am perfectly comfortable with the sentence of life without possibility of parole.

        Great! So am I. However, as I noted previously, this was not an option for juries in Texas considering a death sentence prior to 2005, and it is still not an option in terms of possible commutation for death row inmates in Texas sentenced prior to 2005 (Btw, the number of death sentences handed out in Texas has fallen 40% since life without parole was adopted).

        It’s true that even without life without parole, not every murderer will end up getting released and go on to commit more serious crimes. This raises the question: how likely does it have to be that a murderer will kill again absent a sentence of death before it is acceptable to execute them? I don’t believe this is an issue that is addressed in the Catechism, or in JPII’s statements, but perhaps you have some thoughts?

        Please make a Catholic case for the killings of Brewer and Davis, or else just admit that your defense is rooted in your political ideology.

        At the risk of sounding nit-picky, where have I defended the executions of Brewer and Davis? Everything I’ve said on this thread could be said by someone who is against capital punishment.

        I will say this. There are approximately 15,000 murders committed in the United States every year. Last year there were 46 executions. That’s about 3/10th of one percent. If all we did was execute people who commit murder while in prison (which you say you might reluctantly agree to) we would execute more people than we do now. Executions in this country are, in fact, very rare. That’s not to say that all, or most, or even any of them meet the criteria set out in the Catechism. But strictly as a matter of numbers we fall within the range set out in the Catechism.

      • Pinky

        Mark – A Catohlic case for the executions? If such a thing is possible, I think I made it. While I’m happy that Davis didn’t kill anyone else while in prison, the viciousness of his crimes makes me question whether anyone should be put at risk by being around him. Public safety includes the safety of prisoners and guards.

  • Mark Gordon

    As of this hour, one down, one to go. Eyes that cannot see, ears that cannot hear.

  • digbydolben

    ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’

    And it’s going to be “repaid”–horrendously “repaid,” in the next few decades, upon the heads of the people of the United States of America, and it’s that premonition of mine that has led me to expatriate myself permanently from the United States of America, the “sacrament” of whose Fundamentalist, barbaric form of Christianity is your sacred and holy “capital punishment.”

    Look, even Tsarist Russia, also a pseudo-Christian society, gulped at legalized murder–even for assassins of their Tsars.

    Years agol, when I was considering only the effect upon the condemned and his family, I criticized capital punishment because I thought it foreclosed the possibility of “repentance,” but a Calvinist objected to my position, saying that an innocent would be welcomed into Paradise and a guilty one would be moved by God’s grace to repent before the, in this case, beneficent stress of foreseeing his own death, if he ever would have been thusly moved, during the course of what would have been his natural life.

    I still felt instinctively that there was something spiritually degenerate about legalized murder by the State, but I couldn’t put my finger on it until I remembered something from my earliest childhood: I am one quarter Jewish by descent and I vaguely remember the trial of Eichmann in Jerusalem. It was followed avidly by my Jewish relatives in New York City, where I spent every summer of my childhood. After I came home from there one summer, Eichmann was hanged by the Zionists for his crimes. I was fascinated, and I spent the whole of the day it was announced building little scaffolds and hanging my toy soldiers. At the end of the day I felt sick and nervously exhausted with all the hatred that had seeped into my little body. Thinking about that day, I realized that the truly disastrous moral and spiritual effect of capital punishment is NOT upon the gulity victim, but upon the “survivors,” including the ostensibly uninvolved public in whose name the punishment is inflicted. I knew, from its effect on my own nerve endings, that whatever they said, the murder victim’s family were not feeling “closure,” but, rather, vindication of their desire for vengeance and legitimization of their hatred for the criminal.

    As a spiritual person, I actually believe in “retributive justice”–all the way up to capital punishment, but not including it. I share the belief of some Christians that the notion of “rehabilitation” is an atheistic and thoroughly secularist one, and that the “dignity” of even the murderer’s existential choices and determination cries out for “retributive justice.” So let the criminal spend the rest of his life making furniture–or, much better, doing public penance, at the behest and convenience of the victim’s family, whenever there’s an occasion of loss and regret for their loved one’s absence; let him show up in an orange jump suit and stand there, in public shame–but DO NOT allow “twelve men, good and true” to usurp the place of God, and proclaim that they, mere humans, can take a step that is absolutely irretrievable, and end life. In some sense, such a decision is reached in exactly the same prideful, science-worshipping, atheistic spirit as that of the “parole board” who presume to decide that someone is “rehabilitated,” when the criminal himself, as Dostoevsky proves in his novels, knows that his deepest spiritual nature cries out for the recognition and the dignity that only justly-earned punishment can bring. He HAS to know that he and his actions are significant, deserving of notice, deserving of the world’s attention.

    However, for a supposedly “democratic state”–a MOLOCH-state, in my opinion, a “culture of death”– to kill in MY name, when I don’t want it to do such killing, makes ME an accessory to legalized murder, and I won’t be–not any more!

  • brettsalkeld

    “If anyone deserves the death penalty, this man Brewer does.”

    Agreed. And thank God Christianity is not about getting what we deserve. I am a sinful man.

    • Michael

      Amen. Happily, a greater grace prevails.

  • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

    “I’ve heard of “cheap grace”. Now we have “cheap forgiveness”.

    Ross Byrd, a black man living in Texas, forgiving a white man for lynching his father is “cheap forgiveness”? On the contrary, this is radical grace which puts me to shame. I stand in awe of his ability to transcend our culture of violence and embrace the cross in all its dimensions. I pray that I can likewise choose such a crown.

    • Mark Gordon

      Amen.

    • brettsalkeld

      Ross Byrd is very Christ like. “Father forgive them, they know not what they do.” Nothing cheap about that.

    • David Elton

      Since you don’t know Ross Byrd personally, perhaps you are projecting your own lofty religious feelings onto this man. I would prefer to deal with the crime itself and its just punishment, rather than with anyone’s interior psychological states – yours, mine or Ross Byrd’s.

      • Mark Gordon

        Your own interior spiritual state comes shining through, David. You’re the one who called Byrd’s plea for clemency “cheap forgiveness,” which presumes that you know something about his interior disposition. But let’s put our cards on the table, shall we? I suspect you believe forgiveness itself – cheap, expensive or otherwise – is a crock of shit. That about right?

      • Blackadder

        Mark,

        Should you really be judging another man’s interior spiritual state based on a comment he made on the internet?

      • Mark Gordon

        Just giving ol’ Dan a taste of his own medicine. Not judging him. His words themselves speak for themselves.

        Upon reflection, my words toward Dan were too harsh. Thank you for calling me on it, Blackadder. I apologize to Dan and ask his forgiveness. I’ll also be adding it to the usual lengthy list at confession in about an hour.

  • Paul DuBois

    The only justification for allowing our government to select individuals and punish them is to protect us and allow us to keep our stuff. We have no right to justice, nor have we ever shown a capacity to understand or execute justice. We do, however, have a right to protect ourselves and keep our stuff.

    The death penalty has never been shown to deter crime, and there is no evidence that we can administer it justly. Reparations can be made for other punishments that are unjustly administered, but reparations for the death penalty are not possible. It would seem to me that for a penalty as severe as death, with no possibility of correcting an error, that overwhelming evidence of both its effectiveness in protecting us and the ability to fairly administer it should be available before it is used. Without such evidence, this penalty is only revenge.

    • Mark Gordon

      I find it oddly counterintuitive that the same people who constantly deride government are the very people who want to turn over the keys of life and death to the politicians, political appointees, and bureaucrats who make up most state governments. As noted above, my home state, Rhode Island, abolished the death penalty in 1854. Most people I know couldn’t imagine restoring that kind of power to the mountebanks and hacks who make up our legislative and judicial branches.

      • Paul DuBois

        Michigan, where I live, abolished the death penalty as part of its constitution when becoming a state. It was the first engish speaking government to do so. They took the move because of the hanging of an innocent man.

      • Mark Gordon

        It’s an old story, Paul. As recounted earlier in this thread, Rhode Island abolished the death penalty after the very questionable conviction and execution of an Irish Catholic immigrant, John Gordon, who was accused in the murder of a prominent Yankee scion. But now we have the spectacle of the Governor of Texas proudly declaring that he never reflects on the possibility that someone he’s put to death may have been innocent. It’s a peculiar form of moral devolution.

      • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

        Wisconsin followed Michigan by a couple of years. Our state constitution allowed it, but the first execution after statehood turned into such a public spectacle that the Assembly and governor moved very quickly to amend the constitution.

      • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

        Mark,

        several prominent conservatives who oppose the death penalty make exactly this argument. I have heard it put this way: “we don’t trust the state to run the DMV, why should we trust them to kill people?”

      • Blackadder

        I find it oddly counterintuitive that the same people who constantly deride government are the very people who want to turn over the keys of life and death to the politicians, political appointees, and bureaucrats who make up most state governments.

        I confess that I don’t really get this argument (which seems to be a common one today). It would be one thing if people argued that the government was incompetent to run the prison system, or the criminal justice system generally. But people who oppose the death penalty generally aren’t arguing for that. They want to keep the government run prison and justice systems, just without capital punishment. That is like arguing that the government is not competent to handle health care, so we should keep Medicare but just not cover open-heart surgery.

      • Mark Gordon

        So-called conservatives are the ones who argue the incompetence of government. I don’t. In fact, I think the efficiency of the death machine in Texas is a model of competence. But unlike “conservatives,” I’m for limited government. I don’t think government should be in the killing business. You apparently do, which makes your notion of government vastly more expansive than mine.

      • Blackadder

        I don’t think government should be in the killing business.

        Do you think the government should have an army?

      • Mark Gordon

        Yes. I believe the United States should have a standing army sufficient to repel an attack by a foreign power. That is the historic, conservative American position on the military. Defense is a legitimate function of government, but neither the war in Iraq nor the killing of Lawrence Brewer was an exercise of legitimate defense. Both were offensive operations against opponents who represented no threat whatsoever.

      • Blackadder

        Mark,

        Okay, but once you accept the legitimacy of the government having an army, you have given them the keys of life and death. Governments have killed far more people with armies than they have via execution. Heck, more innocent people have been killed in the war in Afghanistan than have been executed in the U.S. period.

    • Blackadder

      Paul,

      There have been a number of studies showing a strong deterrent effect from capital punishment. My source is the New York Times:

      http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/18/us/18deter.html?pagewanted=all

      I would add that, intuitively, the idea that the threat of execution would not have a deterrent effect has long struck me as being highly implausible.

      • Paul DuBois

        Having gone to the link and read the article, it is hardly conclusive and certainly not overwhelming evidence. There seem to be conflicting studies and the need to do considerable correcting of the data to draw the deterrent effect you suggest.

      • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

        Yes, there is a group of economists (econometrists to be precise), who find a deterrent effect. There is another group, at least as large, that do not find a deterrent effect. Sociologists, who study deterrence using other methods, give no credence to econometric studies. A good discussion of their flaws can be found in the article “Capital Punishment and Homicide” in The Skeptical Inquirer:

        http://www.csicop.org/si/show/capital_punishment_and_homicide_sociological_realities_and_econometric_illu

        Capital punishment might be a deterrent were all murders to be perfectly rational beings. Since most murderers are not, and in fact may have their reason impaired by any number of factors, I am not surprised that they do not take into account the death penalty.

      • Blackadder

        Paul,

        Why do you think there needs to be overwhelming evidence in favor of a an intuitive result? Do you apply that standard across the board, or just for conclusions you don’t want to accept?

      • Blackadder

        Capital punishment might be a deterrent were all murders to be perfectly rational beings.

        Actually, for the death penalty to have a deterrent effect, it’s only necessary for some murderers to be somewhat rational.

        Here’s a little thought experiment: suppose a state were to say that anyone committing murder on a Tuesday would be executed, but people committing murders on other days of the week would get life imprisonment. What do you think would happen to the murder rate on Tuesdays?

        I will look at the Skeptical Inquirer article when I get a chance (I am curious as to why a magazine dedicated to debunking the paranormal is reviewing empirical work on the death penalty; perhaps they are short on material).

      • Michael

        Even if it state sanctioned killing were conclusively proven to be a deterrent one, seemingly, could make the argument that it was still not permissable. Something bad cannot be done so that good may come if it. (a phrase familar to anyone steeped in Catholic moral theology). The ACT itself has to have inherent moral integrity. Otherwise we are on the slippery slope of proportionalism and relativistic thinking. Don’t see how the deliberate taking of a life gets there,when there is recourse for “self defense” otherwise, which is the thought behind JPII’s amendment to the 2nd edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

      • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

        Then why did the beltway sniper drive across country from Washington State, which has a death penalty that is almost never used, to Virginia, which has one of the most active death rows in the nation? And why didn’t he stop in Montana, Wisconsin, or Michigan, none of which have the death penalty?

      • Paul DuBois

        BA, when the action is the killing of another human, the standard is much higher. Imprisoning someone who is innocent or as an ineffective tool (say a debtors prison) can be corrected at a later date and reparations can be made. Killing someone can not be corrected and reparations cannot be made.

        And yes, when it comes to most things that cannot be shown to have a benefit I believe they should be changed or eliminated. Again the level of proof of benefit required for buying a new car is and should be lower than the level of proof required for killing someone.

      • Blackadder

        Michael,

        You say: Even if it state sanctioned killing were conclusively proven to be a deterrent one, seemingly, could make the argument that it was still not permissable. Something bad cannot be done so that good may come if it. (a phrase familar to anyone steeped in Catholic moral theology). The ACT itself has to have inherent moral integrity.

        That’s right, but according to Catholic moral theology the act of executing a guilty person is not bad in itself. It is only where there are bloodless means of achieving the same end (protecting life) that it is wrong. If the death penalty does save lives by deterring other murders, then arguably bloodless means would not be sufficient.

      • Blackadder

        David,

        You ask: Then why did the beltway sniper drive across country from Washington State, which has a death penalty that is almost never used, to Virginia, which has one of the most active death rows in the nation?

        Because the people he wanted to kill where in Virginia, not in Washington State.

        For a deterrent effect to exist, it is not necessary for it to deter completely. It just has to deter sometimes. If the government said it would execute people who committed murder on Tuesdays but not people who committed murder on other days, there would still be murders committed on Tuesdays. It’s just that they would be a lot less frequent than murders committed on other days.

        Do you not agree?

      • Blackadder

        Paul,

        You say: BA, when the action is the killing of another human, the standard is much higher.

        This is a good reason to make sure that the people we are executing are really guilty, but I don’t see how it bears on the question of deterrence. The lives saved (if any) by a deterrent effect are just as valuable as the lives lost through execution.

  • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

    Blackadder writes:

    “In addition, I would note that quite a few murders do occur in prison, which is also a part of society, even if an often ignored one. ”

    In 2002 (the last year for which I could find statistics) the murder rate in state prisons was 4 per 100,000. The corresponding murder rate for the entire United States was 6 per 100,000. Therefore, on one level, homicide in prison is less of a problem than in society at large. Of these, there is no evidence that I am aware of that murders in prison are more likely committed by people incarcerated for murder. I have been told (but cannot find empirical studies confirming) that “lifers” tend to be less violent and over-all better prisoners than those serving shorter terms.

    Corrections officials (such as Mary Morgan Wolff, a former warden here in CT) have testified that they do not need the death penalty to keep order in prison. Adequate staffing, reduction in overcrowding and appropriate disciplinary measures are more appropriate tools, in their view, for keeping order in prison.

    • Blackadder

      In 2002 (the last year for which I could find statistics) the murder rate in state prisons was 4 per 100,000. The corresponding murder rate for the entire United States was 6 per 100,000. Therefore, on one level, homicide in prison is less of a problem than in society at large.

      But if someone not in prison commits murder, you can put him in prison. If someone is already in prison and commits murder, there’s not much more you can do about it.

      I have been told (but cannot find empirical studies confirming) that “lifers” tend to be less violent and over-all better prisoners than those serving shorter terms.

      My guess is that, if true, this is primarily an age effect.

      • Mark Gordon

        Blackadder, you are progressively (sic) painting yourself into a very tiny corner.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Blackadder: there are many gradations of punishment even in prison: the most obvious are the degrees of freedom and opportunity allowed to a prisoner (low, medium or high security, super-max, solitary confinement, etc.) These can be effectively used to punish those who commit murder in prison and keep guards and fellow inmates safe from them. Again, we come back to the Catechism: if non-violent alternatives are available……

      • Blackadder

        David,

        It’s true that there are gradations of punishment even in prison. But unless one is prepared to be cruel (and I hope we are not) they are limited.

      • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

        Those gradations may seem limited to you or me, but if we were serving hard time, the difference between super-max confinement (23 hours a day in a cell with no other human contact) and even maximum security would be a major incentive, I think, to play nice. (Though, for the record, I find super-max confinement to be horrific and over-used. it should be reserved for the handful of sociopaths who truly cannot be in the general population.)

  • This may seem counterintuitive in respect to the general support for the death penalty, but I suspect that there is the dynamic of ‘individualism’ at play here. Most people are detached from the direct effect of the crime and therefore feel that the victim or their survivors should have the greatest voice when a crime is commited. Most of the time this results with a cry for vengence from a place of deep pain. People naturally assume that if they were confronted with such a loss that they would be seething in anger, and expect others to show support and sympathy by letting them have their way. Ross Byrd is the notable exception.

    This exaltation of ‘the autonomy of the individual’ over the ‘common good’ really causes havoc with our ability to see this issue more clearly and reflect on the Church’s teaching more docily. Americans in particular, focus on their own imagined grief in such a loss and therefore, either stand silent or project their personal outrage into the hands of the executioner.

    I remember a death penalty ‘discussion’ as a young man in which my mother was confronted with…“If someone killed your only son, wouldn’t you want that person put to death?” To which she responded…“I probably would, but I would hope that those around me would keep me from having my way” What wisdom…God rest her soul.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Tausign,

      indeed, in the experience of the anti-DP movement, victim’s family members who oppose the death penalty are marginalized if not invisible to the legal system. One Catholic mother, whose daughter was brutally raped and murdered, when she told the DA she opposed the death penalty for the killer, was asked, “Don’t you love your daughter?” DA’s will routinely say, “I am seeking the DP for the family.” And in Kansas, it reached the absurd low that victim’s family members could not claim benefits due them if they did not support the death penalty.

      Nevertheless, there are many such family members who oppose the death penalty. Many have come to their position after a long journey of wrestling with the feelings and their initial support for the death penalty. Bud Welch, whose daughter was murdered in the OK City bombing, describes how he only found peace when he stopped clinging to the death penalty for McVeigh. He spent the day of McVeigh’s execution sitting with McVeigh’s father. The story of Bob Curley of MA, who went from vocal supporter of the DP to vocal abolitionist, is told here:

      http://www.wbur.org/2009/06/23/the-ride

  • Blackadder

    Tausign,

    Given that in this case the public supported execution while the victim’s family did not, I would say that, yes, your point is counter-intuitive.

    • Blackadder,

      Let’s leave Mr. Byrd aside for the moment and let me try to restate my thought.

      Who does the criminal justice system serve? Is it the individual victim or the society at large? My understanding is that it serves the society at large which is best referred to as the ‘common good’. We create an administrative system of justice that takes the workings of justice out of the hands of the victim (or supporters of the victim) for this very reason.

      My counterintuitive point is that in regards to the general support of the death penalty, we sum our personal feelings of outrage and vengeance into an aggregate and call that the ‘common good’. In fact, what serves the ‘common good’ is remaining somewhat detached (neither harsh or lenient) in administering justice. My concern is that the public has given over the justice system to a system that serves the collective outrage of individuals rather than a system that fosters the true common good.

    • Blackadder

      Who does the criminal justice system serve? Is it the individual victim or the society at large? My understanding is that it serves the society at large which is best referred to as the ‘common good’.

      I agree.

      In fact, what serves the ‘common good’ is remaining somewhat detached (neither harsh or lenient) in administering justice.

      I agree with this as well. If we let the victim’s family decide the sentence, capital punishment would be a lot more frequent than it is. For a death sentence to be imposed and carried out, dozens of people representing society must sign off on it (prosecutors and judges and juries and governors and parole boards and so forth). In the vast majority of cases the decision is made that capital punishment does not serve the common good, even if the victim’s family feels differently. But in a few cases these people decide that capital punishment does serve the common good, even if the victim’s family feels differently. They could be wrong about that, but I don’t think the problem is that they are deferring to the family’s wishes.

  • “mercy constitutes the fundamental content of the messianic message of Christ and the constitutive power of His mission” (JPII, Rich in Mercy).

    “love is not a fleeting emotion, but an intense and enduring moral force which seeks the good of others, even at the cost of self-sacrifice.” (JPII, World Day of Peace Message 1994).

  • The Pachyderminator

    That Ghandi bromide about an eye for an eye leaving the whole world blind has done a great deal to obscure the issue, and Catholics need to be more careful about appropriating for themselves criticisms of God’s commandments that were made by a non-Christian. One reason the death penalty has been so widely practiced in history is that it works, or at least has often worked. It prevents a self-perpetuating cycle of vendetta and thereby limits violence. The Christian objection to it is moral and spiritual, NOT practical. (There is a non-Christian objection too, as David pointed out, regarding the incompetence and/or corruption of our criminal justice system, which would be pretty compelling all by itself.) To say otherwise is to twist the radicality of the gospel of love into a matter of convenience.

    The death penalty, furthermore, is NOT murder and should not be called such. It is an exercise of the state’s right and duty to mete out punishments commensurate with the crime committed. Catholic teaching now tells us what Catholic theology has long suggested, that this duty must be tempered by another duty of mercy towards human life, the taking of which is always a serious matter even when deserved and should be avoided when that can be done while still punishing criminals and protecting society. That doesn’t mean it’s okay to use sloppy language that refuses to make crucial distinctions such as that between innocent and guilty or between an act by an individual and the legitimate authority of the state.

    If use of this falsely inflammatory rhetoric was stopped, would that help or hurt the cause of life in practical terms? I don’t know. My objection to it is moral and spiritual.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      “Catholics need to be more careful about appropriating for themselves criticisms of God’s commandments that were made by a non-Christian.”

      Ever since Jesus went to town on it, I figured it was fair game.

    • The Pachyderminator

      Jesus’ remarks on it were very different from Gandhi’s. Jesus said that justice must be complemented and perhaps supplanted by mercy, but he didn’t try to debunk the idea of justice itself.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      I think this is a very weak reading of the passage, which clearly (to me anyway) is repudiating the notion of an “eye for an eye” justice. This does not mean he is repudiating justice, but is giving us a radical new definition. Gandhi’s comment seems consonant with Jesus’ intent.

    • Mark Gordon

      Please make this distinction between the “spiritual/moral” and the “practical” in the case of abortion. If the killing of a defenseless human being is an exercise of legitimate state authority, is the killing of a defenseless fetus a legitimate exercise of personal autonomy by a woman?

    • The Pachyderminator

      The crucial distinction is not the defenselessness of the victim, but his guilt or innocence. My objection to abortion is not practical either. Yes, there are many negative effects on a society that allows abortion, but if we base our argument on those we get bogged down in statistics and sociology and we could go on about those all day with no progress. “Pro-choice” people are just as eager to argue this way and probably just as good at it. For example, a poor single mother struggling to support herself will receive plenty of “practical” arguments from abortion supporters. If she is struggling with the morality of the act, which she probably is, they will brush that struggle aside. We should serve her better than that. The act, aside from its consequences, is horrible in itself. Then, of course, there is its effect on her personally, which is more intimately connected to the act than the effect on society at large. Any practical arguments we want to make should take the form of practical, tangible help.

  • This type of stuff–including the 4000 abortions every day in this country–makes me want to fast and pray.

    • Mark Gordon

      Strange how some people don’t see the connection.

  • I have a new motto.

    What kills you makes you stronger.

  • Well, oops. My quote might come across the wrong way considering the topic of this thread. But perhaps there is hope to be found, then, in knowing that God’s love for the men executed transcends the evil that has been done to them.

  • digbydolben

    The Christian objection to it is moral and spiritual, NOT practical.

    This is profoundly, deeply untrue because what is “moral and spiritual” is what is MOST “practical.”

    “Most practical” because acts like the legalized murder by a collective called “the State” is more likely to generate the most evil karma than is an isolated act of violence. Moreover, the Founder of the Christian religion seems to have recognised this when He repealed “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” with “Turn the other cheek.”

  • At the vigil last night outside the Georgia state capitol, Rev. Ed Loring from the Open Door Community (Atlanta’s Protestant-run Catholic Worker House) offered the best explanation I’ve heard for the state’s relentless determination to execute a man who might well have been innocent. At the time, helicopters were circling over our heads, and squads of state troopers were patrolling what was a very peaceful gathering of mostly young people. At the prison itself, where a slightly larger vigil was occurring, the show of force was even greater, with troopers in full riot gear. “They want to show us that they can kill black people and poor people whenever they please, and we can’t do a damn thing to stop them,” Loring shouted. “They have the power!” He went on to explain, of course, that a different sort of power ought to flow from the moral courage of those who opposed this legal lynching, but I am not so sure the message got through. Earlier today I worked at our church lunch for poor and black people–some of whom had been at the Troy Davis vigils the evening before–and they did not look as if they felt one bit empowered.

    • Blackadder

      “They want to show us that they can kill black people and poor people whenever they please, and we can’t do a damn thing to stop them,”

      Oh good grief. I’m sure this was precisely what the seven black members of the jury were thinking.

      • Mark Gordon

        Yeah, that was a little over the top.

  • The Pachyderminator

    digbydolben:

    This is profoundly, deeply untrue because what is “moral and spiritual” is what is MOST “practical.”

    “Most practical” because acts like the legalized murder by a collective called “the State” is more likely to generate the most evil karma than is an isolated act of violence.

    By “karma” I assume you’re referring to the effect of executions on the public and the consequences that will have for society. One can reasonably argue this, but it’s not self-evident. (If you think it is, try replacing the term “legalized murder” with something more accurate and neutrally descriptive and “a collective called the State” with St. Paul’s term “God’s servant”.) But what if it is true? The teaching in question is hardly Jesus’ hardest one. What about “Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account, for your reward is great in heaven”? You can call this practical if you want, but the aim is completely different than most actions that are given that name. While anything evil will have harmful effects, they may not be such as most people would call “practical”.

    Michael:

    Don’t see how the deliberate taking of a life gets there,when there is recourse for “self defense” otherwise.

    It’s not about personal self-defense but protecting society. If there is a deterrent effect, that by itself protects society.

    • digbydolben

      I explained above how I came to know, on my own nerve-endings, that the “effect of executions on the public” is corruptive.

  • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

    PInky wrote:

    “While I’m happy that Davis didn’t kill anyone else while in prison, the viciousness of his crimes makes me question whether anyone should be put at risk by being around him. Public safety includes the safety of prisoners and guards.”

    You keep missing the point: there is NO evidence suggesting that the viciousness of a particular murder makes someone more dangerous in prison, and as I noted, there is at least some evidence that lifers are less violent than those serving shorter terms. So “killing Davis” did not make prison work safer for the guards or life safer for the other prisoners. These are matters that are dealt with humanely and securely, according to prison officials, by adequate staffing, ending over-crowding, and appropriate disciplinary measures.

  • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

    Blackadder asked

    “If the government said it would execute people who committed murder on Tuesdays but not people who committed murder on other days, there would still be murders committed on Tuesdays. It’s just that they would be a lot less frequent than murders committed on other days.

    Do you not agree?”

    Actually, no I don’t. Murderers, based on the evidence I have seen (mostly comments by folks in a position to know) do not take these things into account when planning murders. If they did, Texas would have a lower murder rate than other comparable states, given that it has a widely publicized and actively used death penalty. It does not: in fact, it’s murder rate is among the highest in the nation.

    In my opinion, there is not a case for arguing that the death penalty is any kind of deterrent.

  • SB

    I can’t remember where I saw this recently, but someone pointed out that liberals tend to hold the wildly inconsistent set of beliefs that: 1) the death penalty does not deter; 2) abortion laws will not deter women from getting abortions; but 3) gun control laws will deter people from getting guns.

    Deterrence, it seems, works only where convenient for liberals and doesn’t work where inconvenient. How odd that the world should be set up that way.

    • Mark Gordon

      Hey, Rush. Who’s a liberal? Please leave your cramped, binary thinking at the door. The data shows that the death penalty doesn’t deter. Now, I’m sure ‘data’ is a scary, too-much-like-science word for the Hannitized among us, but it is what it is. Your argument is with reality, not with straw men. But read it yourself: http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/files/DeterrenceStudy2009.pdf