Stepping Outside the Cycle of Violence

Given recent violence, does the death penalty make sense?

People protest outside Georgia Capitol in support of death-row inmate Troy Davis before his Sept. 21, 2011 execution. (CNS photo/Michael Alexander, Georgia Bulletin)
People protest outside Georgia Capitol in support of death-row inmate Troy Davis before his Sept. 21, 2011 execution. (CNS photo/Michael Alexander, Georgia Bulletin)
I was talking to a friend last week when I asked, “You’re opposed to the death penalty right?” It was less of an inquiry than a way to transition to the next portion of our conversation. After all, she is in her 20s, Catholic, a Democrat, and more to the left of many issues than me. I began to tell the story I had in mind without really considering her answer when she interrupted me.

“Oh, not necessarily,” she said. “In some cases, I’m against it, sure, but sometimes it just seems fair.”

I was taken aback, surprised really. I decided to ask some more friends over the next few days. Again, almost all were in their 20s, shared a generally liberal outlook on politics, and were from faith traditions that oppose capital punishment. And yet, in nearly every instance, I heard the same answer: they were against seeking the death penalty in some cases, but they found it justified in others.

Earlier this month, Maryland abolished the death penalty through legislative action, joining 17 other states that have taken capital punishment off the books. Governor Martin O’Malley, a Catholic Democrat considering a run for the White House in 2016, explained his reasons for supporting abolition:

“Over the longer arc of history, I think you’ll see more and more states repeal the death penalty. It’s wasteful. It’s ineffective. It doesn’t work to reduce violent crime.”

And last week, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper granted a convicted murderer on death row a “temporary reprieve,” meaning that the condemned man likely won’t face execution so long as Hickenlooper is governor. Hickenlooper is Quaker, a religious tradition that has historically been against the use of the death penalty. The Governor explained his decision to the Denver Post:

“Colorado’s system of capital punishment is imperfect and inherently inequitable,” Hickenlooper said after announcing the reprieve. “Such a level of punishment really does demand perfection.”

The Catholic Church finds itself in an interesting predicament regarding capital punishment. Its use is not strictly prohibited, and yet it teaches that using it is generally morally impermissible. The Church believes that a state is obliged to provide protection to its citizens, and if it is not able to protect the populace from someone who inflicts great harm on others, then that person can be put to death. Many Catholic leaders, however, have suggested that such conditions might not exist.

Pope John Paul II explained the Church’s position in 2005:

“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 improvement in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.”

Pope Benedict XVI reiterated a call for abolition again in 2011 when he prayed that anti-death penalty groups would “encourage the political and legislative initiatives being promoted in a growing number of countries to eliminate the death penalty.”

The use of the death penalty has slowed over recent years. Religion News Service reported in 2012 that 43 people in nine states had been put to death in 2012, with some states that have historically executed large numbers of people not executing any inmates. The peak was reached in the late 90s:

After the Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976, the execution rate reached a peak of 98 executions in 1999. Since then, the trend has been downward, and attributed in part to some high-profile cases in which death row inmates have been found innocent after DNA testing.

According to a CNN poll from 2011, 50% of Americans said they favored life in prison without the option of parole for a convicted murderer over the death penalty, the first time a national poll has showed the country split.

There are a few reasons why support for the death penalty is slipping. Recent stories of DNA evidence exonerating inmates on death row, including some who were put to death, have caused many to admit that sometimes we get it wrong, and ask, is the death of an innocent worth it? A general distrust of government simmering in some corners of society is seeping into the debate, too. If we can’t trust the government with our taxes, some ask, why should we trust them with issues of life and death? And finally, studies consistently show that it is cheaper to keep someone in prison for life than it is to fund the lengthy appeals process. With money for public services still shrinking, does it really make sense to spend what we do have on seemingly never-ending trials?

With this in mind, I wonder why my friends responded the way they did. Perhaps it’s not too difficult to understand given the news lately. There’s been a rash of high profile violence over the past few months. The shooting in the Aurora, Colorado, movie theater that killed 13. Twenty-six children and teachers gunned down at a Newtown, Connecticut, elementary school. Last month, two brothers allegedly set off homemade bombs at the Boston Marathon, killing three and injuring more than 200. In Philadelphia, a doctor was convicted of delivering babies and then killing them. It’s hard to think of a punishment that fits this kind of evil. The death penalty, it seems, is the only answer to such atrocities.

And yet, the Church’s view says that all life is sacred, even lives that seem worthless and beyond redemption given particular choices. In the heat of the moment, it’s only natural to wish for death for those who commit evil. Perhaps that is why it’s so important not to have the option available at all. Repealing the death penalty isn’t done to offer mercy to those who commit evil, but to free society from a cycle of violence that is so easy to enter.