Martin Richards, the 8 year old boy killed in the Boston Marathon bombing, went to school just a few hundred yards down the street from my house. This week his killer’s trial has entered the penalty phase, when jurors will decide if Dzhohkar Tsarnaev will be sentenced to death or to life without the possibility of parole.
But just before the penalty phase began, the boy’s family publicly requested that the death penalty be set aside. No one suffered more than the Richards. Martin’s sister lost a leg, his mother suffered serious injuries, and his father was forced to make the soul-rending decision to leave his dying son in order to say his sister. Their plea now is to be released from the further suffering the death penalty would bring. Known as active Catholics in a heavily Catholic neighborhood, the Richards intended to speak only for themselves, yet they can also be seen as representing modern Catholicism’s increasing rejection of lethal violence.
The taking of human life has many forms, but none is more central to Christianity than the death penalty. Jesus himself was a victim of capital punishment, and the instrument of his execution--the cross--has long become the “trademark” of his followers and their faith. Indeed, we’ve become so accustomed to the cross, and even the crucifix, that we might be shocked to imagine, as one Bostonian suggested this week, walking into a church to find Jesus hanging from a noose or strapped to an electric chair.
Most of Jesus’ apostles were also killed by the authorities. We call them martyrs, but they effectively spent their last days on death row. The same is true for more than a few Christian saints even into the 21st century, executed for their faith. The image of Christians killed by ISIS is tragically fresh news.
Sadly, Catholics had been not only victims of the death penalty, but agents of execution as well. The Inquisition regularly tried and condemned “heretics” and “witches,” even if the actual killing was done by civil authorities. And we should never forget that France’s patron saint, Joan of arc, was only canonized after being burned at the stake following the Church’s condemnation. Over the centuries, then, the Church has been both the victim and the perpetrator of the death penalty.
But recent years have brought a dramatic shift, as Catholic teaching has come to reject virtually every argument used to justify capital punishment. That teaching has had its effect: fewer than half of U.S. Catholics support the death penalty, down from 70% a generation ago.
But it is still worth seeing why the Church now opposes virtually any use of the death penalty, even for cases as uniquely heinous as the Boston Marathon bombing. In view of Pope Francis’ plea to build an encounter culture, these reasons might help us to encounter others at this very moment, when the death penalty is urgently debated.
The Vatican, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the U.S. bishops collectively, and many bishops of individual states have gone on record opposing the death penalty. They have joined together in a growing consensus about why the death penalty is wrong. Drawing on their views, here are 10 good reasons:
1. Playing God. Catholics believe the power over life and death belongs to God alone. Murderers usurp that power for themselves, which is the most profound reason for calling murder evil. And executioners, no matter how good their intentions, usurp God’s power as well.
2. Cycle of violence. Catholics are supposed to believe that violence is not the greatest power on earth. We believe, in fact, that love can conquer violence. But answering violent acts that take human life by taking another human life means we give in to the power of violence and thereby perpetuate it.
3. No deterrent. There is no evidence that executing people reduces crime. In fact, states that execute have higher crime rates than states that don’t. And European countries, all of whom ban executions, have much lower crime rates than the U.S.
4. Expensive and inefficient. It cost several times more to implement a death sentence than it does to impose life without parole. Years or decades of appeals often mean criminals eventually die on death row anyway before they can be executed.
In the specific case of the Marathon bomber, the killer’s lawyers publicly stated that, had the federal government taken capital punishment off the table, Tsarnaev would have pleaded guilty, thus avoiding any trial at all, and would already be out of sight, serving a life sentence without parole. Thus the trial was only needed for one thing: to secure a death penalty. That means that this week’s penalty phase—as well as the entire trial before--are but one wasteful part of the unnecessary price we pay by insisting on the death penalty.
5. Prolongs victims’ sufferings. Execution is not magic. It will not bring back the dead, or make their families suffer less. On the contrary, the death penalty keeps a case alive far longer than the disappearing act of a life sentence. This is precisely why the Richards family fears the anguish they will undergo after a death sentence. The Boston Globe’s Kevin Cullen, who has listed all the terrorists already waiting on death row since 1993, predicts Tsarnaev’s death sentence would never actually be carried out.
6. Racism. In U.S. history as well as today, minorities are disproportionately targeted by the death penalty. In part, this reflects the difficulty poor people have obtaining effective counsel. The result: a double standard by which better-off criminals are likely to evade the death sentence. Thus, while African-Americans make up only slightly more than 10% of the American population, they constitute more than 40% of those on death row.
7. Innocence. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, 152 people sentenced to death have been exonerated since 1973. An increasing number of these were exonerated when DNA evidence proved they were innocent. On average, these people spent 11.2 years on death row before being released!
No human institution will ever be perfect, so we must always be prepared to identify and correct our errors. But once a person is executed, it is too late to correct that mistake! How many innocent have been executed before they could be exonerated? How many innocent deaths are justified by our desire to kill the guilty?
8. Cruel and unusual? Cruel and unusual punishment is prohibited by the U.S. Constitution, but those words have yet to be clearly defined. Yet every attempt to invent a more “humane” form of execution ends up in grotesque suffering, mistakes, and mishaps. The result is the irony of people shocked to learn that a state might return to firing squads because lethal injections have proved so difficult to implement. As the rest of the world leaves the death penalty behind, the American practice of it appears even more to be cruel and unusual.
Some argue that while in general the death penalty is wrong, in the specific case of the Marathon bomber it is uniquely justified. But of course that simply makes the penalty that much more unusual, and no less cruel.
9. Last resort. In its attempts to promote a “seamless garment of life,” the Catholic Church now teaches that the death penalty must be regarded as a last resort--to be used only when there is no other way to protect society from a criminal. But the high security prison in Colorado to which the U.S. has already sent convicted terrorists means that any threat is removed, and any further suffering is prevented. In practice, then, the Church’s teaching of a last resort faces us with the truth that there may be no situations where there is no other alternative. Clearly, in this case, as in virtually every other case, life without parole is an available option. Those seeking death face the burden of explaining why the alternative cannot be justified.
10. It is bad for us. Virtually all advanced democracies have eliminated to the death penalty--except the U.S. By now, moving beyond executions is the world’s mark of a truly civilized country. Given the alternatives, capital punishment serves only one real purpose: revenge. And the world now regards revenge as a relic of a more primitive culture. In short, the presence of the death penalty in our society separates us from the truly civilized world. Thus resorting to the death penalty appeals to the worst instincts in our nature, and makes us less as a people.
Listen to the joint statement of Jessica Kensky and Patrick Downs, newlyweds who each lost limbs in the Boston Marathon bombing, as they describe the spiritual challenge before us all:
In our darkest moments and deepest sadness, we think of inflicting the same types of harm on him. We wish that he could feel the searing pain and terror that for beautiful souls felt before their death, as well as the harsh reality of discovering mutilated or missing legs. If there is any one who deserves the ultimate punishment, it is the defendant. However, we must overcome the impulse for vengeance.
By overcoming that impulse for vengeance, by rising above those dark instincts and choosing life, we become more—we become a better people. And still justice is done.© Bernard F. Swain PhD 2015