The Death Penalty: A Violation of Catholic Social Teaching

In light of recent events, I would like to address the death penalty. A few months ago, a jury’s verdict sentenced Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to death for bringing about the bombing at the Boston Marathon. While doing research on Tsarnaev’s case, I have inadvertently seen comments on social media expressing wholehearted support for the sentencing of Tsarnaev to death. On June 24, 2015, Tsarnaev was formally sentenced to death.  I do not support Tsarnaev’s actions in any way, but I do think that the death penalty should not be used in his case. There should be other options. And there are other options.

Tsarnaev carried out actions that are contrary to the principles of respecting human dignity and protecting human life. His actions were those of terrorism.  I do not support that. However, I do support the teachings of the Church. I feel that it is important to acknowledge that Tsarnaev is still a human being and therefore, according to Catholic Social Teaching, should be treated with the dignity and respect that is due to a human being. This goes for all criminals, no matter how heinous the crime is.

I honestly don’t understand. People want the death penalty because it costs less, when the death penalty actually costs more than life in prison. What is their rationale for this? There really is no rationale for assuming that this is the case, because time and time again, this assumption is proven to be false.  Cases without the death penalty cost $740,000, while cases where the death penalty is sought cost $1.26 million. Whereas maintaining each death row prisoner costs taxpayers $90,000 more per year than a prisoner in the general population. Many times, there are multiple appeals during the time a prisoner is on death row, which makes things cost more.

Also, let me bring up the fact that people use Scripture to back up their points. On both sides. I am not going to do that.

Vengeance is mine, says the Lord, I will repay” (Rom. 12:19) can be interpreted as a command and a promise—the command to restrain individual impulses toward revenge in exchange for the assurance that God will be only too pleased to handle the grievance in spades(Prejean).

What we, as humans, forget is that Romans 12:19 is speaking about divine vengeance. Divine vengeance, or divine retribution is the supernatural punishment of a person or a group of people. But God doesn’t want to “get even”. He wants to show mercy and love.

“One intractable problem, however, is that divine vengeance (barring natural disasters, so-called acts of God) can only be interpreted and exacted by human beings, very human beings. I can’t accept that” (Prejean).

Human beings give God’s divine retribution an intrinsically human characteristic, so as to justify the taking of another life, when it is not justifiable in any circumstance. Humanity uses its interpretation of divine retribution to make an excuse for “playing God”.

The prison system today, at least in the United States, is more sophisticated than the ones we had 100-200 years ago, so people aren’t as much of a danger to society anymore once they are locked behind bars. There is a possibility that the criminals could escape. Some have succeeded. But the sophistication of the prison system here in the United States doesn’t seem to be enough for the general population.  Sister Helen Prejean writes that “the death penalty is firmly in place, but people are beginning to ask, “If this is supposed to be the solution, how come we’re not feeling any better? How come none of us feels safer?” The death penalty brings no closure, although the families of the victims might think it does. I do acknowledge, however, that if one does support the death penalty, one does not do so out of malice or anger. One thing proponents of the death penalty need to be asked is “Have you ever been present at an execution?” Most likely, when confronted with this question, they will answer that they have not been present at an execution.

Even the Church isn’t completely against the death penalty. Both the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Pope have stated that the state has the right to exact the death penalty, but neither St. Thomas or any Magisterial text presumes this gives the state an unlimited right to make capital laws and carry them out. It is inherent in a just capital punishment law that there be proportion between the taking of the life of the criminal and the benefit expected to the common good.  

“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 an unjust aggressor” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2267).

But even if a criminal is identified and it is known that the said criminal committed the crime he or she has been convicted for, where does the common good come into play? How does an execution benefit the common good? One will ask those questions since the common good includes the criminal as well.

“If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority should 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” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2267).

In other words, there are non-lethal ways of rendering a criminal unable to do harm. This is stated in the Catechism as well as in Evangelium Vitae.

“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” (Evangelium Vitae 56).

In an essay by Sister Helen Prejean, C.S.J., entitled “Would Jesus pull the switch?” the story of the execution of Patrick Sonnier is told to us. Firsthand. Sister Helen makes it real for all of us by telling of her experience walking with Patrick Sonnier, through letters, visits, and eventually spiritual advising in a manner through which I could see the story unfold, quite vividly.  

Patrick Sonnier was on death row for four years, sentenced to death for killing two teenagers. When Sister Helen was asked to write him letters, she agreed to that, beginning a correspondence with this prisoner on death row. She writes “All I had agreed to in the beginning was to be a pen pal to this man on Louisiana’s death row. Sure, I said, I could write letters.” But, she recalls, that she ”had no idea that this answer would be” her “passport to a strange and bizarre country. God is a mystery, but one of the definite characteristics of God is that God is sneaky.”  

She wrote to Sonnier, telling him about her life as a religious sister. He told her about life in his cell on death row.

“He told me about life in a 6-by-8-foot cell, where he and 44 other men were confined 23 hours a day. He said how glad he was when summer was over because there was no air in the cells. He’d sometimes wet the sheet from his bunk and put it on the cement floor to try to cool off; or he’d clean out his toilet bowl and stand in it and use a small plastic container to get water from his lavatory and pour it over his body” (Prejean).   

When she learned this, she was also surprised to learn of other inequities in the law and defense as well. In the South, at her time, she was surprised to know that money and being white were the only things that got a person adequate defense, and possibly got them out of the possibility of execution. She did research, just like any of us would do to know more about what she was getting herself into.

“The rhetoric says that the death penalty will be reserved only for the most heinous crimes, but when you look at how it is applied, you see that in fact there is a great selectivity in the process. When the victim of a violent crime has some kind of status, there is a public outrage, and especially when the victim has been murdered, death—the ultimate punishment—is sought” (Prejean).

“Some kind of status” in the South meaning that if the victim was white.

“But when people of color are killed in the inner city, when homeless people are killed, when the “nobodies” are killed, district attorneys do not seek to avenge their deaths. Black, Hispanic, or poor families who have a loved one murdered not only don’t expect the district attorney’s office to pursue the death penalty—which, of course, is both costly and time-consuming—but are surprised when the case is prosecuted at all” (Prejean).

So racism has a lot to do with the death penalty’s administration in the South. This is not the case everywhere in the US, however, but that is still not an excuse. “In Louisiana, murder victims’ families are allowed to sit in the front row in the execution chamber to watch the murderer die. Some families. Not all. Almost never African American families” (Prejean). Another factor: poverty.

“Who pays the ultimate penalty for crimes? The poor. Who gets the death penalty?  The poor. After all the rhetoric that goes on in legislative assemblies, in the end, when the net is cast out, it is the poor who are selected to die in this country” (Prejean).

The reason why we don’t see people like OJ Simpson get put on death row is money. “Money gets you good defense,” Prejean writes.

The relationship between Sonnier and Prejean soon became much more than corresponding by letters. “The man was all alone, he had no one to visit him.” (Prejean). So Sister Helen agreed to go visit him, having no idea she would become Patrick Sonnier’s spiritual advisor. She recalls that “he had suggested that on the prison application form for visitors I fill in “spiritual advisor,” and I said, “Sure.” He was Catholic, and I’m a Catholic nun, so I didn’t think much about it; it seemed right.” One thing: she “had no idea that at the end, on the evening of the execution, everybody has to leave the death house at 5:45 p.m., everybody but the spiritual advisor. The spiritual advisor stays to the end and witnesses the execution.”  

Patrick Sonnier tried to protect Sister Helen from having to see him die. “He told me he’d be OK. I didn’t have to come with him into the execution chamber. “The electric chair is not a pretty sight, it could scare you,” he told me, trying to be brave.” But Sister Helen, knowing that she had to be there until the very end, said to him, No, no, Pat, if they kill you, I’ll be there.” When she walked Patrick Sonnier to the electric chair, this was the first time she had ever done something like this. But regardless of her fear, she was there for him. “”You look at my face. Look at me, and I will be the face of Christ for you.” I couldn’t bear it that he would die alone. I said, “Don’t you worry. God will help me” (Prejean).

She gave him the last shred of human dignity she could give him. The ability not to die alone. Patrick Sonnier was able to walk to the electric chair. “When the warden with the strap-down team came for him, I walked with him. God heard his prayer, “Please, God, hold up my legs.” It was the last piece of dignity he could muster. He wanted to walk(Prejean).

He was able to express remorse, and also was aware that although he was in the wrong, the people who were killing him were in the wrong too. “In his last words he expressed his sorrow to the victims’ family. But then he said to the warden and to the unseen executioner behind the plywood panel, “but killing me is wrong, too”(Prejean). Sister Helen writes, “I am not saying that Patrick Sonnier was a hero. I do not want to glorify him. He did the most terrible crime of all. He killed. But he was a human being, and he had a transcendence, a dignity. He—like each of us—was more than the worst thing he had done in his life. And I have one consolation: he died well. I hope I die half as well.“

We as human beings are just so centered on being vengeful about the deaths of the victims, and cannot summon enough love to forgive someone for that, even if he is not showing remorse. God forgives us when we are not remorseful, so why don’t we do the same for others? Many of us are proponents of the death penalty because we just don’t understand the effect that it has on the families of the victims. The divorce rate is high amongst the families who are victims of murder. “I would learn that the divorce rate for couples who lose a child is over 70 percent—a sad new twist to “until death do us part.” I would learn that often after a murder friends stay away because they don’t know how to respond to the pain” (Prejean).

But why do we have to go by “an eye for an eye”? The U.N. Universal Declaration on Human Rights states that there are two essential human rights that every human being has: the right not to be tortured and the right not to be killed.

“The essential torture of the death penalty is not finally the physical method of death: bullet or rope or gas or electrical current or injected drugs. The torture happens when conscious human beings are condemned to death and begin to anticipate that death and die a thousand times before they die. They are brought close to death, maybe four hours away, and the phone rings in the death house, and they hear they have received a stay of execution. Then they return to their cells and begin the waiting all over again” (Prejean).

The death penalty is just that: torture and killing. It violates one’s rights.

Capital punishment isn’t actually necessary. There are other alternatives. Tougher sentencing would discourage offenders from committing crimes. Longer jail times for felons and first-time offenders would keep them from entering into society until they are able to rehabilitate.  Requiring inmates to pay for their time in prison would reduce the cost to taxpayers. Allocating a portion of a prisoner’s earnings toward facility expenses and programs would force them to “pay” for their crimes, literally and figuratively, making keeping a convict in prison for life without parole even cheaper. A portion of inmates’ wages should also be put into funds for crime victims and their families. Although money can never replace a loved one or completely heal the damage, it could help families establish a new normal and get on their feet again. There are more constructive alternatives to the death penalty. The people who say “Kill him!” are angry, angry people. They ought to sit back and think for a moment.

You might be asking how this ties to Tsarnaev. Well, when the justice system finally executes him after who knows how long, he will go through the same thing Patrick Sonnier did. He actually already has, somewhat. Some of the victims’ families want him dead. Others have forgiven him.

Let me ask this:  Is it really worth it, watching someone die in front of you, even if that person hurt you and your loved ones?

I would have to say no, it’s not worth it.  


The Catechism of the Catholic Church

Evangelium Vitae


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