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No justification for death penalty

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Governor Rick Scott has signed his first death warrant. While originally scheduled for Aug. 2, a stay granted by the Florida Supreme Court to review the lethal injection protocol will postpone the execution of Manuel Valle until Sept. 1. Thanks to the Supreme Court’s intervention, Gov. Scott has the opportunity to reconsider his decision — and I along with the other bishops of Florida urge him to do so.

Manuel Valle was found guilty of shedding innocent blood — that of a police officer, Luis Pena. He also attempted to shoot another officer, Gary Spell. These crimes are heinous — but they were committed more than 30 years ago. After 30 years, is it necessary for the State of Florida to kill this man? Does society really make a coherent statement against killing by killing?

The argument has been made that the application of the death penalty represents the legitimate self defense of society from an unjust aggressor, i.e. the murderer. And, historically, the Church has conceded the point that the state can rightly apply capital punishment when absolutely necessary, i.e., when otherwise impossible to defend society. There is, in Church teaching, no moral equivalence between the execution of the guilty after due process of law and the willful destruction of innocent life that happens with abortion or euthanasia. However, Pope John Paul II has pointed out in Evangelium Vitae (no. 56): given the organization of today’s penal system and the option of imposing life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, such an “absolute necessity” is “practically non-existent”.

Also, it is difficult to defend the “necessity” of executing someone when often his accomplice, in exchange for information or testimony, is given through plea bargaining a lesser sentence. And while some loved ones seek “closure”, it is hard to see how capital punishment as “social retribution” or “institutional vengeance” really serves the purpose of punishment which should be designed to redress the disorder caused by the offense. The death penalty cannot bring the victims back to life.

Even from a purely pragmatic or utilitarian point of view, the death penalty cannot be defended. It is not an effective deterrent to crime. Texas has executed more criminals than any other state; yet, it still has one of the highest murder rates in the nation. And the death penalty is not cost effective. It costs the state less to imprison someone for the remainder of his natural life than to execute him. Given that it is irreversible, society has rightly provided that it be applied only after lengthy and expensive legal appeals. And, in spite of this, there are dozens of documented cases of wrongly convicted innocent people executed in the last century.

Willful murder is a heinous crime; it cries to God for justice. Yet, God did not require Cain’s life for having spilt Abel’s blood. While God certainly punished history’s first murderer, he nevertheless put a mark on him to protect Cain from those wishing to kill him to avenge Abel’s murder (cf. Gn 4:15). Like Cain, the condemned prisoner on death row — for all the evil of his crimes — remains a person. Human dignity — that of the convicted as well as our own — is best served by not resorting to this extreme and unnecessary punishment. Modern society has the means to protect itself without the death penalty.

The commutation to life imprisonment would serve the common good of all by helping break our society’s spiral of violence — for the “eye for an eye” mentality will just end up making us all blind.

Comments from readers

Sr. Elizabeth Rogers - 08/30/2011 03:01 PM
I am encouraged to read Bishop Wenski's reasonable statement on the death penalty. The execution of even one person is a tragedy and a failure for humankind. If God is willing to give a person more time, who are we to decide to end his/her chance to live a better life, inside or outside prison?

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