"And what does the LORD require of you But to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God"
-- Micah 6:8

"The duty of the prosecutor is to seek justice, not merely to convict."
-- American Bar Association Standard 3-1.2(c)

"There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia."
--Pope Benedict XVI, June 2004

Friday, May 08, 2015

Virginia's Bishops Wrong on Theology, Wrong on Penology

To my dismay, the bishops of my own state of Virginia, one of whom is a fairly orthodox man, have issued a statement on the death penalty in Virginia. 

As with most pronouncements on this issue by American bishops, it is full of both theological error from a Catholic point of view, and factual error from the point of view of criminal justice and penology.

Theologically, the bishops strongly imply that the death penalty is not simply prudentially uncalled for given the mysterious "improvements" to our criminal justice system, but rather is immoral as being opposed to "human dignity" or the "Gospel of Life:"
The death penalty does not provide true healing for those who mourn, nor does it embody the Gospel of Life, which each of us is called to affirm even in the most difficult circumstances.
By ending the use of the death penalty we would take one important step – among significant others we must take – to abandon the culture of death and embrace the culture of life.
Let us take the more courageous step and choose life instead, even when it seems “unlovable.”
The notion that these, and other bishops have floated, that it contravenes human dignity or that it violates the "Gospel of Life" and embraces the "culture of death"  to execute an offender, is an absurd and anti-Christian error with zero support in either sacred Scripture or the Tradition of the Church, which has always and everywhere taught that life is not an absolute value, but may justly and without sin be taken in certain circumstances, such as self-defense, just war, or capital punishment (See, Rev. Thomas Williams, L.C., “Capital Punishment and the Just Society” in Catholic Dossier, Vol. 4, No. 5 (Sept./Oct. 1998), and here,  here, and here). Period, end of story.  Any who claim to be orthodox Christians but deny these simple moral truths are deluding themselves and are in serious error;  moreover they attack the Church by implying that for 2,000 Her understanding of this issue was wrong.

Beyond their attempt to imply that the death penalty is per se immoral, the bishops tell some flat out lies about its use:
 Since 1973, some 152 death row inmates nationwide – including one in Virginia – have been exonerated.
This is an extremely misleading claim, but others have floated this lie.  In fact there is strong evidence that not one factually innocent person has been executed in this country since the reintroduction of capital punishment in 1976.  Which is to say, the "error rate" in death penalty cases is, so far, zero.  But the Catholic Left has picked up on disinformation peddled by the advocacy outfit DPIC, which has been thoroughly debunked.

The case in Virginia referred to by the bishops, Earl Washington, Jr., was a legitimate exoneration, but it also was an example of how the "system," so criticized by the Left, actually works. Washington was convicted largely on the basis of a confession, but when DNA technology advanced enough to test evidence left at the crime scene, it became apparent Washington was not the rapist.  A Democrat governor commuted his sentence to life imprisonment, then a subsequent Republican governor fully pardoned Washington and released him from incarceration.  In other words, the system worked. And given modern developments in forensic science and DNA technology, the growing expectation by juries that forensic evidence be present before a capital conviction,  and the increasingly careful and selective process prosecutors are using in seeking death sentences, error rates can be lowered even further.

A second whopper the bishops tell is: "We must also be aware of the racial inequity inherent in the system..."  It's possible, but not believable, that the bishops, so keenly following this issue, did not see the study that demonstrated that race is simply not a factor in Virginia death penalty cases. Will they apologize to the prosecutors whom they have slandered as racist?

Of course, as always in these discussions, clerics who delve into the mechanics of the criminal justice system and penology have shown themselves utterly ignorant of the fact we have never found the magical "means" to "render offenders harmless" such that the death penalty would be rendered unnecessary.  And now that Pope Francis has declared that even life imprisonment is unacceptable, there is even less reason to believe that we can protect society merely by incarceration.

But the clerical Left will no doubt continue to try to undermine protection of the innocent and the just punishment of the worst offenders in Virginia..


John said...

However reluctantly it may be, I will agree with the bishops' ultimate conclusion on this matter: We should abolish the death penalty as a general rule. If it's the case that we can't rehabilitate criminals, it's also the case that we can incarcerate them, rendering them incapable of harming most of society further.

I do not come to this conclusion lightly. Between movies about Charles Starkweather and a small group of murderous teens (the latter painted the number of each victim on the victim's forehead using the victim's own blood) had me convinced of the need for inflicting death.
A few years later though, I recall having to consider whether my state should grant clemency to one death row inmate who had only killed one person, a small boy, not adults, as had Starkweather or the youthful band of killers.

Considering this case truly threw my whole though process into a tailspin.
If I felt that someone deserved death for killing 15, what reason could I give for why we should not execute someone who only killed nine? Or, if I felt death was warranted because the victim was too youthful or innocent or had died in a more brutal fashion, what cause would I give for death if the person slain was over 21, had committed many crimes as well, or had merely been shot in a fit of anger?

In all these cases, I discovered--to my shock--that I couldn't actually justify inflicting the death penalty in ANY of the cases I might consider.

After all, people who are now dead will not be less dead if we choose to execute the killer. If a man might have died because someone strangled him with a rope, he is not any more dead than he would have been had he died from having a stroke or a heart failure. Killing a murderer will not cause the illegally deceased to return to life.

That being the case, the only cause we have left that makes any sense is God's justice, yet I'm not aware that any state in these United States precisely even admits (formally) that God exists, never mind being willing to attempt to execute justice on His behalf.

Knowing this, I'm unable to justify the death penalty. I could try justifying capital punishment as a rare recourse to be inflicted only in the very worst of cases, the most extreme of depravity. Problem is, that's precisely the same line of thought that I've already realized makes no sense.

I conclude then that I cannot agree to the death penalty, if only because I do not believe that we inflict death as anything much more than revenge, however oblique it may be.

Anonymous said...

John, with all due respect, revenge is not why capital punishment is inflicted; it's to vindicate the value of human life and to do justice, which requires to the extent possible that the moral disorder caused by a crime is addressed through a punishment that is congruent to the offense.

If you're a Christian, it's impossible to reject the death penalty without rejecting sacred Scripture and 6,000 years of Judeo-Christian morality, which has not changed. Even when pagan Rome ruled, the Church did not reject the deaths penalty, since even a secular or pagan state has a duty to punish offenders justly.

Each case and each defendant are unique, so one case may be judged worthy of the death penalty, another, not, for a variety of reasons. This is the business of our justice system, to sort out relative culpability as best as we can. Just because this is an imperfect process does not invalidate it.

The solution to your stated dilemma is that a mass killer of 15 should be executed; so should a mass killer of 9; so, usually, should a premeditated killer of one. Every innocent life is sacred, and killers, who violently lay hands on a life only God has the right to take, deserve the ultimate punishment. It's as old as Genesis.