The state just executed Wesley Purkey, the second federal inmate executed this week after the Supreme Court declined on Monday to hear challenges to the federal death penalty.
I used to favor the death penalty — enthusiastically, even. It felt right, bracing, and perfectly just. When people commit intolerable crimes, they should be removed from society, cleanly and permanently, restoring the balance of justice in the world. It just feels right.
Those were my feelings. Here are the facts about the death penalty in the United States:
It is not the only way to ensure the safety of other citizens, when life sentences are possible (and cheaper).
It is administered unfairly, and minorities, the poor, and the mentally disabled are executed more often than others who are convicted of similar crimes.
Still, it is legal, and long-standing. A deep part of me felt unwilling to dislodge something that had been the law of the land for so long. If you uproot something so deeply seeded, I thought, what else might you disrupt in the firm ground of our legal system?
Then my husband interviewed Kirk Bloodsworth. Bloodsworth was convicted of raping a nine-year-old girl, strangling her, and beating her to death with a rock. Five witnesses placed him at the scene, he matched the description of the killer, and he made statements to police which seemed to incriminate him.
Bloodsworth spent nearly nine years in prison, two years on death row. And then, after urgent demands from the defense team, investigators discovered the physical evidence for the murder case, which had gone missing. It was in the bottom of a judge’s closet, inside a paper bag inside a cardboard box, and it had never been tested.
The state did a DNA test, and discovered that Bloodsworth was innocent. Another inmate, who looked nothing like Bloodsworth or the description given by the five witnesses, had raped and murdered the little girl.
And there’s the final pertinent fact about the death penalty: About one in ten of the inmates sentenced to death are found to be innocent.
The interview my husband did is no longer online, but it in it he wrote:
A bad prosecutor, a bad judge, bad police work, bad forensics, and shaky witnesses all contribute to death penalty cases on a regular basis. Bloodsworth said one in every eight death row cases are overturned because the person convicted is innocent, and yet all of those cases went though trial and appeals and were reviewed by investigators, lawyers, and judges. In his case, at least 50 people looked at the supposed facts before he was sentenced to death.
To all appearances, the legal process was functioning properly to bring about justice on behalf of the citizens of this country. But an innocent man lost nearly a decade of his life, and the state almost murdered him.
And he was one of the lucky ones. 311 others have been exonerated after they were executed by the state.
This is intolerable. This fact in itself should be enough reason for us to demand a halt to the death penalty in this country. The legal system as it stands simply does not deserve the faith we place in it. If this is the ground in which the death penalty is so deeply seeded, it should be disturbed.
But what about the guilty? Don’t they deserve to die, when they commit heinous crimes?
Not according to Catholic teaching. Back in 2015, The National Catholic Register, Our Sunday Visitor, the National Catholic Reporter, and America magazine simultaneously released an unusual joint editorial statement calling for an end to the death penalty in the United States.
The Catholic Church in this country has fought against the death penalty for decades … The practice is abhorrent and unnecessary. It is also insanely expensive as court battles soak up resources better deployed in preventing crime in the first place and working toward restorative justice for those who commit less heinous crimes.
The editorial quotes Archbishop Chaput’s statement on the reprieve of death row inmates in PA, and challenges us to face our moral responsibility as citizens:
Archbishop Chaput reminds us that when considering the death penalty, we cannot forget that it is we, acting through our government, who are the moral agents in an execution. The prisoner has committed his crime and has answered for it in this life just as he shall answer for it before God. But, it is the government, acting in our name, that orders and perpetrates lethal injection. It is we who add to, instead of heal, the violence.
The National Catholic Register and OSV lean right, and the National Catholic Reporter and America lean left. They are competitors; but they made a point of making a joint statement. The clear message is this: opposition to the death penalty should unite Catholics, rather than polarizing them. It is not a political issue; it is a moral one.
2267 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 the unjust aggressor.
If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.
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 definitely 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 nonexistent.”68
This is the teaching of our Faith. If we only conform to the faith when it feels right, then that is not faith; that is playacting. If this teaching feels wrong to us, then we are the ones who must set aside our feelings and come into conformity with the mind of the Church, because it’s not about feelings.
Just as pro-lifers rightly demand that we set aside our feelings and confirm the factual humanity of the microscopic zygote, we must demand of ourselves that we set aside our feelings and confirm the factual humanity of the inmate on death row.
It’s not about feelings; it’s about facts. We have the facts, and we have the clear guidance of the Church. Catholics should be leading the charge to end the death penalty in this country.