Executions as a matter of political sport are unnerving. When an audience cheered at one debate because Texas Gov. Rick Perry has authorized 234 executions in a little more than 10 years, I got nervous. Such light-hearted reaction to a heavy-hearted reality reflects ill on us as a people. When the audience cheered the death penalty accomplishment I felt like I was at the Colosseum surrounded by Romans giving thumbs down to a beleaguered Christian before the lions. It is barbaric.
There are many reasons to oppose the death penalty. It is applied disproportionately to minorities, and there are more white prosecutors to seek the death penalty than black. The process demeans us as a people. Seldom do John Donne's words, "Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind ..." ring so true. The death penalty is a statement of hopelessness, perhaps the ultimate sin for Christians since it denies that people can be redeemed.
But my number one reason is simply that we can be wrong.
The number of persons from death row who have been exonerated shows how easy it is for our society to be wrong. One estimate puts the number at 138 exonerations since 1973. We've had so-called eye-witnesses, who are absolutely sure a man committed a crime - until DNA evidence proves them wrong. They weren't liars. They just remembered wrong, something we all do all the time though in less serious matters. Sadly, "Oops, we made a mistake. Sorry," is pretty inadequate in this instance and cannot undo a mistaken execution.
At times, gripping witnesses and zealous prosecutors have convinced people to believe beyond a reasonable doubt that a crime was committed. Some of the witnesses turned out to be wrong. Some prosecutors did not play by the rules. Some judges were swayed by political pressure. All of which is to be expected in our fallible world and all of which ought to put the death penalty off the table because the result of mistakes and weakness of character can result in the taking of God-given life. The fact that we are all fallible human beings should outlaw the death penalty.
There have been 1,268 executions since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976. Can anyone say the years since them have been made safer? Nor has America's spirit been especially uplifted. Right now there are some 3,200 inmates on death row.
Contemporary Catholic teaching opposes the death penalty. The Catechism of the Catholic Church finds it acceptable only when there is no other way to protect society from a dangerous criminal. With the invention of prisons that moment arrived. Digging a tunnel through a cell wall is the stuff of "Shawshank Redemption," a movie about a prisoner's escape from a corrupt warden, not the stuff of today's supermax prisons.
The death penalty is vengeance and a penalty to be reserved to the One who doesn't make mistakes. Those of us who make mistakes big and small have no right to decide on ultimate penalties.
Some argue that the death penalty is allowed by the Catholic Church. That may be right in theory but not in contemporary practice. Some argue that abortion is verboten because it is the taking of innocent life but the death penalty is acceptable because it is the taking of life deemed non innocent. Yet how can they be absolutely sure?
Some criminals inspire a lock 'em up and throw away the key approach. Some crimes are so horrific as to require it. Some persons are so damaged as to put all of us at risk. Thus the need for prisons.
The death penalty, however, is a step too far. And in the political games it becomes one more foul, error, offside. That's all right for the stadium, but with executions the error is fatal.