Who deserves to die?
That question undergirds much of the debate around the implementation of Connecticut’s death penalty. In 2005, a Quinnipiac poll found that while a narrow majority of Connecticut residents supported the death penalty, most preferred life in prison without parole as the default punishment for murderers.
This changed after the Cheshire home invasion of 2007, when the citizens of Connecticut faced what looked like pure evil: assault, rape and murder of a family. Since then, support for the death penalty, particularly for the worst criminals, has risen. While recent polling suggests that only a narrow plurality prefer the death penalty to life without parole for first-degree murderers, nearly three-fourths of the state supports the death penalty for the Cheshire perpetrators in particular. Nevertheless, death penalty repeal has continued to work its way through the legislature this month under the leadership of New Haven’s own Representative Gary Holder-Winfield.
As a Catholic, I stand against the death penalty on moral grounds. Unfortunately, many misunderstand the nature of the Church’s teaching on this subject, associating it only with other issues of respecting human life — opposition to abortion and unjust war among them — without making the connection to justice. I wish to highlight the Church’s teachings on justice, as I think they ought be embraced not only by Catholics, but also by all residents of my home state.
Very often, our ideas of punishment are retributive rather than rehabilitative, full of vengeance rather than chastisement. The Catholic Catechism, seeking humility in human judgment, teaches that punishment in civil society should focus on the safety of society and the rehabilitation of the criminal. The death penalty can only be justified when it is necessary to protect society from the aggressor. Capital punishment clearly fails the rehabilitation test as well, focusing on a murderer not as a broken human to rebuild, but as a futile sacrifice — a death that can never bring our loved ones back to life.
(Some concerned about safety will also ask about deterrence: I merely note that academics, unsure of how to measure cause and effect, still argue about whether the death penalty meaningfully deters murder. Anyone who studies comparative policing strategies can agree that the state need not resort to execution to deter homicide.)
Many opponents of repeal bring up the fact that Connecticut uses the death penalty sparingly. Yet a sparing approach does not always imply a judicious one. Though serial killer Michael Ross is the only person to be executed in the state since 1960, 11 more currently sit on death row. An exhaustive Stanford study highlighted in The New York Times in January found that in Connecticut, a murderer is no more likely to be sentenced to death in cases of greater severity, whether measured in number of victims or degree of suffering inflicted.
However, the Stanford study did find that race and region mattered: Racial minorities who killed whites were more likely to be assigned to death row, as were those committing crimes in the city of Waterbury — simply because officials in that jurisdiction were more willing to pursue capital punishment. Such disparities seem to violate the spirit of equal treatment regardless of incidents of race or geography.
Additionally, an irreversible punishment cannot be justified when juries can make mistakes. Over 100 death row inmates have been exonerated since the 1970s. Although DNA evidence has helped, this is not a problem technology has fixed; the most recent, Joe D’Ambrosio of Ohio, was fully exonerated only earlier this year.
If we aspire to a better standard of justice, we must do away with the death penalty, which is both immoral and arbitrarily applied. Instead, we should focus on developing a system of justice that protects potential victims and rehabilitates the broken. In trying to develop that system, however, we must take care not myopically to focus on hot-button topics like the death penalty. The fight against prison rape in the United States, for example, has been covered much less than death penalty issues, and yet impacts far more incarcerated individuals than does capital punishment.
We should consider the death penalty as only one battle in a broader struggle to recognize, protect and preserve the lives and humanity of even the most loathsome among us.
Christopher Pagliarella is a senior in Berkeley College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.