PAGLIARELLA: Death penalty symptom of flawed system

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 christopher.pagliarella@yale.edu.

Comments

  • River_Tam

    I buy that one can oppose the death penalty on principled grounds. I don’t buy that the question of unequal application is reason to end the death penalty wholesale. Many states require extra (aggravating circumstances) in order to achieve the death penalty and thus reserve it for the most heinous of crimes and the highest level of certainty.

    But back to the principled grounds…

    The Catholic view on capital punishment is one of the reasons (thought certainly not the primary one) that I’m a lapsed Catholic. Punishment *is* retributive, and it *is* based around deterrence as well as safety/rehabilitation.

    Parking tickets are neither rehabilitative nor promote safety. They are purely punitive and deterrent in nature. All fines, actually, fail your test of justice. Locking up white collar criminals? Again, punitive and deterrent, but not rehabilitative nor promoting general societal safety. And it’s foolish to think that prison terms are merely rehabilitative and for the public’s safety. If they were, we wouldn’t put all the murderers in one box together and let them become friends with one another.

    • Starscream

      The Catholic doctrine on punishment does indeed include the retributive aspect. Unfortunately, the catechism on this point is a bit unclear. In the chapter on the commandment against killing, there is a section on legitimate defense and capital punishment is analyzed from that perspective. However, in the very paragraph before the paragraph on capital punishment, the catechism notes: “Legitimate public authority has the right and duty to inflict punishment proportionate to the gravity of the offense. Punishment has the primary aim of redressing the disorder introduced by the offense. When it is willingly accepted by the guilty party, it assumes the value of expiation.” John Paul II’s Evengelium Viate (par. 56) applies these principles to the death penalty as well. The idea of “order” and “disorder: in these texts, must be read in the traditional Catholic sense which emcompasses the order of justice and the moral order and not just a public order in a positive sense. Furthermore, this is not contrary to commandments of mercy. As JPII noted in Dives in Misericordia (section 14), offenses still require justice be met and reparation and satisfaction be made.

      The idea that the need for the death penalty is rare is ultimately a prudential judgement, that requires a different level of assent (one that is not unconditional), rather than a definitive doctrinal judgment, which the consistent doctrine of the Church has articulated over 2000 years.

      As Cardinal Dulles noted, “If the Pope were to deny that the death penalty could be an exercise of retributive justice, he would be overthrowing the tradition of two millennia of Catholic thought, denying the teaching of several previous popes, and contradicting the teaching of Scripture.”

      Here’s a really good pamphlet on this doctrine if you’re interested:
      http://www.catholicpamphlets.net/pamphlets/CAPITAL%20PUNISHMENT.pdf

      • Starscream

        edit: “postive sense” should be “postivist sense.”

      • Starscream

        It should be noted that the Roman Catechism (ie the Catechism of the Council of Trent) also only looked at capital punishment from the limited perspective on defense, since it too analyzed it in the context of the 5th commandment:

        “Another kind of lawful slaying belongs to the civil authorities, to whom is entrusted power of life and death, by the legal and judicious exercise of which they punish the guilty and protect the innocent. The just use of this power, far from involving the crime of murder, is an act of paramount obedience to this Commandment which prohibits murder. The end of the Commandment� is the preservation and security of human life. Now the punishments inflicted by the civil authority, which is the legitimate avenger of crime, naturally tend to this end, since they give security to life by repressing outrage and violence. Hence these words of David: In the morning I put to death all the wicked of the land, that I might cut off all the workers of iniquity from the city of the Lord.”

      • River_Tam

        > “Legitimate public authority has the right and duty to inflict punishment proportionate to the gravity of the offense. Punishment has the primary aim of redressing the disorder introduced by the offense. When it is willingly accepted by the guilty party, it assumes the value of expiation.”

        But the point here is that accepting a sentence can work as atonement on behalf of the guilty party. This is distinct from functioning as retribution or deterrent. Atonement is undertaken by the guilty party; retribution is undertaken by the state/citizenry.

  • controlforconfounds

    Excellent article! My best friend is the most devout Catholic I have ever known, and we often discuss religion. We were discussing this issue just a few days ago, and a lot of these same arguments came up. Very well written and sincere as well as non confrontational

  • eli1

    The adult system, unlike the juvenile system, really is not focused on rehabilitation. Once you reach the overcrowded jails of today’s America, the sentence becomes almost purely punitive and has very little to do with rehabilitation.

  • penny_lane

    >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.

    This. I believe the death penalty has a place, but I also believe the debate over it is a waste of time. Far worse injustices with far greater consequences are perpetrated every day within our penal system.

    From a Time article last fall, link below:
    >Signs painted on the walls advise, CAUTION: NO WARNING SHOT WILL BE GIVEN — a reminder of how seriously the guards treat the riots, fights, beatings and rapes that are common here. “When this place goes off, it’s a nightmare,” Correctional Sergeant Mike Losorelli says of the facility. “The bunks get used as barricades.”

    Read more: http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,2094840,00.html#ixzz1qRuPOzzh

    http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,2094840,00.html

  • dudleysharp

    Christopher:

    Death penalty support/opposition has been consistent in Ct, at least since 2000, with an avergae of 82% support, 16% opposition, starting long before the horrific Petit murders.

    You are speaking of the death penalty vs life without parole polls, which are widely mis-characterized and which do not conflict with that constant 82% support, as reviewed in the YDN, with my recent comments, here:

    http://www.yaledailynews.com/news/2012/mar/22/bill-to-abolish-death-penalty-passes-state/

    • ChrisPag

      Good catch on this one; I think this actually highlights how the answer you get depends on how you ask.

      On support for the death penalty in the first poll I cited, I was actually looking at the question, “Do you favor or oppose the death penalty for persons convicted of murder?” where the majority for “favor” was narrow, but has trended upward. As you’ve noted, when given the Yes/No/Depends option on whether the death penalty is appropriate, an overwhelming majority default to “Depends.” However, the most recent poll I found has about a third of CT residents supporting the abolition of the death penalty: http://www.quinnipiac.edu/institutes-and-centers/polling-institute/connecticut/release-detail?ReleaseID=1723

      So thank you for the catch, though I will say that the changing preferences for a “default” punishment are significant as well.

      • dudleysharp

        ChrisPag:

        I think we all know that polling results depend upon the question.

        However, the issue is, “what poll gets us closer to true death penalty support/opposition?”.

        Death penalty support is based on supporting the death penalty for any crimes, which is about 82%.

        Death Penalty opposition is based upon being opposed to the death penalty for all crimes, which is about 16%.

  • dudleysharp

    Christopher:

    The primary purpose of sanction is discussed withiin the recent Catechism:

    2266: “The primary scope of the penalty is to redress the disorder caused by the offense. When his punishment is voluntarily accepted by the offender, it takes on the value of expiation.”

    The “primary”, meaning everything else is secondary or lower.

    The Catechism states: “The primary scope of the penalty is to redress the disorder caused by the offense.” 2266

    This is a specific reference to justice, just retribution, just deserts and the like, all of which redress the disorder.

    We must first recognize the guilt/sin/crime of the aggressor and hold them accountable for that crime/sin/disorder by way of penalty, meaning the penalty should be just and appropriate for the sin/crime/disorder, should redress the disorder and should represent justice, retributive justice, just deserts and their like which “redress the disorder caused by the offence” or to correct an imbalance, as defined within the example “If anyone sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed.” “This teaching remains necessary for all time.”

    A direct reference to the death penalty.

    • ChrisPag

      I understand what you’re saying, especially regarding the “blood of man” quote from just earlier in the Catechism, but I don’t think that’s the only way to read “redress[ing] the disorder” (though I obviously do not speak with authority in the way a priest could).

      I’m just going to copy the whole section on the death penalty below for folks to read for themselves:

      2266 The efforts of the state to curb the spread of behavior harmful to people’s rights and to the basic rules of civil society correspond to the requirement of safeguarding the common good. Legitimate public authority has the right and duty to inflict punishment proportionate to the gravity of the offense. Punishment has the primary aim of redressing the disorder introduced by the offense. When it is willingly accepted by the guilty party, it assumes the value of expiation. Punishment then, in addition to defending public order and protecting people’s safety, has a medicinal purpose: as far as possible, it must contribute to the correction of the guilty party.

      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.”

      http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p3s2c2a5.htm

      • dudleysharp

        ChrisPag:

        I believe you are using an older version of the CCC, which has since been replaced by amendments.

        I believe this is the most current. Over the years I think I have seen 4-5 different versions of these sections.

        http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/__P7Z.HTM

  • dudleysharp

    2266: “The State’s effort to contain the spread of behaviors injurious to human rights and the fundamental rules of civil coexistence corresponds to the requirement of watching over the common good.”

    The “common good” “requires” an unjust aggressor be rendered “unable to inflict harm.” 2265

    2266: “Legitimate public authority has the right and duty to inflict penalties commensurate with the gravity of the crime.”

    Biblically, theologically, traditionally and rationally, the death penalty is “commensurate with the gravity of the crime” of murder. It is arguable that a sentence less than death, for the crime of murder, is an abdication of “the right and duty to inflict penalties commensurate with the gravity of the crime” (Genesis 9:6, CCC 2260, Numbers 35:31, Council of Kent, etc.).

    There are numerous passages within the New and Old Testaments where the imposition of the death penalty, in the Words of God, Jesus, or in the context of the Holy Spirit, and within Church teachings are mandatory, proportional and/or commensurate. These works provide a foundation of death penalty imposition which, in breadth and depth, overwhelms the recent writings so restricting its imposition (Reference 2, below).

    2266: “The primary scope of the penalty is to redress the disorder caused by the offense. When his punishment is voluntarily accepted by the offender, it takes on the value of expiation.” The “primary”, meaning everything else is secondary or lower.

    The Catechism states: “The primary scope of the penalty is to redress the disorder caused by the offense.” 2266 This is a specific reference to justice, just retribution, just deserts and the like, all of which redress the disorder.

    We must first recognize the guilt/sin/crime of the aggressor and hold them accountable for that crime/sin/disorder by way of penalty, meaning the penalty should be just and appropriate for the sin/crime/disorder, should redress the disorder and should represent justice, retributive justice, just deserts and their like which “redress the disorder caused by the offence” or to correct an imbalance, as defined within the example “If anyone sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed.” “This teaching remains necessary for all time.”

    contd

    • dudleysharp

      contd

      To “redress the disorder” has various relevant meanings — to make amends, to correct the balance, to set right, to remedy or to rectify, even reform, all of which may be used in the context of justice, just retribution or just deserts (and similar concepts), all of which have relevance in the context of the religious.

      When it comes to reform, the second sentence is important:
      2266: “When (the offender’s) punishment is voluntarily accepted by the offender, it takes on the value of expiation.”

      The reformation and correction of the offender is a hoped for, even expected, component of justice or just deserts.

      However, unlike the imposition of justice or retribution, which is mandatory and primary, the reformation and/or moral correction of the offender will be voluntarily accepted or rejected by the offender, as a consequence of free will.

      Retributive justice, just deserts and the like must be imposed and are “primary”. The correction or reform of the offender will be accepted or rejected by the offender.

      The Catechism agrees, with:
      2266 ending ” . . . Moreover, punishment, in addition to preserving public order and the safety of persons, has a medicinal scope: as far as possible it should contribute to the correction of the offender.” ” . . . as far as possible . . . ” concedes that this is a sometimes proposition.

      It is the same with God and his flock, as it is with parent and child. When a parent sanctions or punishes their child, they hope and often expect that such will bring about reflection, reform, redress and correction and, often, it does. All of those are a part the foundational in just retribution or redressing the disorder, within this context.

      Therefore, the foundation must be that we impose sanction based upon the evidence that the offender is guilty of the wrongdoing and because of that wrongdoing, we impose sanction, based upon justice (and its many similar considerations) and because of that justice, we reap the benefits/consequences of that justice, which include the protection of society and many other benefits, inclusive of the hope and expectation that some offenders will seek reform/redemption/correction, as a reflection in sanction and a product of grace.

      contd

      • dudleysharp

        contd

        A crucial element of that justice, which is reformation/correction of the offender, will always remain, a hoped for, but voluntary expression of free will by the offender, which may also provide, the immense value of expiation, when the punishment is “voluntarily accepted” (2266) by the offender.

        Voluntary acceptance has four components. The offender/aggressor is guilty of the offense, the aggressor pleads guilty to the offense, the aggressor accepts the sanction imposed and the aggressor does not appeal the sanction imposed. Anything short of that appears to negate voluntary acceptance.

        Expiation, a product of God’s grace, will be seized upon or rejected by the offender, based upon their own free will. It is arguable, as per Aquinas and Augustine, that the death penalty is better apt to provide that correction and is, therefore, more in tune with the eternal aspects of the wrongdoers salvation (see paragraphs/references 3 and 4 within Reference 2 and also 5, below).

        Romano Amerio: “The most irreligious aspect of this argument against capital punishment is that it denies its expiatory value which, from a religious point of view, is of the highest importance because it can include a final consent to give up the greatest of all worldly goods. This fits exactly with St. Thomas’s opinion that as well as canceling out any debt that the criminal owes to civil society, capital punishment can cancel all punishment due in the life to come. His thought is . . . Summa, ‘Even death inflicted as a punishment for crimes takes away the whole punishment due for those crimes in the next life, or a least part of that punishment, according to the quantities of guilt, resignation and contrition; but a natural death does not.’ ” (Paragraph 3, Reference 2)

        All we can do is hope and, in some cases, expect, that beneficial reformation will be sought by the wrongdoer, although we cannot force it upon them. And, in this religious context, such reformation will result in expiation and redemption, through the grace of God.

        2) Death Penalty Support: Modern Catholic Scholars
        http://prodpinnc.blogspot.com/2009/07/death-penalty-support-modern-catholic.html

        5) “Evangelium Vitae, St. Thomas Aquinas and the Death Penalty”, p 519, Steven A. Long, The Thomist, 63 (1999): 511-552

  • Ender

    As a Catholic, I support the death penalty on moral grounds. I base that position on what the Church had said on the subject for the nearly 2000 years before the publication of the new catechism.in 1997.

    Virtually all of the Early Fathers supported capital punishment as did the Doctors of the Church from Augustine onward. It has been explicitly recognized as a just punishment by a half dozen popes and every catechism prior to the current one … which regrettably does not address the issue of justice in this context.

    The Church recognizes four objectives of punishment: retribution, rehabilitation, protection, and deterrence, and according to CCC 2266, the primary objective is retribution – retributive justice. We are also told in that same section that to be just a punishment must be of commensurate severity with the severity of the crime and the Church has always recognized that capital punishment was appropriate because it was just.

    The assertion made by starscream that the Catechism of Trent evaluated capital punishment solely from the limited perspective of defense is inaccurate. The position taken in that document was based on the plain meaning of Gen 9:5-6: the life of a murderer is forfeit. That passage, along with Rom 13:1-4, have formed the basis for the Church’s position that has remained unchanged throughout her history. Even the current catechism (2260) cites Gen 9:5-6 with the further observation that “This teaching remains necessary for all time.”

    According to Cardinal Dulles, CCC 2267 represents the prudential opinion of the pope and the Magisterium that in current societies capital punishment causes more problems than it solves and, as a practical matter, should not be employed. As a matter of retribution, however, the death penalty remains a just punishment … as the Church has recognized for two millennia.