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Justice and Death (2106)

Sept. 23 issue guest editorial by Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia. This column originally appeared at CatholicPhilly.com.

09/30/2012 Comment

Even when a defendant is well defended, properly tried and justly found guilty, experience shows that capital punishment simply doesn’t work as a deterrent.

Nor does it heal or redress any wounds, because only forgiveness can do that. It does succeed, though, in answering violence with violence — a violence wrapped in the piety of state approval, which implicates all of us as citizens in the taking of more lives.

Turning away from capital punishment does not diminish our support for the families of murder victims. They bear a terrible burden of grief, and they rightly demand justice.

Real murderers deserve punishment; but even properly tried and justly convicted murderers — men and women who are found guilty of heinous crimes — retain their God-given dignity as human beings.

When we take a murderer’s life, we only add to the violence in an already violent culture, and we demean our own dignity in the process.

Both Scripture and Catholic Tradition support the legitimacy of the death penalty under certain limited conditions. But the Church has repeatedly called us to a higher road over the past five decades.

We don’t need to kill people to protect society or punish the guilty. And we should never be eager to take anyone’s life.

As a result, except in the most extreme circumstances, capital punishment cannot be justified. In developed countries like our own, it should have no place in our public life.

Last month in Pennsylvania, execution warrants were signed for four men. A judge stayed one of the execution warrants, but the three remaining warrants could potentially result in the first execution in our state in 13 years. One of the cases in which appeals seem to be exhausted involves Terrance Williams.

In October, Williams is scheduled to die by lethal injection for the murder of Amos Norwood in 1984, a crime committed when he was 18 and a college freshman. Williams is indisputably guilty of the crime. He’s also mentally competent.

His defense attorneys argue that he was repeatedly sexually abused as a youth, including five years of abuse at the hands of the man he murdered, and that this helped motivate his violence. The state counters that all of Williams’ claims — including claims of sexual abuse — have had proper judicial review and been rejected.

Terrance Williams deserves punishment. No one disputes that. But he doesn’t need to die to satisfy justice.

We should think very carefully in the coming days about the kind of justice we want to witness to our young people. Most American Catholics, like many of their fellow citizens, support the death penalty. That doesn’t make it right.

But it does ensure that the wrong-headed lesson of violence "fixing" the violent among us will be taught to another generation.

As children of God, we’re better than this, and we need to start acting like it. We need to end the death penalty now.

Filed under archbishop charles j. chaput, capital punishment, justice and mercy