Death Penalty Doubts
BY Jim Cosgrove
March 3-9, 2002 Issue | Posted 3/3/02 at 2:00 PM
Regarding your Feb. 17-23 editorial on “Scalia's Dissenting Opinion,” I think you did an excellent job explaining the Church's position on capital punishment. You concluded with Aquinas's quote: “It is permissible to kill a criminal if this is necessary for the welfare of the whole community.” I find myself in the middle on this issue. On the one hand, I agree that the death penalty is sometimes applied inappropriately (e.g., crimes of passion). I am also troubled by a rate of erroneous convictions that appears to be unacceptably high.
However, on the other side are two arguments that may justify capital punishment. One is the fact that “life without parole” is sometimes not adhered to, even when guilt is beyond dispute. The second, and far more important argument, not discussed in your article nor in most Church statements on the subject, has to do with whether or not capital punishment serves as a deterrent to future murders.
There have been many studies done on this over the past 40 years; the results have conflicted. Some, like Professor Ernest van den Haag, concluded that each execution saved as many as seven innocent lives; others reported no measurable effect at all. What is needed now is a fair and valid study.
If capital punishment does deter a reasonable number of murders, relative to the number executed, and it is limited to truly those cases beyond dispute, then I think Thomas Aquinas's test justifying capital punishment is indeed passed. If not, I would be inclined to agree that it ought to be used in only very rare instances. What I find most troubling, however, are Catholics who view this issue on the same moral level as abortion — that is reprehensible.
FRANK J. RUSSO, JR.
Port Washington, N.Y
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