Should Catholics Volunteer to Watch an Execution?

“If non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people's safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means...” (CCC 2267)

The lethal injection room at San Quentin State Prison.
The lethal injection room at San Quentin State Prison. (photo: California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, via Wikimedia Commons)

Regardless of one’s opinion on capital punishment, is it okay for a Catholic to volunteer to witness an execution?

Most states require that at least six citizens be present to confirm everything was conducted as required by law. It is a requirement that had some wondering if the executions in Arkansas for eight death row prisoners at the end of April would take place. On Feb. 27, the governor signed a proclamation of execution after the U.S. Supreme Court refused to review a state ruling upholding Arkansas’ lethal injection law. That’s when a new matter arose: finding volunteers to watch. 

Initially, the state's Department of Correction was hard pressed to come up with witnesses. But the director got creative and solicited volunteers at the Little Rock Rotary Club.  NBC affiliate KARK reported: "Temporarily, there was a little laugh from the audience because they thought she might be kidding," interim Rotary Club President Bill Booker told the station. "It quickly became obvious that she was not kidding."

The publicity worked and volunteers have been secured. Now, everything is set for the execution. But not everything is settled. Groups and individuals against the death penalty are still praying and pleading with the governor to commute the sentences to life without parole.

Bishop Anthony B. Taylor of the Diocese of Little Rock, Arkansas, is among them. He wrote to the governor in March appealing for mercy, but was ignored.

“Though guilty of heinous crimes, these men nevertheless retain the God-given dignity of any human life, which must be respected and defended from conception to natural death,” Bishop Taylor wrote. “Pope John Paul II, whose courage and wisdom was evident even to many outside the Catholic Church, insisted repeatedly: ‘If bloodless means are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons, public authority must limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.’ (Evangelium Vitae 56).”


Those Who Watch

The BBC News reported on several Americans who regularly volunteer to witness executions. Beth Viele, 39, from Jacksonville, Arkansas is one who offered to watch the Arkansas executions. "I would love to be part in helping the families of the victim(s) see long overdue JUSTICE be carried out." she wrote. 

Frank Weiland, 77 from Lynchburg, Virginia last watched an electric chair execution in 2006. It was his fourth. According to him, he does it as a show of support for law enforcement. On the last one, he noted that all seemed to go smoothly. "The only thing that told you that he was getting it was the way his legs smoked a little bit," he had remarked.

Teresa Clark, along with her husband Larry from Waynesboro, Virginia, volunteer together. Following the first execution, Teresa Clark said that while sitting at a red light, she looked in her rear view mirror and she swears that she saw the man that she had watched die.


Catholic Bishops on the Death Penalty

Whenever legislation comes up regarding the death penalty, Catholic bishops speak out against it.  The Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) issued the document A Culture of Life Against the Death Penalty in 2005.They recognized the heinousness of murder and the need for compassion for victims' family. Yet, they still advocate against the death penalty in order “to build “a culture of life in which our nation will no longer try to teach that killing is wrong by killing those who kill.”

They also stated that the death penalty reduces the prospect for repentance and conversion so that opposition to it is rooted in mercy. The USCCB’s 2005 recommitment campaign to end the death penalty quoted Archbishop Joseph Naumann of the Archdiocese of Kansas City, whose own father was murdered: “Our refusal to resort to the death penalty is not because we fail to appreciate the horror of the crime committed, but because we refuse to imitate violent criminals.”

My agreement with the Catholic bishops on the death penalty is obvious.  As to whether it’s okay for a Catholics to serve as a witness to an execution, I think the answer is clear.  Since the execution cannot take place without witnesses, volunteering to watch it is a form of participation in it. Why endanger your soul that way?

My heart breaks for the victims' families, many of whom are also against the death penalty.  I pray for God to comfort them and I pray also that those who kill will repent and be saved. Otherwise, they go to hell for eternity.  Anyone who would say “good” to that cheers for the wrong side.

I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked man, says the Lord, but rather in his conversion, that he may live. —Ezekiel 33:11