Many pro-death-penalty activists demonize the murderers, and the anti-death-penalty ones excuse them. But human dignity requires that we both recognize their culpability and be able to pray for their good—which may not mean putting them back on the street, and ultimately means heaven.
Several years ago, I worked at the Supreme Court, and in that capacity I got to see the inside of many death-penalty cases in a way that few do. As a law clerk, just as a judge, I was not in a position to affect the availability of the death penalty itself. My role was to assist in determining whether the proper legal avenues had been followed to impose the sentence. And it was an unenviable job.
Unlike most appeals courts, the Supreme Court does not have to take every case that comes its way. It grants around 1 percent of the cases that petition to be heard each year. But nearly every execution in the country passes through the Court at one time or another. The last-minute appeals and petitions for a stay of execution are so routine that the calendar of scheduled executions is on every law clerk’s desk. Every justice’s office has a clerk assigned to each execution, and they often have to stay at the Court after hours to ensure that they are there to review any petitions that are filed, often within hours of an evening or midnight execution.
There were some similarities among the capital cases. First, the facts were universally horrific. I often couldn’t bear to read them in detail. Second, the legal cases presented were rarely even close calls. The condemned had generally spent decades appealing every angle possible on their cases, and had already tried out any plausible arguments for innocence. They were often onto their second or third team of lawyers, which was limited to making arguments that the previous lawyers had missed some issue they should have raised during the original trial that might have made a difference in the verdict or the sentence.
Statistically, almost nobody receives a stay at that point in the process. But almost no one is executed without some dose of last-minute legal drama, occasionally dragging out so close to the time of the execution itself that the condemned is already strapped to a gurney awaiting his (or occasionally her) lethal injection.
As Catholics, what are we to do about this situation? I see two extremes that we must never fall into. First, we must never adopt a vindictive attitude that celebrates the death of another human being. Consider: Do we applaud the death of Judas? No, his demise is a solemn warning to all of us and the tragic loss of one who could have repented and become a saint. The death of an unrepentant sinner (as Judas seems to have been) is never a victory for Jesus. It is a victory for Satan.
Should we then take the position of the condemned’s lawyers, and try every legal argument to reduce or delay the sentence? I often see among death-penalty opponents a second error: that of downplaying the culpability of the convicted criminal even to the point of minimizing his humanity in an attempt to prolong his earthly life. But if this feeds into a prisoner’s own human tendency to excuse himself, is it really in his best interests? For, in reality, we all are heirs of Adam and Eve and under a sentence of death. Postponing the Day of Judgment is only worthwhile if we use that time to prepare ourselves for the inevitable.
I personally believe that the prospect of death can actually be a good thing for these men, and that as long as they're going to die, we should take advantage of the opportunity to pray that the foreknowledge of their death will prompt them to reconcile with God. Even in Dead Man Walking
, a movie
that convinced many of the immorality of the death penalty, the convicted killer, Matthew Poncelet, never fully repents or accepts responsibility until his final appeal is denied, and death is staring him square in the face. Are we doing the condemned a favor by putting that moment off, and by having legal counsel that keep on insisting on their innocence—at least in the eyes of the law?
We have several saints as models of how to treat the condemned. One of St. Thérèse of Lisieux
’s first miracles was the repentance of a hardened murderer who was set to be executed
but refused to go to confession. She stormed heaven on his behalf, offering Masses and prayers for him, and was overjoyed when, on his way to the guillotine, he asked to see the crucifix and kissed the wounds of Christ three times.
St. Catherine of Siena had a regular ministry to the condemned in a nearby prison. We have the story of one man who had been unjustly condemned to be beheaded for making drunken comments against the ruling party. Embittered by the great wrong being perpetrated against him, the man was also embittered against God. St. Catherine did not try to make the case to the leaders of government that they were being vindictive—one could argue that it would have been fruitless, but she had and accomplished greater diplomatic feats. Instead, she won the young man over
, and he asked that she accompany him to his execution. He died with his head in her hands, and the name of Jesus on his lips.
Tomorrow we celebrate the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. This feast should remind us that as Christians our goal is never to cheat death. Neither should we celebrate it. Our goal is to join Our Lord in submitting to death that we may conquer it. True victory is not the death of any sinner, but snatching Satan’s prize from his grasp. Let us pray for all those under sentence of death that they can say with St. Paul on the long road to his own execution, “O death, where is thy victory? O death where is thy sting?”
Carrie Severino is a graduate of Harvard Law School and a former Supreme Court clerk. She is currently chief counsel and policy director of the Judicial Crisis Network and a mother of three.
Photo Courtesy MacQ.