Saturday, December 18, 2010


The Catechism of the Catholic Church says this about the death penalty:

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 with 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 definitively 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 non-existent."

Catechism, par. 2267.

Sadly, there is a facile and aggressive assumption many absolute opponents of the death penalty make: that modern society actually has the ability to defend itself or its citizens in all cases without the use of the death penalty. (I will call absolute opponents of the death penalty "Absolutists," for short.)

This is a false assumption, perhaps based on ignorance about what goes on within modern prisons. More troubling than ignorance is the devaluation of the lives of prisoners and guards that is an unspoken but very real foundation and consequence of Absolutism.

It is true that in most cases a modern American prison suffices to protect society from the murder, rape and assault practiced by its prisoners. But it is also true that a modern prison does not suffice in a relatively small but significant set of circumstances.

Eternal Optimist, just off the top of his head, is aware of two cases that illustrate the point. In one case, out of Virginia, a prisoner named Caro had committed multiple violent assaults while in jail, and had been sentenced to an additional prison term as a result. He then brutally strangled a fellow prisoner with a knotted towel for "disrespecting" him while he was housed in the "SHU" (Special Housing Unit - the "prison's prison") at a high-security federal prison. Caro casually mentioned to the guards that they should get the body out of the cell, because it was "stinking." Read the Caro opinion. It is sickening.

In another case in Pennsylvania, an indictment alleges that a federal prisoner named Savage (appropriately enough), housed in the SHU in a Federal Detention Center during his pending prosecution for running a large drug organization, got word to fellow inmates to kill a witness' family. An accomplice firebombed a witness' house, killing 6 people, including 4 small children. Read the news story

A SHU represents state of the art prisoner security. SHUs are not enough to protect against murder by certain prisoners. We have an entire federal penitentiary - Florence ADMAX in Colorado - devoted to housing prisoners we can't safely house at "ordinary" federal penitentiaries. Men are incalculably evil and incredibly creative in inflicting their evil on others. ADMAX can't prevent murders, only reduce the chances, at an unconscionable expense.

The two prison murder cases mentioned above - and prison assaults, rapes and murders are not uncommon - illustrate a basic point: there are many cases where the modern state does not have the ability to keep people safe from men intent on murder or mayhem, because "people" include the prisoners, guards and witnesses victimized by prison predators.

Absolutists prefer to gloss over this fact, as if the predictable deaths of prisoners and guards is an acceptable price for not having to pronounce judgments of death and act upon them in extreme cases.

The requirement in the Catechism to use "non-lethal means," if possible, to protect society is founded on the simple consideration that respect for human life requires us to respect the life of the killer as well as his victims, because all human life is sacred, no matter how it has been warped. If we can protect others without having to execute a murderer, we should do that. (Note: I am not addressing other traditional lines of thought about the justifications for the death penalty, which include deterrence and just desserts. I am simply addressing Absolutism from within Catholic doctrine.)

But this does not mean we can simply disregard the other side of the equation: society's right and duty to protect the lives of victims. Just as we have to value the life of the killer, we also have to value and protect the lives of his future victims. And these victims, or potential victims, include prisoners and guards, whose lives are every bit as precious, in God's eyes, as the loveliest child's.

Absolutists pretend that modern prisons always satisfy the Catechism's important predicate, "rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm." They are ignoring the deaths and injuries to prison guards, prisoners, and witnesses inflicted in and from prison by determined predators. Society owes a duty to protect these lives as much as any others. It is not acceptable to trade the lives of victims for the comfort of never having to carry out an execution.

Some people not only deserve to die; it is a moral evil not to kill them, because killing them is the only way to prevent them from committing new murders, rapes and assaults.

That's why this part of paragraph 2267 of the Catechism exists:

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.

It will not do to manufacture "possible" - and outlandishly expensive - ways of "effectively defending human lives" in prisons that outdo a federal SHU. "Possible," in the context of this moral teaching, must have some finite, reasonable meaning. It is not morally defensible to divert an unlimited amount of society's resources away from hungry children, aging veterans and national defense to construct infinitely safe super-prisons.

Neither is it an answer that juries consist of flawed men and women, and death sentences are sometimes wrongfully inflicted. The very rare instances in modern America of men dying wrongfully at the hands of the state are horrible. But they are no more horrible - or morally reprehensible - than murders committed by men whom the prison system cannot effectively prevent from committing murder. In both instances society has failed its duty, and that failure has cost a life.

The sobering thing about human evil is that there are a lot of situations in which it is not possible to "effectively defend[] human lives" without a fair trial, a verdict of death, and an execution. And in America today these situations far outnumber the surpassingly rare instances of an actually innocent man being executed by the state.

As an aside, the vast majority of men whose verdicts are set aside on appeal or in post-appeal proceedings in America are not actually innocent of the crime for which they were convicted. Instead, there is typically some procedural flaw in the trial for which our system requires a re-trial, and the re-trial may or may not be possible. One hopes that at some juncture the media will tire of being "useful idiots" for propagandists on this issue and try to report on this distinction accurately.

I do not dismiss arguments about systemic inequities or faulty jury verdicts. But systemic problems do not absolve us of the duty to execute, after a fair trial and finding of guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, where execution is "the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against [an] unjust aggressor."

Men found guilty of murdering others in or from prison should be executed. They have conclusively demonstrated that society is unable to safeguard others from their depredations through any other means.


  1. Thank you for enlightening those of us who are not required to deal with these issues first-hand.