On February 17, 2004, 36-year-old Cameron Todd Willingham was strapped down in an execution chamber in Texas and given a lethal injection. In 1992, he had been convicted of murdering his three young daughters by arson and spent 12 years on death row. Willingham refused an offer to plead guilty in return for a life sentence, insisting upon his innocence until his execution. The cause of death listed on his death certificate was homicide. Ten months after Willingham’s death, questions surfaced about the scientific evidence in the case and in 2005, fire scientists and national arson experts concluded that investigators had no scientific basis for claiming that the fire was arson. All signs pointed to Willingham’s innocence, and the state acknowledged that it might have carried out the execution of a legally and factually innocent person (Grann 16).
Willingham is not the only innocent person who has been on death row in the United States. The Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) reports that evidence has exonerated and released 141 innocent people in 26 states from death row since 1973, the most recent of which occurred in 2012 (“Innocence and the Death Penalty”). In addition, while there is no foolproof way to tell how many of those executed may have been innocent, the DPIC states that there are at least ten cases since the early 1980s with strong evidence of innocence, including that of Willingham (“Executed But Possibly Innocent”).
Still, despite obvious flaws in the system, a large part of the population supports the death penalty. According to op-ed columnist Jeff Jacoby in his 1998 article “The unjust logic of sparing murderers” in the Boston Globe, the death penalty proclaims the preciousness of innocent life by putting murderers to death. He also argues that justice is more valuable than life, particularly guilty life, and claims that the death penalty is the only answer to doing justice for victims and survivors. However, Jacoby’s argument as a whole is faulty, as it is flooded with fallacies and fails to present evidence. In total, he makes four broad assumptions in his article: that innocent people are not on death row; that all victims and survivors want the death penalty; that the death penalty deters murder; and that manmade laws have the ultimate power to do justice.
As the DPIC reports, in the past 40 years more than 140 people have been released from death row throughout the country due to evidence of wrongful conviction. In 2003 alone, 10 people were released from death row (“Death Penalty and Innocence”). One case in 2003, in which four people were pardoned because their convictions were based on false confessions, led outgoing Governor George Ryan to transfer the remaining 167 death sentences in Illinois to life imprisonment. In declaring a moratorium on executions in his state, Ryan said he could not support a system which “has proven so fraught with error and has come so close to the ultimate nightmare, the state’s taking of innocent life” (“Death Penalty and Innocence”). Thus, when Jacoby writes that most death penalty statutes in America “are replete with safeguards against error,” he is not considering the fact that innocent people have been seated on death row.
In his article, Jacoby also implies that no one can actually know whether they would be for or against the death penalty unless they were murdered. He states that former Governor Mario Cuomo, who signed a Declaration of Life, would not know what he would wish for at the moment the murderer pressed a knife to his neck, nor would Cuomo know what his friends would want. In essence, Jacoby assumes that all victims and survivors would support the death penalty. However, if this were true, then organizations like Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation (MVFR) would not exist.
Since 1976, MVFR has advocated for the repeal of the death penalty. Its mission statement reveals that the community, which is comprised of family members of murder victims, works to “educate the public on the harms of the death penalty” and restorative justice. The organization cites several reasons for opposing the death penalty, including the fact that it complicates the healing process, costs too much, risks innocent lives and fails to deter violence (“Why We Oppose It”).
In addition, Jacoby falsely claims it is for the good of society that assassins ought to die in order to declare that murder is worse than any other crime and deserves the harshest penalty. In other words, he believes that the death penalty will deter murder. Still, medical experts who research the deterrent effect of capital punishment state that the death penalty actually fails to prevent crime. Dr. Jonathan Groner, an associate professor at Ohio State University, reports that “the psychological mind-set of the criminal is such that they are not able to consider consequences at the time of the crime” (“Experts Explain Why the Death Penalty Does Not Deter Murder”). Experts conclude that while an obvious and immediate punishment may deter crime, the death penalty is neither obvious nor immediate, as not many people are sentenced to death and those who are often sit on death row for several years.
Lastly, in his article, Jacoby forms a hasty generalization about Sister Camille D’Arienzo of the Brooklyn-based Convent of Mercy who began circulating a “Declaration of Life,” which states that if she is murdered, the person responsible should not be executed. Jacoby writes that Sr. D’Arienzo will spend the rest of her life “working to help murderers live to a ripe old age” and says her first priority is not to prevent murder victims from dying but to rescue killers (1-2). This is entirely false. In an article published in the National Catholic Reporter in 2002, Sr. D’Arienzo describes how she fought to win David Paul Hammer, #24507-077, life in prison without parole and to put an end to capital punishment (“In religious life, a chance to choose again”). A sentence of life without parole does not support sinners and murderers, but simply recognizes the need for a natural death and places the ultimate judgment in God’s hands.
The Catholic Church teaches respect for all human life from conception to natural death. Lethal injections and executions are not natural deaths—they are murder. While Jacoby believes that the Bible is adamant that murderers be put to death, the church reminds us of one of the Ten Commandments: Thou shall not kill. Similarly, although Jacoby is correct in that the Old Testament prescribes the death penalty for crimes—including adultery, blasphemy and doing work on the Sabbath—the New Testament proclaims Jesus’ message of love and redemption. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also” (Matthew 5:38-41). Both reward and punishment are, thus, meant to take place under God in eternity, rather than under man in life.
Ultimately, the death penalty is a flawed system of punishment, as it does not actually deter crime and undervalues life—both guilty and innocent. The Catholic Church opposes capital punishment because it violates teachings of pro-life, natural death and forgiveness. And in the end, the death of ten guilty lives is not worth the risk of executing one innocent life. Therefore, the death penalty should not be legalized and there should be a moratorium in states where capital punishment is currently legal.
D’Arienzo, Camille. “In Religious Life, a Chance to Choose Again.” Vatican II: 40 Years Later. National Catholic Reporter, 4 Oct. 2002. Web. 10 Dec. 2012. <http://www.natcath.org/NCR_Online/archives/100402/100402r.htm>.
“Death Penalty and Innocence.” Amnesty International. Amnesty International USA, n.d. Web. 10 Dec. 2012. <http://www.amnestyusa.org/our-work/issues/death-penalty/us-death-penalty-facts/death-penalty-and-innocence>.
“Executed But Possibly Innocent.” Death Penalty Information Center. Death Penalty Information Center. Web. 10 Dec. 2012. <http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/executed-possibly-innocent>.
“Experts Explain Why the Death Penalty Does Not Deter Murder.” Death Penalty Information Center. Death Penalty Information Center. Web. 10 Dec. 2012. <http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/node/2200>.
Grann, David. “Trial By Fire: Did Texas Execute an Innocent Man?” The New Yorker. Conde Nast, 7 Sept. 2009. Web. 10 Dec. 2012. <http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/09/07/090907fa_fact_grann>.
“Innocence and the Death Penalty.” Death Penalty Information Center. Death Penalty Information Center. Web. 10 Dec. 2012. <http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/innocence-and-death-penalty>.
“Why We Oppose It.” Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation. Richir Outreach. Web. 10 Dec. 20120. <http://www.mvfr.org/why-we-oppose-it/>.