A few weeks ago, John David Duty was killed by lethal injection in the state of Oklahoma. He had strangled his cellmate, Curtis Wise, with his shoelaces in 2001. He was already in jail for rape, robbery, and shooting with intent to kill in a 1978 conviction. His final words:
“To the family of Curtis Wise, I’d like to make my apology. I hope one day you will be able to forgive me, not for my sake but for your own. My family and friends are here too. Thank you. You’ve all been a blessing. Thank you. Lord Jesus, I am ready to go home.”
Another man executed. So what? It happens 50-60 times a year. Well, this time it got some media attention because there is a nationwide shortage of sodium thiopental, the drug usually used in lethal injections. So they instead used phenobarbital.
It’s a strong sedative, part one of a triple drug cocktail meant to lessen or completely take away the pain of the next drug (that causes paralysis and a cessation of breathing). Then a final drug stops the heart. Of course, the other two drugs are probably unnecessary since the dosage of phenobarbital was so high it was probably lethal by itself.
Phenobarbital is also the same medicine veterinarians use when putting animals to “sleep.”
Some people might think it’s fitting that John David Duty, a convicted robber, rapist, and murder, died in the same way you’d put down a dog. I think it’s fitting too, but in another way: it emphasizes how we de-value human life.
When Being Pro-Life Gets Tough
Protesting capital punishment is one of the more unpopular issues of being pro-life. It’s easy to feel compassion for an unborn baby or a neglected elderly person, but a convicted rapist? Not someone you’d like to put on a poster and try to protect. Lots of people wear tiny little baby feet on their lapels to protest abortion. I’ve never seen someone wear size 12 human feet on their jacket to protest executions.
All life is intrinsically valuable. Capital punishment is a contradiction: We think life is so important that we’ll kill you if you take it away from someone else.
It is true that the government has the sacred duty to protect its citizens. But in a country such as ours, where we have such an immense prison system, there is no reason to kill except for revenge. We can effectively isolate a criminal from social interaction and take care of their basic needs until their natural death. Some suggest this is wasting money—but with all the legal issues that go with capital punishment it often causes more to execute someone than provide care for them for 50 years.
Of course, that’s just a US statistic, because we allow our prisoners to live for decades and file numerous appeals. Other countries in the world, like Singapore, will hang you six to eight weeks after a conviction – and you only get one chance to appeal.
Eight weeks? Hanging? Why not one week and shooting? Why not just slit the throat at the moment of pronouncing sentence? If your answer is, “because that’s not humane,” I would counter by saying “there is no way to ‘humanely’ be executed.” Euthanizing a rabid cat is humane. Killing a person for a crime is not.
It’s Not About Them, It’s About Us
I had a heated conversation about this with someone who suggested that if a man raped and murdered my wife and children I may feel a different way. A chilling thought to say the least. I thought about this situation, because sadly it’s a real one for some people. I thought of my kid’s faces and how I would feel if someone abused even one of them, let alone killed all of them.
“I’d want more than the death penalty,” I said, feeling the anger of that situation. “I’d probably want to kill that person myself.” The person smiled, thinking he won the argument, until I added, “but that doesn’t mean I should.”
Every life is sacred. If that’s not a true statement, then a person’s value is based on their performance, not their personhood. It becomes a slippery slope that can de-humanize lots of people to the level of animals who should be put to sleep because they are un-wanted, un-productive, or un-worthy (as we deem it) to live.
I think it’s not entirely correct to say that pro-life people are anti-capital punishment. There are some anti-abortion, pro-capital punishment people (like our previous president.) Their logic is simple: unborn babies are innocent, convicted murders are guilty.
This misses the point.
Capital punishment is not about them. It’s about us. America has executioners on its payroll. Obviously a rapist and murder has blood on his or her hands. That doesn’t mean we need to have blood on ours.
So what does the Church teach about capital punishment?
Some people think the Church’s answer is “never.” But that’s not quite right:
“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.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2267)
Simply put, the government has a duty to protect citizens from unjust people. Previous civilizations didn’t have such things as jails. So would you put a mass murderer in a tent where he can break out and kill more people? Of course not. In those cases, capital punishment is necessary, though regrettable. But today we live in a world where most countries (especially our own) have the means to safely keep criminals away from the general population. At that point, you are not executing someone for public safety but for punishment and vengeance. In these cases the government decides a person is not worthy to live – in defiance of the life that God gave this person. It robs them of a chance to repent, and robs us of our dignity. And in this modern age, John Paul II mentioned, cases where capital punishment are an absolute necessity are “very rare, if not practically non-existent.” (John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, 56)
This article was originally published at Bob’s website, www.bob-rice.com.