An inadmissible punishment: the fight to do away with the death penalty

North Texas Catholic
(Jul 16, 2022) Feature

A death chamber is seen from the viewing room at the state penitentiary in Huntsville, Texas, in this 2010 file photo. (CNS photo/Jenevieve Robbins, Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Handout via Reuters)

A death chamber is seen from the viewing room at the state penitentiary in Huntsville, Texas, in this 2010 file photo. (CNS photo/Jenevieve Robbins, Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Handout via Reuters)

The United States, according to Amnesty International’s 2020 report, remains among a small handful of industrialized nations still employing the death penalty and trails only China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Egypt in number of citizens executed.

It’s a situation Church leaders hope will soon become a relic of the past. Church teaching calls for respect for life from conception to natural end and, as such, opposes the death penalty.

Paragraph 2267 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church previously allowed for the death penalty in certain extremely limited conditions — conditions which for all practical purposes are virtually nonexistent in almost every instance. A 2018 revision approved by Pope Francis, however, eliminated any previous exception, pointing out that “the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes.” The revision cites “new understanding” as to the significance of penal sanctions, the effectiveness of detention to ensure the protection of others, and the importance of not depriving a guilty person of the “possibility of redemption.”

“Consequently, the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person, and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.”

Compared to opposition to abortion or euthanasia, support for opposition of the death penalty can be a hard sell, admitted Jennifer Allmon, executive director for the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops.

“What I try to remind people is that our opposition to the death penalty is not about what the criminal has done,” Allmon said. “It’s about what it does to us. It’s about who we become when we do that, and that’s a different sort of thing when we’re the instrument of death.

“I think people understand that conversation in terms of changing hearts and minds. We’re not trying to justify that this person has committed an atrocious crime and should be spared, so much as we’re saying, ‘Should we repeat that?’”

The Texas bishops, via a 2016 Pastoral Statement, stressed that the death penalty does not fulfill justice.

“Capital punishment vitiates our hearts’ capacity for mercy and love,” the statement reads. “The death penalty not only does not correspond to the common good, it actually does great harm to it.”

They and others argue disparities in application of the death penalty, versus life in prison without parole, among minorities and lower income residents and cite instances where innocent people were likely executed.

Fort Worth attorney Greg Westfall, who has served as a defense attorney on numerous capital murder cases, including several seeking the death penalty, opposes its use.

“There’s the moral question of is it good for our society?” Westfall said. “I don’t think our government should be in the business of killing our citizens because there’s no practical necessity for it. Deterrence and rehabilitation are not an issue at that point. So, punishment is the only thing left, which seems an awful lot like vengeance. It’s purely killing them to do it, which is utterly unnecessary.”

Less important than a person’s life, but notable nonetheless, is the fact that it costs substantially more to impose the death penalty than to house a prisoner for life.

Death penalty cases require additional attorneys, expert witnesses, a longer jury selection process, and numerous appeals in addition to other costs.

Westfall said that taxpayer money spent on one death penalty case he was involved in — that of Fort Worth resident Mark Anthony Soliz, convicted for the 2010 murders of a Tarrant County man and a Johnson County woman — totaled enough to fund the annual salaries of about 50 public school teachers.

Add in also the cost of separately housing death row inmates, many of whom remain there for years before execution.

Texas Department of Criminal Justice Communications Officer Robert Hurst explained that death row inmates receive six hours of outside recreation time per week should they choose to do so, but always alone. Otherwise, they remain in their individual cells even during meals. TV is prohibited though some are allowed radios, and all are allowed newspapers and magazines provided they’re approved.

Once an execution date is set, the death row supervisor informs the inmate, according to Texas Department of Criminal Justice execution procedures.

An execution watch log, which begins seven days before the execution, requires checking on the offender every half hour, then every 15 minutes, during the 36 hours leading to execution.

The morning of the execution, the offender’s property is packed and inventoried, and visits with family, friends, religious leaders, and attorneys are permitted. The offender receives a last meal at 4 p.m. followed by an opportunity to shower. At 6 p.m. they are led to the execution chamber, barring a last-minute stay, where they may make a last statement before receiving a lethal injection of pentobarbital. Should they still exhibit signs of life, an additional five grams of pentobarbital is administered.

Denmark-based Lundbeck Inc., the manufacturer of pentobarbital, has since stopped selling the drug to states for use in lethal injections, of which 27 states still retain the death penalty.

Texas’ current stock is several years old and expired, Allmon said.

A setback in the Church’s call to abolish the death penalty came with April’s execution of Carl Buntion, 78, who was suffering multiple chronic health issues. Hope came in April’s stay of Melissa Lucio’s scheduled April 27 execution date by the Court of Criminal Appeals of Texas, a case where numerous questions of doubt surround Lucio’s original conviction.(Bishop Michael Olson was among the bishops who petitioned Cameron County District Attorney Luis Saenz for a withdrawal of Lucio’s execution date.)

Hope also endures, Allmon said, because despite the fact Texas is seen as a “hang ‘em high” state, instances of the death penalty have significantly decreased over the past decade.

“I think most Catholics are aware of the Church’s stance on the death penalty even though some disagree with it,” Allmon said. “But even many of them who may not support its abolition still oppose many of the current uses of the death penalty.“[The Church] supports abolition. But, just like with abortion, we’re grateful for any incremental reduction in its use.”

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