Church officials voice opposition to death penalty

Thu, Jun 25th 2015 06:00 am
Staff Reporter
Death-penalty protesters stand outside of the United States federal courthouse during the first day of the sentencing phase of the Boston Marathon bombing trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. (Scott Eisen/Getty Images)
Death-penalty protesters stand outside of the United States federal courthouse during the first day of the sentencing phase of the Boston Marathon bombing trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. (Scott Eisen/Getty Images)

The sentencing of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev came to a close on June 24, when the Boston Marathon bomber was formally sentenced to death after a jury found him guilty of 30 different charges, including using weapons of mass destruction and the murder of a police officer. Three people died and more than 260 people were injured in the April 2013 bombing. 17 of those charges warrant the death penalty.

The death penalty has been on the minds of many Americans. As Boston and the rest of the country continue to heal from the impact of Tsarnaev's crimes, officials of the Catholic Church have reiterated their opposition to the capital punishment.

During the trial, the Massachusetts Catholic Conference, which includes Cardinal Seán P. O'Malley, OFM Cap., of Boston, and three bishops from other Massachusetts dioceses, gave a statement calling the Boston Marathon bombing a "painful reminder of the harm that impacts many people, even beyond those who are killed or maimed by violent criminal acts."

With the high-profile case focusing on capital punishment, the Massachusetts Catholic Conference issued a public statement to clarify the Church's teaching regarding the use of the death penalty: "The Church has taught that the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity are rare, if not practically nonexistent."

Cheryl Calire, director of the diocesan Office of Pro-Life Activities, expressed similar feelings.

"With my position in the Respect Life Office and representing Bishop (Richard J.) Malone and the diocese, particularly the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, we believe that human life is sacred from the beginning and has been created in the likeness and image of God," Calire said.

In April, Tsarnaev was convicted for his actions in planting two pressure-cooker bombs near the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon, killing 8-year-old Martin Richard, 29-year-old Krystle Campbell and 23-year-old Lingzi Lu and injuring over 260 others. Additionally, either Tsarnaev or his 26-year-old brother, Tamerlan, shot Sean Collier, 27, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology police officer, to death as they tried to flee. Tamerlan died April 19, 2013, after a gunfight between the brothers and police.

While the state of Massachusetts has abolished the death penalty, Tsarnaev was tried in federal court, meaning the death penalty could still be applied. New York is one of 19 states to no longer use the death penalty. The others include Alaska, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Dakota, Rhode Island, Vermont, West Virginia and Wisconsin. Nebraska legislators voted to end it in May.

"I repeatedly get disappointed when people in general, regardless of whether they're coming from a Catholic or Christian background, are really not seeing the point that is trying to be made from the standpoint of human life and the value of that human life," Calire said.

Deacon Donald Weigel, associate public policy coordinator at Catholic Charities of Buffalo and a global fellow for Catholic Relief Services said that high-profile cases such as this one grab his attention, especially since Massachusetts is known as a Catholic state with a large percentage of people opposed to the death penalty.

"The whole idea is to be a faith that is pro-life, and for life, means that you need to choose life in every instance, regarding of how difficult it may be," Deacon Weigel said. "If there was no other way to protect people than to put him to death, the Church might say the protection of innocent lives takes precedence. But that's just not the case, and it's certainly not the case in 21st-century America. Because of that, we have to make a proactive choice in favor of life, which means to preserve the life even of the person who has taken life. Even with the horrible thing that he has done, the value of his life is still infinite in the eyes of God, and his dignity is still an infinite dignity because he is still made in the image and likeness of God."

Although national support for the death penalty has waned, the most recent Gallup poll, completed in October 2014, found 63 percent of surveyed Americans support keeping the death penalty legal, 33 percent want it to be abolished and 4 percent have no opinion. The largest differential was in September 1994, when 80 percent of respondents supported the death penalty and a mere 16 percent opposed it.

According to a 2003 Kansas Legislative Post Audit survey, "the estimated cost of a death penalty case was 70 percent more than the cost of a comparable non-death penalty case" due to the costs of appeals. In spite of this, the 2014 Gallup poll found 14 percent of Americans who supported the death penalty cited "costs associated with prison" as the reason. The number one reason for support, at 35 percent, was an "eye for an eye" mentality, "they took a life" or "the punishment suits the crime."

"Whether it's abortion, capital punishment or war, all continue to add to this 'culture of death' that St. John Paul II talked about," Deacon Weigel said. "We need to help people to see that, regardless of what form violence comes in, it contributes to this culture of death that continues to degrade us as a culture and a society. The death penalty is not a deterrent. It is not cheaper than housing a criminal."

Among those opposed to the death penalty, 40 percent of those surveyed said their opinion is because they feel "it is wrong to take a life." Seventeen percent said the person may have been wrongly convicted, and 17 percent either said the death penalty is against their religion, or they feel punishment should be left up to God rather than the justice system. In this case, the lengthy appeal process associated with a death sentence prolongs the suffering for bombing victims' families and survivors, Deacon Weigel argued.

"The 8-year-old boy that was killed, Martin Richard, and his sister was maimed - the parents came out pleading that (Tsarnaev) not be given the death penalty," Deacon Weigel said. "They didn't do it from a religious perspective, but they did it because they knew there would continue to be appeals and court cases, and it would continue on forever. They knew that their family would have to go through it and relive it every time there was a new appeal. They pretty readily admitted that his death is not going to bring them any closure. It's not going to bring Martin back and it's not going to bring their daughter's leg back."

"Who are we to judge? We never know, at the end of the day, what happens between our Creator and that person, and that's what mercy is all about," Calire said. "That is coming to Christ for that mercy, and I always think that we are not that person - that's God's job."

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