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Death penalty talk gets personal

Karen Langley | Thursday, March 3, 2005

While the issue of capital punishment typically generates debate, few discussions involve individuals from as many perspectives as did Wednesday night’s panel entitled “National Debate on the Death Penalty.” A pardoned death row inmate and the grandson of a brutally murdered woman were among those who offered their opinions on the issue.

The discussion was one of the culminating events in a weeklong series of events called “Life in the Balance: Death Penalty Perspectives,” and was moderated by law student Kate Leahy, chair of the Notre Dame Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, and senior Michael Poffenberger, a anthropology and peace studies major.

“It is up to us as concerned speakers to determine how to act most responsibly within society,” Poffenberger said.

The first panel member to speak was Richard Dieter, the executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Death Penalty Information Center. Dieter stressed the presence of the death penalty in American history while referring to Tuesday’s Supreme Court ruling that the Constitution bars capital punishment for juveniles.

“What happened yesterday was an amazing turnaround for the Court. The Supreme Court took on this issue 15 years ago, but in 1989 there was a sense that the death penalty was permissible under our constitution,” Dieter said. “Even when the death penalty was originally banned in 1972, it was not because executing humans was deemed cruel or unusual, but because [capital punishment] laws at that time were very arbitrary.”

Dieter described the subsequent shift in public opinion away from the death penalty, attributing this move to the establishment of DNA technology as an accepted means of evidence in American courts.

“The numbers [of convicts] on death row are dropping,” he said. “We’re not sure who is innocent and who is guilty anymore.”

Bill Pelke, whose grandmother was murdered, then spoke on his personal experiences with the issue. In 1985, Pelke’s grandmother was stabbed 33 times when a group of high school girls entered her home under the pretense of seeking Bible lessons, Leahy explained. One of the girls, Paula Cooper, was 15 years old at the time of the murder. At 16, she became the youngest death row inmate in the United States.

“About three and a half months after she was sentenced, I began to reflect on my grandmother’s life and death. My mind went back to the courtroom on the day that Paula Cooper had been sentenced to death,” Pelke said. “As the judge sentenced her, he said that he hoped that someday soon the American public would have its fill of the death penalty.”

Pelke described his reflections about his grandmother and her killer.

“I thought about my grandmother’s Christian faith. I thought of my grandmother and tried to pray for God to give me compassion for Paula Cooper,” he said. “I no longer wanted her to die. I learned the most important lesson in life that night: the lesson of the healing power of forgiveness.”

Pelke went on to found Journey of Hope, an organization of murder victims’ family members committed to promoting forgiveness and abolishing the death penalty. He is also the president of the board of directors of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty and sits on the board of directors of Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights.

The third speaker, Madison Hobley, said he survived a fire that killed his wife, son and five others – only to be arrested and tortured by four Chicago police officers. The policemen went on to provide the testimony that led to Hobley’s conviction for the fire and his subsequent death sentence. Hobley spent three years in prison and 14 years on death row until Illinois Governor George Ryan pardoned him in 2003.

“It is sad that we put our trust in police who would sacrifice a person like me for the color of my skin and execute me for a crime I did not commit,” Hobley said.

Hobley de-scribed the subhuman conditions of death row, in which inmates reside in tiny cells, are chained at all times and are forbidden communication with anyone.

“If you had experienced what I did, I don’t think you would be pro-death penalty. There is no doubt that we need prison, because many inmates were guilty of crimes, but I also learned that they are human beings,” he said.

Charles Rice, Notre Dame professor emeritus of law, was the evening’s final speaker and spoke about law and Catholic teaching. He has published extensively in the areas of natural law, abortion jurisprudence and Catholic morality and the law.

“I formerly supported the death penalty for pro-life reasons because I regarded the infliction of the death penalty for murder as the proper stigmatization of murder, so as to create a climate in which murder would be reduced,” he said. “My opinion has since changed.”

Rice described Catholic teaching on the death penalty. He explained that the state does have the authority to impose the death penalty, but that Pope John Paul II has sharply restricted the moral power of the state to use such a punishment.

“The main focus is the conversion of the sinner. The state has the moral authority to use the death penalty only when it is absolutely necessary to protect other lives from this guy,” Rice said.

He noted that it is difficult to imagine a situation in contemporary America that would necessitate infliction of the death penalty.

“Support for the death penalty is a symptom of a broader cultural problem in which the infliction of death is looked at as a problem-solving approach,” Rice said.