Panel affirms immorality of capital punishment
Marisa Iati | Thursday, April 19, 2012
Two Notre Dame professors and a retired local priest asserted capital punishment is immoral at a Wednesday panel discussion.
Adjunct Instructor of Writing and Rhetoric Ed Kelly said he opposes the death penalty for three reasons.
“First of all, there are systems of privilege and oppression in place in this country that I think make it virtually impossible for the death penalty to be applied fairly and justly,” he said. “Consequently, we have many people of color and many, many poor people who find themselves on death row, and that’s unfair.”
Kelly said he believes it is impossible to combat violence with violence, and that state-sanctioned violence is nonsensical. He said he also opposes the death penalty because people who are not imprisoned often have much more in common with prisoners than they expect.
“I have four children,” Kelly said. “None of my daughters has been raped. Our only son has not been killed … Still, I would argue that all people are redeemable, that redemption is possible for everyone. Thus, I’m opposed to the death penalty.”
Fr. Tom McNally, a retired priest who volunteers as a chaplain at the Indiana State Prison, shared his experience speaking with prisoners on death row shortly before their executions. He said tensions run high in the small rooms where executions occur near midnight.
“The men come in [and] they’re on a gurney,” McNally said. “I always wave and bless them, a last blessing, and they wave back … They close the blinds, and then a poison is injected … All the time that this is going on, there’s just this heaviness in my heart.”
McNally said his experiences witnessing prisoners’ executions have caused him to consider capital punishment “terribly unfair.”
Jay Tidmarsh, a professor of law, said capital punishment is unjust because some prosecutors will ask a court to put a prisoner to death while others will not.
“Different prosecutors in the state have different attitudes,” Tidmarsh said. “The arbitrariness in that sense of the death penalty is, to me, stunning.
It’s not the quality of the act [that determines whether someone is put to death] … In many circumstances, it is the quality of the person who decides whether or not to seek the death penalty.”
The judicial system deludes all involved to believe they are not responsible for putting someone to death, Tidmarsh said.
“We’re supposed to have systems of rules that are relatively fair and neutral,” he said. “The reality is in our system no one actually is responsible for putting someone to death. We have divided up the system of responsibility in such a way where it’s always somebody else, or we believe, at least, that it’s always somebody else.”
Tidmarsh said the Supreme Court has made clear that automatic death sentences for certain crimes are unconstitutional. Instead, whether someone is put to death must be decided on a case-by-case basis.
“You have to allow individuals to mitigate, to explain,” Tidmarsh said. “It can’t be automatic.”
Kelly said he does not believe capital punishment does not deter crime.
“In fact … the surest way to make a person violent is to punish him, and of course, capital punishment is the worst form of punishment,” he said.
It is difficult, however, to argue capital punishment is “cruel and unusual,” as described by the United States Constitution, Tidmarsh said.
“If you believe that the Constitution ought to be interpreted faithfully to the meaning of the people who originally adopted it, they executed people back then for lots of crimes that today we would never execute someone for,” he said “[But] what wasn’t cruel 200 years ago might be cruel today.”
If most states abolish the death penalty, the Supreme Court might rule capital punishment cruel and unusual under evolving notions of decency, Tidmarsh said.
Kelly said although he is generally in favor of sentencing prisoners of capital crimes to life imprisonment, parole should be possible for prisoners who prove they have changed for the better.
“What you really need to do is take prisoners who have been put in prison and have them work on transforming,” he said. “It’s quite possible for the lives of people who have done terrible things to be halfway decent, even the imprisoned.”
Tidmarsh said he thinks many prisoners are sentenced to death because victims’ families demonstrate an unwillingness to forgive the perpetrators.
Kelly said executing criminals rarely helps family members heal.
“People talk about closure,” he said. “But there’s really no closure for many families.”
It is important for Catholics to oppose the death penalty, Kelly said.
“I think Sr. [Helen] Prejean [an advocate for the abolition of capital punishment] would argue that all life is sacred, not just innocent life,” he said. “And if you believe all life is sacred, how can you believe capital punishment is okay?”