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Discussion addresses penalty

Kaitlyn Riely | Thursday, November 9, 2006

While often defended as a means of closure and healing for victims’ families, the death penalty is a form of revenge that fails to bring peace, Deacon George said Wednesday night in the Hesburgh Center auditorium.

Brooks, the former director of advocacy and jail chaplain for Kolbe House in Chicago, gave examples of arguments capital punishment opponents might use against death penalty advocates.

Some people may claim that the death penalty brings peace to the victims’ families, Brooks said. But if this is true, he asked, why do only two percent of murderers in the United States receive the death penalty?

“If in fact the death penalty is so good for the victims’ families, and if it gives them peace of mind and healing – if it gives dignity to the person who has been murdered – then we are saying that the state has arbitrarily chosen 98 percent of the victims’ families to have no healing and to not get dignity and respect for the person murdered,” he said.

Brooks, who dissolved his law firm when he was ordained a deacon in 1991, pointed out the discrepancy between former divorce cases he handled and death penalty cases. In the divorce cases, he risked disbarment if he suggested to his client that she get revenge for adultery by harming her husband or destroying his belongings, he said.

“All of a sudden, when it comes to a murder case, we are saying revenge is good – it heals,” Brooks said.

But in his experience from talking to victims’ families, the death of their loved one’s murderer doesn’t heal their pain, he said.

Brooks, the second speaker in a six-part lecture series on the death penalty sponsored by Notre Dame Against State Killing (NDASK), estimated he has ministered to more than 1,000 people accused of murder. He said he opposes the death penalty because he does not believe the government has the right to kill people to punish them for their crimes.

“They are a child of God, and we don’t have the right to take their life away,” Brooks said. Scripture – as far back to the story of Cain and Abel – makes a case against use of the death penalty when read in context, Brooks said.

“We have a history of people in Scripture who later on turn their lives around,” Brooks said. “Had they been executed, what would have happened?”

The reason why the death penalty should not exist in the U.S. was clearly expressed in Pope John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical, “Evangelium vitae,” Brooks said. In this document, the pope said the death penalty should not be used unless it was otherwise impossible to protect society from the convicted criminals.

In the United States, the prison systems are capable of containing threats, Brooks said.

But these religious arguments can fail to persuade people who support the use of the death penalty to alter their convictions, he said. That’s why anti-death penalty advocates need to give them the facts.

“I think once people know the facts it is almost impossible for any reasonable person to be in favor of the death penalty,” Brooks said.

Many death penalty opponents fall into the trap of portraying the person on death row as a hero, he said.

“Some of them just aren’t,” Brooks said.

An indisputable argument against the death penalty, he said, is that executing someone costs over a million dollars more than to imprison a convicted criminal for life without parole.

Brooks said he believes the death penalty is not a deterrent to potential murderers or rapists. Crimes happen spontaneously, he said, and most criminals don’t expect to be caught.

Another argument against capital punishment is that inaccurate eye witness accounts and lack of DNA evidence can lead to irreversible sentences, Brooks said.

“We have flaws in the system that are so deep that the likelihood of an erroneous conviction is very high,” he said.

Brooks was involved in establishing a moratorium on the death penalty in Illinois. He served as the president of the Illinois Coalition against the Death Penalty from 2000-02. Brooks received a Special Award for Work on the Issue of Capital Punishment from the Association of Chicago Priests and was named Catholic Lawyer of the Year by the Chicago Catholic Workers Guild in 2000.

NDASK plans to hold four more lectures to discuss the death penalty this fall. Former Indiana Gov. Joe Kernan will speak Nov. 15 at 7:30 p.m. in the Hammes Student Lounge of the Coleman-Morse Center. Kernan will discuss his decision to commute two death sentences while he was governor.