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The Death Penalty: Is our justice system too corrupt to be trusted with it?
June 19, 2009
Subscribers Newsletter

Argument against the death penalty.

Vic Biorseth, Friday, June 19, 2009

The death penalty for heinous crimes is something I have strenuously argued for in the past. But no more. Not after the Central Park Jogger case. That was the one that tipped it for me, and the discovery of so many other “clearly guilty” parties that turned out to be innocent of very serious charges. More about that later. It used to really bother me that parole boards could “undo justice”, in my opinion, and turn a multiple-convicted felonious sociopath loose on the public, based on “good behavior” or how nice he talked to the board, or how he “cleaned up his act” and was now rehabilitated. And then, once loose, he would commit another similar crime, and the process would begin all over again. And again.

Here’s what the Church teaches about the use of potentially lethal force in defense of life, and about the legitimate civil authority to make use of the death penalty.






You shall not kill.54

You have heard that it was said to the men of old, "You shall not kill: and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment." But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment.55

2258 "Human life is sacred because from its beginning it involves the creative action of God and it remains for ever in a special relationship with the Creator, who is its sole end. God alone is the Lord of life from its beginning until its end: no one can under any circumstance claim for himself the right directly to destroy an innocent human being."56


The witness of sacred history

2259 In the account of Abel's murder by his brother Cain,57 Scripture reveals the presence of anger and envy in man, consequences of original sin, from the beginning of human history. Man has become the enemy of his fellow man. God declares the wickedness of this fratricide: "What have you done? The voice of your brother's blood is crying to me from the ground. And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother's blood from your hand."58

2260 The covenant between God and mankind is interwoven with reminders of God's gift of human life and man's murderous violence:

For your lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning. . . . Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for God made man in his own image.59
The Old Testament always considered blood a sacred sign of life.60 This teaching remains necessary for all time.

2261 Scripture specifies the prohibition contained in the fifth commandment: "Do not slay the innocent and the righteous."61 The deliberate murder of an innocent person is gravely contrary to the dignity of the human being, to the golden rule, and to the holiness of the Creator. The law forbidding it is universally valid: it obliges each and everyone, always and everywhere.

2262 In the Sermon on the Mount, the Lord recalls the commandment, "You shall not kill,"62 and adds to it the proscription of anger, hatred, and vengeance. Going further, Christ asks his disciples to turn the other cheek, to love their enemies.63 He did not defend himself and told Peter to leave his sword in its sheath.64

Legitimate defense

2263 The legitimate defense of persons and societies is not an exception to the prohibition against the murder of the innocent that constitutes intentional killing. "The act of self-defense can have a double effect: the preservation of one's own life; and the killing of the aggressor. . . . The one is intended, the other is not."65

2264 Love toward oneself remains a fundamental principle of morality. Therefore it is legitimate to insist on respect for one's own right to life. Someone who defends his life is not guilty of murder even if he is forced to deal his aggressor a lethal blow:

If a man in self-defense uses more than necessary violence, it will be unlawful: whereas if he repels force with moderation, his defense will be lawful. . . . Nor is it necessary for salvation that a man omit the act of moderate self-defense to avoid killing the other man, since one is bound to take more care of one's own life than of another's.66

2265 Legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for one who is responsible for the lives of others. The defense of the common good requires that an unjust aggressor be rendered unable to cause harm. For this reason, those who legitimately hold authority also have the right to use arms to repel aggressors against the civil community entrusted to their responsibility.

2266 The efforts of the state to curb the spread of behavior harmful to people's rights and to the basic rules of civil society correspond to the requirement of safeguarding the common good. Legitimate public authority has the right and duty to inflict punishment proportionate to the gravity of the offense. Punishment has the primary aim of redressing the disorder introduced by the offense. When it is willingly accepted by the guilty party, it assumes the value of expiation. Punishment then, in addition to defending public order and protecting people's safety, has a medicinal purpose: as far as possible, it must contribute to the correction of the guilty party.67

2267 Assuming that the guilty party's identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.

If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people's safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.

Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm - without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself - the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity "are very rare, if not practically nonexistent."68

54 Ex 20:13; Cf. Deut 5:17.
55 Mt 5:21-22. .
56 CDF, instruction, Donum vitae, intro. 5. 57 Cf. Gen 4:8-12. .
58 Gen 4:10-11. .
59 Gen 9:5-6. .
60 Cf. Lev 17:14. .
61 Ex 23:7. .
62 Mt 5:21. 63 Cf. Mt 5:22-39; 5:44.
64 Cf. Mt 26:52.
65 St. Thomas Aquinas, STh II-II,64,7, corp. art.
66 St. Thomas Aquinas, STh II-II,64,7, corp. art.
67 Cf. Lk 23:40-43.
68 John Paul II, Evangelium vitae 56

Even after reading Evangelim Vitae, and even after listening to John Paul the Great discussing this topic, I still felt that he did not fully understand the situation in America. Yes, it is possible to lock a serial killer away forever and keep him away from future victims, including those in prison with him. However, we all have seen how often that is simply not done here. In America, there is such a thing as a three or even more time offender for such serious crimes as kidnapping, rape, torture, murder, even first degree murder. I seriously doubt that that situation exists anywhere else to the degree that it exists here in America. We seem to have gone way too far in looking after the convicted criminal’s rights. I’m not denying that they have rights, but stating that there are limits to everyone’s rights, and no convicted murder should be granted more rights than those he denied his victim(s).

But then, the Central Park Jogger case happened. You may remember it; a lone woman was jogging in Central Park, New York City, and she was brutally attacked, beaten half to death, raped and left for dead. She was beaten so severely that her skull was broken, and she very nearly died. In fact, for some time, it was fully expected that she would die. It appeared that her assailant had fully intended that she die. By some miraculous intervention, she was eventually able to make a near full recovery, with health and well being restored, but not her memory of the event. Maybe it’s better that she doesn’t remember that.

Five black boys were arrested in short order for the offense, and they were tried for it. I readily admit that I had some very dark thoughts about them, and mercy was not among them. They all confessed to the crime. They were all convicted. If I had been on that jury, I would have fought hard for the death penalty for all of those boys. If I had been the judge, I would have had difficulty asking God to have mercy on their souls. The crime was so heinous as to be enraging. This was a crime that cried out to Heaven for vengeance.

But, they just went to prison, as is usual, it always seemed to me. Some years later, another common criminal confessed to the crime, saying that he had acted alone. And then, the whole case began to unravel, and to reveal a justice system of corruption and lies, and, over a period of time, with other similar cases coming to light, it turned me completely around on the issue. Those five black boys didn’t do it.

The first thing revealed was that the newest confessor to the crime submitted a DNA sample, and it matched the DNA found on the victim. Huh? There was DNA evidence found? And it didn’t match any of the five boys? And the court knew it? Why didn’t I know that? Why didn’t the public know it? Why didn’t the jury know it? Did the Judge know it?

Most important of all, why did these five young men confess to something they didn’t even do? They had all confessed. They wrote out and signed confessions. Can we ever depend on a signed confession in a court of law again? What came to light is that cops have ways of tricking people into confessions, particularly young people. Not only that, but defense attorneys will often recommend to their innocent client that they should sign a confession as part of a plea bargain. Hey, man, I know you didn’t do it, but they’ve got so much evidence against you that a confession is your best shot at a lighter sentence; it’s the best you can do under the circumstances, so take what you can get while you can get it.

It turned out that the five black boys were among a larger group who were doing something they all periodically did, which was called “wilding,” in which they mobbed-up and assaulted people, particularly white people, just to beat them up for being white. It might be a sort of poetic justice that they got the crap scared out of them and spent some time behind bars over this, but, the bottom line is, they never even laid eyes on the lady who was nearly killed. That’s what they were tried, convicted and sentenced for. And they didn’t even do it.

Evidence was withheld. Confessions were falsely obtained. In all probability, these five kids were probably the only ones of the “wilders” that the cops could catch, and they just stuck them with the rap for something completely unrelated.

My faith in the New York police is about gone. My faith in the whole justice system as applied in New York City is about gone. I wonder about it elsewhere in America. With the advances in DNA technology, periodically we see these cases where people, some on death row somewhere, are granted freedom because the DNA now proves that someone else did the crime they were convicted of. Not just a few times. For awhile, it was nearly a daily event. In some cases, even eye witness testimony was refuted by the new DNA evidence.

There was even one case in recent memory of a forensic scientist faking DNA test results to convict suspects that some police friends were “certain” was guilty. You can’t even trust the pathologists or the laboratories involved.

Can any part of the investigative process, let alone the litigation, be trusted any more? If a cop can “plant” evidence at a crime scene – anything from a gun to some item with the suspect’s finger prints on it – then a cop can even plant DNA evidence at a crime scene, or tamper with it later. If a cop or a DA can trick someone into a confession, and if a defense attorney can convince an innocent man that a confession is in his own best interest, then what the hell happened to the search for truth? All my life I’ve heard the old saw that says that every single person in prison claims that he is innocent of what he was convicted of.

Could it be true?

I’m sorry, but, “beyond a reasonable doubt” is no longer good enough for me in any capital offense. I would have to know with absolute certainty that the accused was guilty, or I could not vote for conviction so long as the possibility of a death penalty was present. There could not be the slightest shadow of a doubt before I could vote guilty.

Pray for the restoration of honor and integrity in America.

Pray for truth and justice.

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