Does the death penalty break the cycle of violence?


There’s a wideness in God’s mercy
Like the wideness of the sea;
There’s a kindness in God’s justice.
Which is more than liberty.

As we sang this departing hymn at the Saturday evening Mass at the Cathedral, I thought about John Plath. He was executed by the state of South Carolina the evening before on July 10. I wondered if John experienced the wideness of God’s mercy before his death. Certainly, he knows it now.

John Plath was the 15th person put to death in South Carolina since the state reinstated the death penalty. He was on death row for nearly 20 years. He and his cousin, John Arnold, were found guilty of a heinous crime against Betty Gardner, a farmworker from Beaufort County. It is difficult to speak against capital punishment in light of such a violent and senseless crime. It is difficult to speak against capital punishment in light of the pain experienced by friends and family members of the victims of such crime. But we must ask ourselves, how has the death of John Plath healed our wounds. Are we safer now, happier that John is dead?

Last September, following a clarification of Church teaching about the death penalty in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, The National Conference of Catholic Bishops issued the following statement: “For over 25 years, bishops in the United States have called into question the necessity for capital punishment in the context of respect for all life. Within our culture, we are tragically turning to violence in the search for quick and easy answers to complex human problems. Increasingly, our society looks to violent measures to deal with some of our most difficult social problems — millions of abortions to address problem pregnancies, advocacy of euthanasia and assisted suicide to cope with the burdens of age and illness, and increased reliance on the death penalty to deal with crime. For Catholics in the United States, we hope these changes will increase the dialogue around the death penalty and create an environment where we take a hard look at the violence in our culture and the need to defend life at all levels and in all circumstances.”

This call for dialogue on the death penalty in the context of a consistent ethic of life is a challenge to each of us to consider our response to the violence around us. It is a challenge to reject vengeance and consider more effective responses to violent crime. Does the death penalty break the cycle of violence that we experience in our culture?

• It has been documented that states with the death penalty show murder rates higher than non-death penalty states.

• The best studies on the cost of the death penalty indicate that costs are up to $2 million per execution in a state with capital punishment. Much of this cost occurs at trial and for the appeal. The costs of incarceration are approximately $20,000 per year per inmate resulting in the amount of $600,000 if a person lived in prison for 30 years.

• Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, the number of executions and the size of death row have substantially increased. Yet during the same period of time, the FBI Crime Reports show virtually no change in the national murder rate.

• The imposition of the death penalty is racially biased. Nearly 90 percent of people executed were convicted of killing whites, although people of color make up over half of all homicide victims in the United States. African-Americans make up over half of the death row population in South Carolina although they are only 35 percent of the population.

• The United States leads the world in sentencing children to die; 160 children have been sentenced to death since 1973. Twelve states have no minimum age for the death penalty.

• Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, 31 people with mental retardation have been executed in 12 different states, 19 of them within the past five years.

• In the past 20 years, 350 capital convictions later revealed that the convicted person had not committed the crime. Of these, 25 people were executed.

These statistics compiled by Pax Christi USA give us pause for thought. How has the death penalty helped us to become a less violent society? Is it possible that it is helping to escalate the violence both within and outside of us? How do we reconcile the fundamental Catholic belief that all human life is sacred and then believe that the state has the right to kill? There are no easy answers! Many of us have been personally affected by violence, but quick retribution will not heal our pain. Let us channel our pain, and our anger, in efforts that address the underlying cultural values that help to create an environment where violence grows. We can find solutions that are life-giving but it will take a commitment on our part to build communities of peace.

As of April 1, 1998, there were 3,387 people on death row in the United States. Sixty-three of those people were on death row in South Carolina. John Plath was one of those 63. We can think of him as one of the above statistics instead of as a human being. It’s easier that way, especially when we consider the terrible crime against Betty Gardner. But is that what we, as Catholics, want to do? The Catholic bishops of Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina reminded us some years ago, “It would seem in keeping with the faith we profess to come down on the side of mercy. It would seem, if Christ truly acts in us, that our efforts to redress wrongs and to punish offenders, to repair injury and to assuage the harm done to victims must never ignore that the person who is judged and condemned remains a human person, and our neighbor.”

For the love of God is broader
Than the measures of our mind.

Dominican Sister Pat Keating is the Coastal Deanery Regional Coordinator for Catholic Charities.