Time for a change

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Saturday, 24 October 2009 00:00
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Many Ohioans followed the news in September of this year as Governor Strickland stayed the execution of Romell Broom after repeated failed attempts to find a “good” vein for lethal injection. The next two executions, one for October and one for November, were subsequently re-scheduled for spring of 2010. Broom’s case is being reviewed in the courts.

This case does not deny Broom’s guilt. He’s been convicted of a horrible crime of raping and killing 14-year-old Tryna Middleton 25 years ago. But once again, what happened in September is a reminder that executing someone is never humane killing. The system that we call capital punishment is flawed and needs to be abandoned! It’s time for a change.

web mug weberLest the reader think that I am writing this from some cozy book-lined office in a parsonage far removed from real life, I’d like to share my credentials. For five years, while serving as pastor of Mansfield St. Peter, I also visited Death Row for three hours every single Friday. I was the chaplain for Catholics on death row. Furthermore, two inmates have asked me to be their “chaplain of record” to accompany them to execution. One of these executions took place when Glenn Benner received lethal injection three years ago. Although I opposed the death penalty before that event, my objections only increased as I went through the ordeal with Glenn, his family and one sibling of a victim. When people in Perrysburg asked me about what I had experienced, I could only say it was obscene the way the execution was carried out.

Some people oppose the death penalty as a system that is broken. It fails to do what it claims: bring closure, deter future crimes or make the state safer from violence. There are studies that show it is applied capriciously: some counties will grant life in prison (without parole) while other prosecuting attorneys are quick to seek the death penalty. It discriminates against the poor who are unable to hire good defense attorneys, and most observers find it to be racist.

Worst of all, however, is that it is open to mistakes! A recent article in the New Yorker magazine tracked an execution in Texas where an innocent man most likely was convicted on faulty forensics.

Capital punishment is a system that doesn’t work, and what happened in September may be enough for some good people to stop supporting this way of dealing with criminals. There’s another group, however, that includes me.

My opposition to the use of the death penalty is based on a value system that believes in the consistent sanctity of life. Even if all executions worked with precision and there were no prejudices or biases in the way justice is meted out, a value of life ethic would still oppose the use of executions.

When Pope John Paul II wrote Evangelium Vitae, the Gospel of Life encyclical, in 1995, he stressed the dignity of each person. That dignity does not come from what he or she has accomplished or how nice a person he or she tends to be. Rather, the personal dignity comes from the love of the Creator, God, who has chosen to give life to each person.

Human life remains valuable and cannot be disregarded, even for those who have done the same with other people’s lives. To say that some people’s lives no longer matter, also denies that people can change, even if it comes late in life. Glenn, whose funeral I celebrated, was a man whose life brought terrible pain and loss to other families. Yet, by the time he died, he had become a different person who carried deep sorrow for his past. As he told me, no matter what he did, he could not undo the harm he had caused. Sadly, the state putting him to death did not undo his crimes either. Those whose lives he took, were still absent from their families.

This is not to say that people should not be punished for their crimes. Of course, they must be, especially to protect society and the good of others. Pope John Paul II, in his encyclical, wrote that it is hardly conceivable that execution would be the only way for society to protect itself. Ohio now has the option of a life sentence without the possibility of parole, something that juries can use when they fear someone returning to society.

Finally, many argue that the death penalty provides closure for the victims’ families. Although it is not always clear what people mean by closure, it carries a connotation that those who have suffered so much pain because of the horrible death of someone they love, will finally be able to move on.

Sadly, taking a life, including the life of the killer, does not provide closure. I’ve heard victim’s family members say, after observing an execution, “It went too fast,” or “I wish we could execute him all over again.” Such statements flow from an emptiness left behind. The best true closure I ever saw was when the brother of one of Glenn’s victims talked with him before his execution and then was given the gift of forgiving Glenn.

Yes, the system is broken and September’s botched execution attempt reminds us of that. But what is really needed is to review the entire mindset that suggests that executions somehow make us better.

Fr. Herb Weber is pastor of Perrysburg Blessed John XXIII.
Last Updated on Monday, 08 February 2010 20:32