Sometimes the moral question becomes lost between the practical and the theoretical. A case in point arose in Washington state this March.
For the past five years, state Rep. Reuven Carlyle sponsored a bill to eliminate the death penalty. It went nowhere. This year, Carlyle achieved a small victory when the bill was heard by the House Judiciary Committee.
“There is something honorable and noble about putting this issue on the table to acknowledge that there is a national and international movement afoot to move away from the death penalty,” Carlyle said.
Two days later, an event in a suburb of Seattle all but assured Carlyle’s bill will not see the light of day this year, perhaps not for years later.
An elderly couple picked up their grandson from prison upon his release. They had prepared a bedroom in their home for the 26-year-old. They spent most of the first day taking him to meet his probation officer and obtaining an identification card. In the evening they held a welcome-home party for him.
After the party, the grandson allegedly killed his 82-year-old grandfather and 80-year-old grandmother, stole their car and fled, according to county Sheriff John Urquhart. He was captured four days later.
The comments that accompanied the news articles were predictable. Many suggested the ex-con be shot on sight. Those with more kindness would allow a trial, and then kill him.
The Catholic belief against the death penalty is tough teaching. Here is a person who killed his grandparents, who were reaching out to help him. There is absolutely no redeeming social value here. It is difficult to engender sympathy for such a person, unlike victims of poverty or racism or other cultural practices against the faith.
The moral argument against the death penalty is a hard sell to begin with, then some particularly egregious crime such as this occurs. We have been able to dodge the question on other recently heinous crimes — the Newtown, Conn., school shooting, the Aurora, Colo., theater shooting — because the perpetrators killed themselves.
But there is no dodging the question in this instance.
Carlyle, the Washington legislator, is typical of those doing the right thing for the wrong reasons. His opposition to the death penalty, he said, is based on the high cost of trials and appeals and also because of the possibility that someone could be wrongfully put to death.
This wrongly implies that the death penalty would be permissible if only the justice system were perfect. There is also the fiscal aspect Carlyle brings up, but this is not about a budgetary consideration.
Many say “I want justice” when what they really mean is “I want revenge.” Carlyle’s effort to ban the death penalty in his state, along with the efforts of others, will fail until revenge yields to forgiveness.
If anyone deserves the death penalty it is this prodigal grandson. But the reality is that no one does.
Kent is the retired editor of archdiocesan newspapers in Omaha and Seattle. Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.