Pope Francis has called for the abolition of capital punishment, and changed the Catechism of the Catholic Church to reflect that development in church teaching. In that light, I must admit to somewhat retrograde views on the moral legitimacy of the death penalty. I am in all likelihood wrong about this, but I have my reasons. First, my wife’s parents were Holocaust survivors, and the execution of Nazi war criminals hardly seemed unjustified or immoral to me. Years ago, I read Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, and found her careful, tempered, but resolute argument for Eichmann’s execution convincing. The modern world, she wrote, “refuses and considers as barbaric the propositions ‘that a great crime offends nature, so that the very earth cries out for vengeance; that evil violates a natural harmony which only retribution can restore; that a wronged collectivity owes a duty to the moral order to punish the criminal’ (Yosal Rogat). And yet I think it is undeniable that it was precisely on the ground of these long-forgotten propositions that Eichmann was brought to justice to begin with, and that were, in fact, the supreme justification of the death penalty.” Until very recently, of course, the long-forgotten propositions Arendt refers to were how the church also justified the death penalty.
Second, as an editorial writer for The Day, a newspaper in New London, Connecticut, I attended the trial of a murderer named Jerry Daniels. Daniels had committed a heinous crime. He attacked a young woman he did not know, waking her three-year-old daughter. When the child cried out, he slit the child’s throat. He then raped the woman before stabbing her to death. The photographs of the crime scene were horrendous. Daniels himself showed no remorse in court. I was appalled and disoriented by the senselessness and brutality of the killings. Daniels’s guilt was never in doubt. I was forced to ask myself what I would do if I had been on the jury. Somehow life in prison didn’t seem commensurate with the enormity of the crime. It was Daniels’s abusive childhood that took center stage during the trial, while the victims’ lives became almost abstractions. Daniels was there in the flesh, while his victims had been silenced by his acts. In judging Daniels, I thought the community somehow had to find a way to speak for the innocent dead and to restore “the moral order.”
I subsequently had a more intimate encounter with another murderer. It is not unusual for Commonweal to get submissions from people in prison. Convicted rapists, pedophiles, and killers send us their writing. A few years after I started at Commonweal, a well-written article was submitted by the serial killer and rapist Michael Ross, a Cornell graduate. Ross was on death row in Connecticut. In the article, he argued that because of the lengthy appeals process, implementing the death penalty “would never be cheap.” Sentencing killers to life imprisonment makes much better sense for taxpayers, he wrote. According to Ross, doing away with the death penalty meant that government could devote more resources to combating “the seemingly uncontrollable plague of crime that our country is currently experiencing.” As for Ross himself, he had no qualms about “running up the cost” to taxpayers to keep himself alive. “But every dollar spent to assure my death…means a dollar less toward the funding of more police, more prison cells, neighborhood watch programs, or toward any of the other programs aimed at reducing crime.”