Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has been sentenced to death by lethal injection. And by “sentenced to death” we mean he will most likely spend years sitting in a maximum security facility while a lengthy and expensive appeals process wastes time and money deciding whether to really, really kill him, like for real. His case, like that of nearly every other death-row inmate, once again demonstrates the absurdity and utter non-necessity of capital punishment in developed nations. Even the online satire magazine The Onion parodied the decision in a headline: “Tsarnaev Death Penalty A Warning To Any Other Religious Fanatics Hoping To Be Martyred.”
Recently, the bishops of the dioceses of Arlington and Richmond in Virginia released a statement condemning the use of the death penalty and pointing out the absurdity of debating execution “methods”:
“…we are having the wrong debate. We should no longer debate which inmates we execute or how we execute them. Instead, we should debate this: If all human lives are sacred and if a civilized society such as ours can seek redress and protect itself by means other than taking a human life, why are we continuing to execute people?”
The statement quotes Pope Francis’ March 20 letter to the International Commission Against the Death Penalty:
“In some spheres there is debate over the method of execution, as if it were about finding ‘the best’ way… But there is no humane form of killing another person.”
The bishops’ statement follows recent arguments before the Supreme Court which challenged Oklahoma’s use of the death penalty by lethal injection as “cruel and unusual punishment” and therefore unconstitutional. Anyone familiar with some of the botched execution accounts that have recently come to light would have to admit that they are indeed, cruel and unusual. Properly speaking, capital punishment is not even punishment. Punishment is aimed at correction. Every crime should cause us to hope for two things: the prevention of further crime and the redemption of the criminal. The death penalty is unnecessary to achieve the first and has no interest in achieving the second.
The years that prisoners on death-row often sit in jail awaiting their appointment with death should itself serve as proof of the utter needlessness of the death penalty. In 2012, the average wait for death row inmates was almost 16 years, from sentencing to actual execution. One quarter of the inmates “removed from death row” actually died of natural causes, including two by suicide (you have to read the fine print and do a little math to see this since they’re misleadingly included in the statistic “removed from death row”). In other words, one-quarter of the time, the death penalty is so useless it’s literally not used. Given that the death penalty is clearly unnecessary, we should instead be asking the question, “what’s being done to work toward the redemption and correction of inmates who sit in a cell for 16 years waiting to be executed?”
Some will argue at this point (even well-meaning Catholics) that the Catechism at least allows for the death penalty. Yes, it also says that such cases are so rare they’re “practically non-existent.” (2267) If a society has time, resources, and adequate security to spend 16 years deciding whether and when to execute someone, including the relative safety to abort, postpone, and reschedule his execution (as often happens), then clearly non-lethal means are sufficient to defend the people from said aggressor. That’s the principal criterion; not gravity of the crime, not “closure” (whatever that means), and not vengeance. “If, however,” the Catechism states, “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.” In other words, unless one can demonstrate that the death penalty is in fact the “…only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor” (and good luck with that), then its use is unjust.
Now, it’s not in itself evil to desire that a bad man suffer. At its root, this desire may have something to do with the ultimate desire to see the man roused to conversion. As C.S. Lewis observes, “A bad man, happy, is a man without the least inkling that his actions do not ‘answer’, that they are not in accord with the laws of the universe. A perception of this truth lies at the back of the universal human feeling that bad men ought to suffer.” (The Problem of Pain, chapter 6) But even here, the motive for desiring that he suffer must not be suffering by itself, nor can it be out of a desire for revenge. To desire that he suffer period, or that he suffer to satisfy the lust for vengeance, that inclination must be done away with. It is related neither to Justice nor to Charity. It must be aimed at the correction of the offender—that in his pain he sees his error and comes to conversion. The death penalty is clearly not aimed at the conversion of the guilty. I can just picture the cartoon: a coroner stands over the corpse of the recently lethally injected and says, “I sure hope he sees now that the crime he committed 16 years ago was wrong.” Absurd.
There may be cases where, as the Catechism states, capital punishment is the only way to protect society. But what would that society even look like? Has anyone sufficiently answered that question? It certainly wouldn’t look like ours and certainly not one which involves a decades-long appeals process climaxing in two hours of a man strapped to a table, choking and gasping more than 600 times. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev committed a horrific violation of human life. He has been caught and convicted. He is a human person—an Image bearer of God—in desperate need of correction and conversion. If you believe executing him achieves these ends, I’m sorry to say, you’ve been duped by the culture of death. As he is now, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is unloveable. And this is precisely why he must be loved. His crime, unforgivable, and so it must be forgiven. The bishops in Virginia are right. We’ve been having the wrong debate.