Does death penalty allow for ability to repent, to change?
When I was 10, like an old soul, I was sure killing a person for a crime committed was wrong. I never knew a criminal when I was young, never had been inside a prison, never had talked with anyone about the topic, but in my gut, I grasped that capital punishment was far worse than any wrongdoing.
In my child’s mind, it was clear. Simple. Like hearing about a dad who used his belt to beat his son for hitting his younger brother, or a mother who held her daughter’s hand over the gas stove flame for playing with matches — the thought of an execution shocked me. Some punishments were very wrong, I lamented.
What is the message, I wondered long ago. In a child’s world it boiled down to this — the bigger people have the power to deliver the real pain. There is no forgiveness, no mercy, and no love in a family that parents like this or in a state that punishes like this.
Those who argue for keeping capital punishment in our justice system believe the very fact that it exists as an option deters serious crime. According to Amnesty International: “Evidence from around the world has shown that the death penalty has no unique deterrent effect on crime. Many people have argued that abolishing the death penalty leads to higher crime rates, but studies in the USA and Canada, for instance, do not back this up.”
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While 70 years have passed since this first awakening to the horror of capital punishment, I have matured some, not a lot mind you, still life experiences have broaden my knowledge and refined my stance.
I have now known a number of men who were sentenced to prison for serious crimes —burglary, robbery, rape, larceny, manslaughter, murder. And their lives have changed maybe by reading the Bible, or by being confined, or by the mysterious gift of grace bestowed upon them.
Marty, read the complete Bible three times, in English and Spanish, while imprisoned and now goes to daily Mass. Tomas, whom I called “The Good Thief” in my book, “You Are My Brother,” mentioned to me that he had stolen more than 100 guns before he was arrested and placed in prison. When we chatted, Tomas dug in his backpack and pulled out a Bible carefully protected in a plastic bag. It’s his treasured possession that he said, “keeps him away from wickedness.”
Diego, my friend, committed a double homicide for a drug deal gone bad. From teen years to middle age, he was in prison, suffering the worst pain imaginable. He said, “I shot my brother.”
All of these men, despite being caged and enduring deplorable prison conditions, were able at some point to admit their guilt and their sins against God and man. They were changed, although their past haunts them.
With age and education, I was able to understand why my 10-year-old mind was so adverse to capital punishment. It was not just a child’s clarity that big people have all the power and can do unspeakable things that hurt. It was more existential.
It was comprehending that if a person is sentenced to death and awaiting execution, there is no internal timeline provided, no way of knowing what’s in that person’s mind and heart, and if or when that person might repent, ask for God’s forgiveness and mercy— and thus have a chance of heaven.
If you believe in God and an afterlife, this will make sense. If not, merely contemplate the awful act of intentionally killing a man or woman, never really knowing if this person had a fair trial or committed the crime. Or if you consider the United States civilized, you most likely contend that enlightened societies do not execute citizens, no matter their behavior. Life sentences should suffice for heinous acts.
We can acknowledge, if we are honest, that mental illness, diminished capacity, substance abuse, social isolation, domestic violence, and spur-of- the-moment decisions can cloud the mind leading to crime. But consider we — supposedly clear-headed people — put an execution on our calendars, like a dental checkup, a car service date, a birthday and later offer a menu choice for the last meal to the person awaiting death, while washing our hands of the evil we are about to do.
Upcoming scheduled executions in Texas
April 21, Carl Buntion
April 27, Melissa Lucio
July 13, Ramiro Gonzales
Aug. 17, Kosoul Chanthakoummane
Judy Knotts is a parishioner of St. John Neumann Catholic Church and former head of St. Gabriel's Catholic School and St. Michael's Catholic Academy. Her newest book, "You Are My Brother," is a collection of past American-Statesman faith columns.