Bishop Anthony B. Taylor released this statement Sept. 4.
Last month we received the news that the state of Arkansas has acquired new drugs for use in executing criminals and therefore executions of those on death row will soon resume after a lapse of almost 10 years.
I have a unique perspective to offer regarding capital punishment because I have experienced several sides of this issue: the murders of a number of people either personally or through involvement after the murders and the execution of a convicted murderer by the state.
My family was visiting the University of Texas on Aug. 1, 1966, on the very day that a former Marine sniper, 25-year-old Charles Whitman, killed his wife and mother and then barricaded himself on the top of the Student Union tower, from which he killed 14 others and wounded 32 in cold blood. I took shelter with the rest of my family behind a coke machine at a service station on Guadalupe Street.
When we left our hiding place, I saw a bullet hole in the window and blood on the floor of a barber shop. I saw people assisting a terrified woman who had been shot at but not hit because she took shelter against the low brick wall that surrounded a raised flower bed. I saw a lone high-heel shoe on the sidewalk, apparently abandoned by a fleeing woman.
It was very frightening and we were relieved when word came that the SWAT team had taken out the still well-armed sniper. I was 12 years old. You never forget something like that.
Almost 30 years later I was a priest serving in the Oklahoma City area when the Federal Building was bombed, killing 168 innocent persons — including 19 babies — and injuring more than 680 others. Actually there were 171 deaths because three of the victims were pregnant.
I had the funerals of two of the victims, Ethel Griffin and Tony Reyes. The grief of those families and indeed all of Oklahoma City was profound. We all drove with our lights on day and night until the last body was recovered. It felt like a month-long funeral procession.
Practically everybody knew someone who had died. We felt some relief when the bombers were arrested and convicted, knowing that they would never be in a position to do that again. Terry Nichols was given life without possibility of parole.
Timothy McVeigh was condemned to die, which actually turned out to be counterproductive: it made him something of a hero to some anti-government, white-supremacist groups to the point that for several years we had to live with heightened security every April 19 for fear of copy-cat bombers.
Far from making us safer, his execution exposed us to greater danger because violence begets more violence, regardless of whether the killer is a Timothy McVeigh or the state of Oklahoma. By contrast, his accomplice, Terry Nichols is paying for his crimes in prison, a nobody, unable to inspire even white supremacists.
On the other hand, in 1996 — the year after the OKC bombing — I accompanied Eric Patton to his execution by lethal injection for the brutal murder of Charlene Kauer whom he killed in a moment of passion under the influence of cocaine. Her family did not attend the execution. Her husband Les Kauer said, “The execution will do little more than stir up painful memories.”
I know many families of victims may feel like an execution will bring them closure, but true closure, the kind of closure that God’s peace provides, cannot be obtained through the state-imposed taking of another life.
We think of premeditated killing as being even worse than crimes of passion. When the state kills, it is premeditated. Eric was a model prisoner who probably should have been given a life sentence with drug treatment required — or at most, life without possibility of parole, but certainly not a sentence of death. Whenever people said they supported the death penalty, I had them speak with Peggy Patton, his mother and an active parishioner. Once they experienced the toll it takes on innocent members of even the perpetrator’s family, they usually changed their mind.
So I have experienced the death penalty from the side of innocent victims and the side of criminals executed, and what is violated in both cases is the sanctity of life: either by the criminal or by the state.
I know you often hear Catholics talk about the sanctity of life in the context of abortion, so today I need to emphasize two obvious things: 1) life does not cease to be sacred once the baby is born, and 2) no one will be fully secure until we reject everything that threatens human life or degrades human dignity.
Jesus’ teaching about the sanctity of life is a seamless garment — an organic whole — that has come unraveled to the point that we tolerate utterly immoral behavior as if it were nothing — after all, if life is not sacred, “Who cares what the state does?” He was a criminal, after all! Jesus — who was himself executed as a criminal — proclaims the sanctity of life at every stage of human existence from the first moment of conception to natural death and at every moment in between.
God’s gift of life is sacred, regardless of a person’s usefulness to society, which means that there is no justification whatsoever to take the lives of people who are locked away and pose no further threat to society.
The Old Testament passages that call for the execution of criminals have to be read in the context of a semi-nomadic people living in tents who did not have any way to incarcerate vicious criminals long term, much less for life. And that is the only possible justification for capital punishment: when and only when, a society has no other way to protect itself.
We do not live in tents and we have very secure prisons capable of keeping dangerous people off the streets for life.
So in the United States today, capital punishment is never justified, no matter how heinous the crime. Not even in the case of Timothy McVeigh! Even his life was sacred, regardless of what anybody thinks — including even what he might have thought — because it was given to him by God. So also were the lives of his victims.
So I appeal to the Arkansas state legislature to abolish the death penalty in our state and to Gov. Hutchinson to commute the sentences of all those on death row to life in prison, even if without possibility of parole. And as a first step, I appeal to Gov. Hutchinson not to schedule any executions at this time.
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