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In Colorado, an Eye for an Eye

Mark Gordon - published on 04/03/13

All life has value - even the life of a killer

On a late Friday evening last July, James Holmes arrived at the Century movie theater in Aurora, Colorado. He bought a ticket for the midnight showing of the new Batman movie, “The Dark Knight Rises,” and took a seat in the front row of the theater. Shortly after the film began, Holmes left the theater through an emergency exit beside the screen, taking care to rig the door so it wouldn’t lock behind him. Ten minutes later he reentered wearing a helmet, gas mask and protective tactical gear. He was carrying pyrotechnic smoke grenades, a 12-guage shotgun, a semi-automatic rifle with a 100-round drum magazine and a 40-caliber Glock handgun. Holmes popped the smoke and proceeded to methodically unload his ammunition into the unsuspecting crowd. Within a matter of minutes, 70 moviegoers had been shot, 12 fatally. Not long afterward, Holmes was arrested without incident in the parking lot.

Yesterday, the State of Colorado announced that it would seek the death penalty in its prosecution of Holmes, a move that had been widely expected. “For James Eagan Holmes, justice is death,” said George Brauchler, the District Attorney for Arapahoe County. Bryan Beard, a friend of one of Holmes’s victims, expressed the sentiments of many when he said, “Thank goodness. I am so happy this is happening. The only way death will receive justice when somebody murders somebody else is death."  

Colorado is one of 33 American states that provide for the capital punishment in some form, although the state has only executed one prisoner since 1976, when the Supreme Court’s Gregg v. Georgia decision ended a four-year ban on the death penalty in the United States. By contrast, Texas has executed over 480 prisoners during that same period. Federal law and the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) also provide for capital punishment in cases of murder, treason, and espionage. In the past 50 years, the federal government has executed three persons, including Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber. The last execution conducted by the US military was in 1961. In recent years, the science of DNA and questions about racial and class inequality has resulted in five states enacting statutes or constitutional amendments ending the practice of capital punishment in their jurisdictions.

Globally, the United States is one of only handful of nations that permits capital punishment, and the only Western industrialized democracy to do so. The death penalty is legal in Japan for murder and treason. In Israel, its use is restricted to wartime and applied only to war crimes and treason. The death penalty is legal in India but rarely applied or executed: there are far fewer people on death row in India than in the United States, despite a population almost four times that of our own. The People’s Republic of China executes hundreds or even thousands of prisoners each year for a variety of crimes. But the Chinese per capita rate of execution is exceeded by that of the Islamic Republic of Iran, which executes offenders for everything from murder and treason to armed robbery and homosexuality. Finally, apart from Guatemala, the death penalty has been abolished in every Central and South American nation.

The reasons why capital punishment is still practiced in the United States are culturally, politically, and even demographically complex. As late as the early decades of the 20th Century, most Western nations retained the death penalty in one form or another. In the aftermath of the carnage of World War II, the practice was abandoned across Western Europe, and in the years following the fall of the Soviet Union the nations of Eastern Europe followed suit. The United States’ unique federal system largely left the question of capital punishment up to the states, which are much more responsive to their voting populations than the national government. In addition, the American South, Southwest, and Plains states have far higher percentages of fundamentalist and evangelical Christians than either the rest of the country or the rest of the Western democracies. Finally, there is also the American tradition of frontier justice and the “hang ‘em high” mythology of a Wild West peopled by sheriffs, outlaws, and the innocents in between. Given this combination of federalism, religious belief and cultural mythology, it is no accident that the death penalty in the United States still enjoys strong support in many regions of the country.

Catholics have – or should have – a different point of view, one informed by Church teaching and forged by centuries of experience in working out the moral and social implications of capital punishment. Paragraph #2267 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church states:

Assuming that the guilty party's identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.

If, however, 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.

Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm – without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself – the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity "are very rare, if not practically nonexistent."

In his landmark encyclical, Evangelium Vitæ (The Gospel of Life), Blessed Pope John Paul II wrote that punishment, even for murder, “ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Today however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent.“ The Holy Father echoed those remarks in a homily given at the Papal Mass in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1999, when he linked a rejection of the death penalty to the both the New Evangelization and the Culture of Life, saying, “The new evangelization calls for followers of Christ who are unconditionally pro-life: who will proclaim, celebrate and serve the Gospel of life in every situation. A sign of hope is the increasing recognition that the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil. . . . I renew the appeal I made . . . for a consensus to end the death penalty, which is both cruel and unnecessary.”

This call for an end to the death penalty was continued by John Paul II’s successor, Pope Benedict XVI. Just 18 months ago, while speaking to an anti-death penalty group in Rome, the Holy Father expressed a hope “that your deliberations will encourage the political and legislative initiatives being promoted in a growing number of countries to eliminate the death penalty and to continue the substantive progress made in conforming penal law both to the human dignity of prisoners and the effective maintenance of public order.”

In context, three things are clear. First, the Church does not teach that capital punishment is an intrinsic evil like abortion or euthanasia. Those acts are always immoral and deserving of condemnation, regardless of mitigating social and even personal considerations. The Church’s teaching on the death penalty is much closer to her teaching on war: that it may sometimes be a legitimate prerogative of civil authorities, but only as a last resort and under stringent conditions. However, modern popes have taught that in the developed nations those conditions are practically non-existent, and that therefore the actual use of the death penalty is not morally licit.

Second, the Church fully retains her teaching on the four-fold purpose of criminal punishment: retribution, the defense of society, deterrence, and the rehabilitation of the offender. Bryan Beard, the friend of an Aurora, Colorado, shooting victim, offered his own concise depiction of retributive justice in the quote cited above: “The only way death will receive justice when somebody murders somebody else is death.” Beard’s formula matches the loss of a life with the loss of a life, and for many centuries the Church accepted this zero-sum calculation as legitimate in many if not most cases. But retributive justice need not be limited to a precise balance of crimes and punishments – no one, for instance, recommends amputation for theft or the sodomizing of rapists. The Church is saying that given advances in technology and penology, and considering the wider disregard for human life that characterizes the “culture of death,” the satisfaction of retributive justice can be accomplished by means short of the imposition of death by the state. Similarly, the goals of defending society, deterring aggressors, and rehabilitating offenders can likewise be attained without recourse to capital punishment.

Third, the Church has placed opposition to capital punishment firmly within its wider concern about the growing culture of death. In the Church’s view, the death penalty perpetuates the cycle of violence by implicitly teaching that brutality is a justified and even moral response to brutality. For this reason, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, in their 2005 document titled “A Culture of Life and the Penalty of Death,” made clear that “it is time for our nation to abandon the illusion that we can protect life by taking life. Ending the use of the death penalty would be one important step away from a culture of death toward building a culture of life.”

We may never know with certainty why James Holmes, a brilliant 25 year-old neuroscientist, committed the crime he did last July. What we do know is that in the very randomness of his assault Holmes was attacking human life itself. We honor his victims by affirming that their lives had infinite value and should never have been taken from them. But we also honor them by making the same declaration about James Holmes: his life has infinite value, too, in spite of his deeds.

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