Sunday, November 9, 2014

Death Penalty Part II

The Bear would like to revisit a couple of points on the recent death penalty discussion.

The Bible is held by the Catholic Church to be inerrant. However, the Church has formally defined only a handful of passages. It would be wrong to take the approach that "since the Church says the Bible is inerrant, everything in it is true in some particular way." It must be interpreted as a whole, and in light of the Church's teachings. Just because the Old Testament commands the death penalty (for homosexuals, as an example) doesn't mean we must execute homosexuals in our day.

While we must admit that the Bible has required capital punishment, we do not interpret these passages in a vacuum, as do Protestants. By the same token, we do have to acknowledge that the Bible is no more unfavorable to capital punishment than it is to slavery.

The Church has condoned and committed many acts in its history that we would probably not wish to revisit, not because there are clear theological reasons against them, but, well, it is considered prudent and merciful not to. Prudent, because nowadays we have other options, such as long-term imprisonment, and are more careful of accidentally offing the wrong guy. (Plus, being one of the few countries that still executes people puts us in a small and rather unsavory club.) Merciful, because mercy is a large part of Christianity, and it may be best expressed with those who least deserve it.

The Bear does not believe anyone will find a dogma from pope or council saying Catholics must believe in the death penalty, de fide.

By the same token, it is just an argument. The Bear would not say the Church requires you to be against the death penalty. The Bear believes there are all sorts of good arguments against the death penalty. However, one of them isn't the Church forbids it. Indeed, it was an enthusiastic practitioner in the days of the Papal States, as the Bear believes he conceded.

So let's just say the Bear finds a convergence between some of the better arguments the Church offers and his own uncommon experience as a death penalty defense lawyer.

There is one argument the Bear thinks is a strong one for the death penalty. If a person knows the day he is going to meet his Maker, there is an immediate incentive to come to terms with God. (It may, perhaps, prove too much, however!)

How is this different from the arguments in favor of homosexuality? Homosexuality has never been approved, and has always been condemned. The death penalty is not a part of bedrock sexual morality that cannot change. The death penalty is a policy, and can be changed without sin. It is, moreover, consistent with Christ's teaching on mercy.

So, while the Bear would not argue the Church requires you to be against the death penalty, it is currently making good arguments that might appeal to your sense of prudence or mercy.


  1. Thank you, Bear. I am grateful for your experience and thoughtful examination of this subject.

  2. Some confuse eternal mercy and secular mercy.

    The Death Penalty: Mercy, Expiation, Redemption & Salvation

    Jesus and the Death Penalty

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  5. Prudence.


    No credible case of an innocent executed, in the US, since the 1930's.

    Since 1973, there have been 14,000 - 28,000 actual innocents murdered by those known murderers that we allowed to murder, again - recidivist murderers (two different recidivism studies from different years).

    The Death Penalty: Do Innocents Matter? A Review of All Innocence Issues

    The Innocent Frauds: Standard Anti Death Penalty Strategy

    OF COURSE THE DEATH PENALTY DETERS: A review of the debate
    99.7% of murderers tell us "Give me life, not execution"

    1. Gotta to call totally bogus on your 99.7% of defendants prefer life over execution. This runs opposite my experience and that of the death penalty practitioners I know, and I can't believe Illinois experience is so different from everyplace else. There's even a name for it: "Patrick Henry Syndrome."

      I checked out the links (in the future, I'd prefer to hear your own thoughts with perhaps one link inviting interested parties to your blog) and I just can't agree with the reasoning behind the arguments.

      The fact is, someone has to (a) be prepared to kill someone; (b) fear being caught; (c) think through his odds of being convicted if caught, and receiving the death penalty if convicted, if the DP is to be a deterrent. I am here to tell you that with rare exceptions (I mentioned one) murderers are often not planning on killing anyone until they do, do not consider consequences, and are thus immune to deterrence. Deterrence requires more than living from moment to moment. This does not describe very many of my clients, and the ones it does considered their odds and figured they were clever enough to get away with it.

      We know innocents get convicted. It is likely the man in Texas accused of burning his family to death was innocent. Half of the inmates on Illinois' death row were released because they were exonerated. Good thing we had those lengthy appeals people hate so much going for them, huh? 50/50 isn't very good.

      We not only know people are wrongfully convicted, but can tell you the main reasons: inaccurate eyewitness identification (often by police failing to use the gold standard double blind photo lineup method); and false confession (yes; think I've talked about that one). We even know how to keep it from happening. (Requiring police to videotape interrogations.)

      I am a non-death-penalty movement Bear who happens to have learned a thing or two about capital punishment over 20 years. Take it on board or not, but please realize there may be another side to this issue.


  6. I’m comfortable with life without possibility of parole (when it really means - barring the unforeseen - without possibility of parole). This allows for reversal of a conviction if new evidence is discovered that reveals the prisoner to be innocent. I agree with those who point out that the life of the victim, as well as the lives of his or her loved ones, have been permanently altered by the perpetrator, who thereby has forfeited his or her right to anything but a permanently altered state of life, and toward whom a life sentence is an act of mercy.

    Have seen in the blogosphere what are, to me, disturbing hints that Pope Francis is working on portraying life imprisonment without possibility of parole as cruel and inhuman punishment antithetical to properly ordered Christian belief. Ordinarily I would dismiss such talk as mere rumor, but disturbing rumors about the Holy Father’s projects have, too often for comfort, turned out to be true.

    Some believe that the death penalty is a deterrent. Others, believing that most murders are spur-of-the-moment crimes of passion, think that the death penalty rarely is a deterrent. I suppose it could be argued that murderers aren’t deterred by the death penalty because they tend to value their own lives as little as they value the lives of others, but that is an argument that is difficult for me to take seriously.

    If it is true that, statistically, murder rates drop in communities where concealed carry is permitted, that would seem to bolster the argument that the death penalty does, at least to some extent, act as a deterrent.

    Would appreciate your thoughts, Bear.

  7. I think most people think of general deterrence when it comes to the word "deterrence," i.e. it will serve as an example to others so they will fear the punishment and not commit the crime. It is this kind of deterrence that I don't have any faith in for the reasons I have already argued.

    There is also "specific deterrence" which goes to a particular individual. For example, handing out a stiff punishment may deter that individual from committed the crime again, lest he receive the same or worse. I'm not convinced that even that has much of an effect.

    Incapacitation is certainly valid. People on the inside are not on the outside committed crimes.

    I believe most people are coming from the idea of retribution, which is valid, or else mercy would be meaningless. As for rights, I tend to view them as something that mediates relations between citizen and the state. That's why I'm nonplussed about "Victims' Rights," because it is the defendant -- who may be innocent -- that needs protection from an overreaching state.

    Concealed carried law is really another animal, because they are an immediate uncertainty / threat well within the circle of consideration of all but the most deranged killer.

    Once again, I am drawn back to the correlation between political views and Catholicism. Personally, I think I've done my part as far as the death penalty goes in my state. I agree with you that abolishing LWOP is probably an idea that could take another twenty minutes baking, like so many of our Pontiff's.

    1. LWOP means different things depending on where you are. In Illinois LWOP means you come out in a box, just later, rather than sooner.


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