Jose Medellin is scheduled to be executed tonight.
If you don't know about him, you can read this article--but I'll warn you: the details of his and several other gang members' vicious and deadly attack on two innocent girls who happened to walk past the wrong place at the wrong time is not for the weak of stomach. Medellin admits to his role in the crimes, the savage gang-rape and murders of two very young women.
I know that as Catholics we have to consider seriously the words of the late Pope John Paul II on the matter of the death penalty. It is, indeed, often indiscriminately and unjustly applied; innocent people have been put to death when governments allow too widespread a use of it, and there is always the danger that societies which take pride in their use of the death penalty will forget that God is the author of life, and the proper authority in the matter of death, as well.
When we look at the details of this case, though, it's easy to make the argument that this ought to be one of the exceptions, one of the rare circumstances even JPII believed existed which would make the death penalty a correct punishment on some occasions. There is no question of Medellin's guilt. There is no question that he and the others with him inflicted the most terrible agonies on their young victims, for no reason at all: a brutal, senseless, damnable crime.
It's easy to make the case that Medellin should be executed, and much harder to argue that he should not be. I'm not going to argue either way, just now, except to say that although I have sympathy with both points of view I'm more sympathetic at this juncture with those who think the death penalty is the appropriate response to a crime of this magnitude.
But I have to admit that one of the reasons I think so is because we don't make life in prison all that difficult for prisoners. A sentence of life in prison may seem, and may even be, horrible enough--but when prisons boast all the latest amenities, when prisoners in America live better than many honest people in third-world countries, when prisoners are provided with luxuries and expected to provide little in return, then putting someone like Medellin in prison for life--even without the possibility of parole--seems like a life of comfort and goodness compared to the horrible deaths to which he and his gang condemned those two innocent girls.
If Catholics are going to take the stance that the death penalty is almost never justified, if our moral theology is increasingly ill-at-ease with leaving this power in the hands of governments (even as we admit that the Church has always seen this power as properly belonging only to governments, and never to individuals), then we have to step up to the plate and start insisting that our most-secure prisons for our worst offenders, the prisons which really are intended to hold those who will never again be permitted to walk freely among free men and women, should be a reflection of the notion of punishment. This does not mean that prisoners should be stripped of the dignity proper to all men and women, of course. But it does mean that a life sentence should really be that, that some productive work should be expected of those incarcerated, and that there should be few if any luxuries permitted to people like Medellin whose actions are a so great a stain on society.
As it is now, a "life sentence" for most prisoners means eventual release, and not such a bad life in the meantime. If we're going to end the death penalty in America, we need to make sure that the sentence of "life in prison without possibility of parole" really means that, and that this sentence will be almost as feared and hated by those in danger of receiving it as the death penalty is now. And we have a long way to go, to get to that point.