Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Matters of Life and Death

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.


Histor said...

"As it is now, a "life sentence" for most prisoners means eventual release, and not such a bad life in the meantime."

I would take issue with that one line... http://www.spr.org/index.asp


Red Cardigan said...

Histor, that's very true. I suppose what I meant was that from the point of view of what society actually requires from prisoners etc. it's not such a bad life, especially when compared to the daily hardships endured by the poor in our own country, let alone those in other nations around the world.

Prisoner abuse of other prisoners is a serious problem that should be dealt with as any other crime would be, and to the extent that it isn't it's a disgrace.

Daddio said...

Good post. I would be awfully conflicted if abolishing the death penalty should show up on a ballot. I won't be advocating for the death penalty, but I certainly won't be losing any sleep over it either. Much bigger fish to fry, namely abortion. I find it ironic that some of the most vocal anti-death penalty Catholics are also fairly liberal in other aspects including contraception and abortion (some, certainly not all). And I resent their assertion that there is a contradiction in being both anti-abortion and pro-death-penalty.

Alexandra said...

I worked in both the prisons in Florida and Virginia for 13 years, and you'll be happy to know that they are horrible broken down places filled with roaches, bad food, overcrowding and violence. They also stink and are stark and depressing. You do get three meals and a cot, but that's it. No freedom or privacy. Most state prisons are like this from what I understand.

Thankfully, Virginia has done away with parole, so sentences even with good behavior are served almost in their entirety. We also have mandatory sentence minimum for violent crimes which is awesome.

The imposition of the death penalty is so arbitrary! If you've got a good lawyer, there is a real possibility of getting life over death. It's very subjective. The system is not perfect, I know but there is a lot of funny stuff which goes on. It's who you know, and how much you are willing to fork out for a lawyer.

Certain people often get breaks and sentences can be very inconsistent. They've tried to get some consistency with sentences by using sentencing guidelines which I think helped somewhat.

I'm glad I'm out of it. I've seen so much depravity! Praying for the souls of these men, and for the repost of their victims.

Red Cardigan said...

Alexandra, thanks for writing.

I think the frustration I have is that we seem to spend a lot of money on "rehabilitation" style programs for men who will never leave prison, and let men who are supposed to be "rehabilitated" live in the conditions you describe without really helping them to reform their lives. There's no rhyme or reason for it.

When a killer like Medellin gets more sympathy than his victims, that's terribly wrong--but it's also terribly wrong to put people convicted of lesser offenses in substandard conditions and refuse to help them return to the world when they have served their time. There's a lot of wrong, all around.

I used to be more pro-death penalty. Now, I'm mostly against it. Experiences of people like you, and books like Erle Stanley Gardner's "Court of Last Resort" have been the influences in addition to JPII's thoughts.

Medellin's a hard case, and I know that hard cases make bad laws.

Oremus said...

"On Tuesday, Medellin, now 33, is set for execution in Huntsville for his role in the slayings 15 years ago."

Maybe this is a dumb questions but here it goes.

Why 15 years? Does it take that long for an execution to take place?
I think that is unfair.

We had an execution here that the man had waited 20+ years.
Who decides how long before the execution will take place?
Just curious.

Sarahndipity said...

I am very pro-life on abortion and also anti-death penalty, at least for the most part. I think the death penalty is only appropriate if it's the only way to protect society. I used to think such cases were extremely rare, at least in modern society with maximum security prisons. Why kill someone if you can keep people safe while locking them up? But now I’m starting to think that such cases are not as rare as I first thought. Sometimes, for example, gang leaders can still operate from inside jail, or prisoners can harm or kill other prisoners or prison guards. Sometimes, people are in danger as long as someone remains alive, and in those cases, I think the death penalty is appropriate. It’s a form of self-defense. So I suppose I’m slightly more pro-death penalty than I used to be. I just have a hard time with the idea that the death penalty is appropriate if the crime is heinous enough. Unless this person would be violent in jail or could still somehow cause crimes to be committed, that use of the death penalty seems more like revenge to me. But I completely agree with you that prisoners should be expected to do productive work and should be denied luxuries.

Daddio said...

There's a difference between "revenge" and "justice". Execution is a just punishment for murder. As long as the perpetrator is given a fair trial and ample time to consult the clergyman of their choice and prepare their souls.