Doubting the death penalty

Bud Welch was driving his daughter Julie-Marie home from college when a radio signal drifted over the Iowa plains and started another talk about the big issues in life.

It was a report about another execution in Texas. Welch said his daughter's response was blunt: "Dad, all they're doing is teaching hate to their children. ... It has no social redeeming value." This remark was not surprising, since this whole Catholic family was opposed to the death penalty.

"I didn't think a hell of a lot of it at the time," admitted the Oklahoma City gas-station owner, in a speech recorded at Harvard University.

But Welch remembered her words after the Oklahoma City Federal Building blast, when he wanted to kill her killers. He wanted vengeance. Later, he realized that what he really wanted was for Timothy McVeigh to repent and somehow honor his victims. McVeigh couldn't do that if he was dead. Later, Welch promised the bomber's family he would do what he could to save McVeigh's life.

That's an inspiring story, but it stirs both anger and appreciation in churches and legislatures. Ask Al Gore. Ask George W. Bush. The death penalty issue just won't die and there are many good reasons for that, according to Cardinal Roger Mahony. This pope links it to a broader "culture of death."

"It's reflected in our movies and music, our television and video games, in our homes, schools and on our streets. More ominously, our society is tempted to solve some of our more significant social problems with violence," said Mahony, who leads the Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles

"Abortion is promoted to deal with difficult or unwanted pregnancies. Euthanasia and assisted suicide are suggested as a remedy for the burdens of age and illness. Capital punishment is marketed as the answer to deal with violent crime. A nation that destroys its young, abandons its elderly and relies on vengeance is in serious moral trouble."

Mahony admitted, in a National Press Club address, that support for the death penalty unites legions of politicians who rarely agree on anything else. Some people say opposing the death penalty is "liberal," while others call it "conservative." In Catholic circles, some insist that abortion and the death penalty are unique and totally separate issues. Others admit they are different, but insist that they share common roots.

The Catholic Catechism of 1997 acknowledges that "the traditional teaching of the church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty," if this is the "only possible way" to effectively defend citizens. However, many Catholics insist this statement must now be read in the light of 1999 statements made by Pope John Paul II.

Today's church, he said, in St. Louis, needs witnesses "who are unconditionally pro-life. ... 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. Modern society has the means of protecting itself, without definitively denying criminals the chance to reform."

Police also have access to remarkable new forms of technology to investigate who is guilty and who is not. But these techniques are often leading to hotter debates, not agreement. This is not a simple left vs. right debate, either.

Conservative pundit George Will recently noted that, in "the 24 years since the resumption of executions under Supreme Court guidelines, about 620 have occurred, but 87 condemned persons -- one for every seven executed -- had their convictions vacated by exonerating evidence. In eight of these cases ... the evidence was from DNA. One inescapable inference from these numbers is that some of the 620 persons executed were innocent."

There are 565 inmates on death row in California. The cardinal can do the math.

"I believe that the Gospel teaches that people are responsible for their actions," said Mahony. "I believe that the reality of sin demands that those who injure others must make reparation. But I do not believe that society is made safer, that our communities are made whole, or that our social fabric is strengthened, by killing those who kill others. Instead, the death penalty perpetuates an insidious cycle of violence that ... diminishes all of us."