Right to Life?

April 21-27
VOL 124 NO. 15
Right to Life?
By Connie Cissell/ SUN editor
Measuring the value of a single life took centerstage with the case of Terri Schiavo and the illness of Pope John Paul II. Some members of society claim to be able to evaluate the usefulness of one’s life through scientific means and measurements. But can the value of a human being or a human being’s potential be evaluated by other human beings? “Life, one’s own and that of others, cannot be disposed of at will: it belongs to the Author of life,” is the answer that Pope John Paul II gave to the church in Every Human Life is Sacred, Feb. 2, 1997.

Catholics and people of all faiths struggled with that question as they watched the pope slowly make the sign of the cross without uttering a sound and watched the video of Terri Schiavo’s eyes lighting up when her mother leaned close to her. These images were shown over and over again on countless news stations and internet websites.

Among those whose lives are considered disposable are those on death row in prisons across the U.S. Time and technology have come a long way in un-doing some of the “human error” involved in a frighteningly large number of capital punishment cases. Yet, one could argue that it is difficult to compare the life of the unborn, the life of Terri Schiavo, the life of the pope and the life of a serial killer. But looking at the typical person on death row means acknowledging that he/she likely came from the most poor, vulnerable and marginalized portion of society — exactly the type of person Catholic teaching commands the faithful to love and care for.

In New York State, the State Appeals Court overturned the death penalty in June of 2004. The court ruled by a 4-3 vote that a central provision of the state’s capital punishment law violated the New York State Constitution. The court struck down the so-called “deadlock” provision which instructed a jury that if it did not agree on either of two sentencing choices — either capital punishment or life without parole — the judge could impose a third, more lenient choice: life with the possibility of parole. The court ruled that this instruction could coerce jurors into voting for a death sentence to avoid the possibility of a killer eventually being set free on parole. The New York State Senate passed a bill proposed by Gov. George Pataki to restore capital punishment. The Assembly held hearings on the issue attempting to gain some understanding of the way the death penalty is implemented. On April 12, the Assembly Codes Committee voted not to report the death penalty bill from committee, thereby stopping the bill and preventing the reinstatement of the death penalty in New York State at least for the present year.

Bishop Howard Hubbard of the Albany Diocese spoke at the Assembly hearings, as did Sam Donnelly, a parishioner of Holy Cross Church in DeWitt and a professor at Syracuse University. Bishop Hubbard, the chairman of the New York State Catholic Conference Public Policy Committee, spoke in January on behalf of all the eight dioceses in New York.

“Vengeance is an understandable human reaction when great evil confronts us,” Bishop Hubbard told the State Assembly, “but it is not the morally acceptable reaction.” Bishop Hubbard said that victims of violence do not heal through execution. He cited a book written by the mother of a murder victim. In the book, Journey of Hope: From Violence to Healing, Marietta Jaeger-Lane wrote, “To kill him for what he had done to her [her daughter] would be to violate and profane the goodness and sweetness of her life. I could not honor her memory by becoming that which I deplored — someone who wants to kill.”

The Assembly’s more cautious approach to the death penalty has given hope to Catholics against the death penalty.

“Every little victory leads to the momentum of ending capital punishment,” said Bill Cuddy, founder of the Syracuse Diocese’s Jail Ministry program. “The horizon looks more favorable to ending it than it has in a long time.”

Cindy Falise is director of the diocese’s Respect Life Office and also a board member of New Yorkers Against the Death Penalty. She serves on that board with fellow Catholics Kathleen Gallagher from the New York State Catholic Conference and Bishop Hubbard. Falise calls the senate’s action a “quick fix.” The senate bill was designed to address the constitutional flaws in the law but didn’t address real change of the law itself. One of the questions Falise raised regarding capital punishment is its application.

“The way the death penalty is administered in New York State is arbitrary,” Falise said, “because each district attorney has the autonomy to choose how a person is tried when they commit a crime.” The district attorneys are elected. Of the 62 counties in New York State, since 1995 only six counties have chosen to use the death penalty and none of those counties is downstate, Falise said.

The bishops of New York State join the U.S. bishops in highlighting the injustice of capital punishment. Bishop Thomas Costello recently noted that the words of The Catechism of the Catholic Church were changed in 1997 to reflect the growing need to re-evaluate the issue of capital punishment. Paragraph 2267 now reads: “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 with the dignity of the human person.”

The state bishops’ conference website contains much information regarding Catholic teaching and the death penalty. More and more poll results, including a recent Zogby poll, point to the public’s disenchantment with capital punishment. Gov. George Ryan of Illinois did much to highlight the inconsistency of the issue when he commuted the sentences of those on death row in his state. He took to heart the research done by undergraduate students at Northwestern University that pointed to evidence about a man on death row who was wrongly convicted.

Another man wrongly convicted, Bobby McLaughlin, recently visited Syracuse and Utica to talk about his experience in the criminal justice system. When he was 20 years old there was an execution-style murder in his neighborhood park in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn. He was picked up a week later and asked to come to the police station and was put in a line up. He said he cooperated because it was his neighborhood and he’d heard about the murder. What he didn’t expect was for a 15 year old witness to identify him as the murderer.

“I even had an alibi,” McLaughlin said, “I had three people who provided the alibi but they think your friends are lying for you.”

McLaughlin was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. He didn’t have the financial resources for a top notch defense team.

“Mine was the district attorney’s first case. It was the detective’s first homicide case,” McLaughlin said. His foster father worked tirelessly to exonerate McLaughlin. “He put together packets of information about the case and mailed it to every place — from churches, media, the civil liberties people.” The television show “20/20” did a segment on McLaughlin’s case. Apparently there was another man with the same name as McLaughlin but with a different spelling who had a prior connection with one of the perpetrators in the park shooting. That is why the police picked McLaughlin up and brought him in for the line up.

Finally, after spending six and a half years in prison, McLaughlin got the chance for a new trial. At that time the witness admitted he was never sure about identifying McLaughlin previously in the line up.

“A lot of the time it’s not the court system that helps get you out,” McLaughlin said. “It’s the people who believe in your innocence who never stop trying to get you out.”

Now McLaughlin travels around the country speaking as part of the Innocence Project. He said that life in prison must be more painful than death.

“Every day I lived in fear,” McLaughlin said of his jail time. “I try to tell people the same fear the victims go through will be experienced by the person who goes to jail for life. They will live that fear every day.”

He is convinced prison for life is the right option for those convicted of murder. “You can’t put a price on life. Once we kill them we become murderers,” McLaughlin said. “What are we teaching our children?”

New York State bishops note on their website that since 1973, 117 people in 25 states have been released from death row with evidence of their innocence. Pope John Paul II stated on many occasions the dignity of the human person at all levels of life. In St. Louis during a papal visit in 1999, the pope said, “Modern society has the means of protecting itself, without definitively denying criminals the chance to reform. I renew the appeal I made most recently at Christmas for a consensus to end the death penalty, which is both cruel and unnecessary.”

Educating Catholics about the death penalty is a priority for the U.S. bishops. They wrote in a Good Friday appeal to end the death penalty six years ago, “We oppose capital punishment not just for what it does to those guilty of horrible crimes but for what it does to all of us as a society. Increasing reliance on the death penalty diminishes us and is a sign of growing disrespect for human life.”

Now armed with new information regarding Catholic opinion and capital punishment, the bishops have recently renewed their campaign to end the death penalty. They cite the fact that Catholics are re-examining their position on the death penalty. They also point out statements from the Vatican, the U.S. bishops, and the Catechism all clearly oppose the use of the death penalty.

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