Dear Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens,
As a Catholic moral theologian (and a former corrections officer and reserve police officer), I urge you to stay Mark Christeson’s execution, scheduled for Jan. 31. In my past experience in law enforcement and in lay ecclesial ministry, I knew first hand murderers, victims of murder, and families of the murdered. I acknowledge and ache about the anguish felt by loved ones and family members associated with the three counts of capital murder that he was convicted of committing when he was 18 years old. However, there are still ongoing federal appeals concerning Christeson’s right to representation by competent and adequately funded counsel. You have rightly highlighted this basic constitutional right to a fair trial and adequate legal representation:
We need a justice system that does justice by all of our people. As a constitutional conservative, I believe, as you do, that the constitution applies to every citizen. I believe in the 6th Amendment, which guarantees the right to a fair trial and adequate legal representation for all.
In recent years, other Republican governors and legislatures have stopped conducting executions, implemented a moratorium on executions, or even repealed the death penalty altogether. Among their concerns are:
- fiscally, capital punishment is expensive for taxpayers and state budgets;
- politically, capital punishment assumes too much trust in government, and relatedly;
- from a realistic perspective, mistakes (and worse, when prejudice and bias factor in) are made by human institutions, including the criminal justice system.
Moreover, morally, as a Catholic theologian, I agree with the teaching of recent popes and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on the death penalty, including the bishops of our state of Missouri.
Almost two decades ago, while visiting St. Louis, Pope John Paul II – now Saint John Paul – asked then-Gov. Mel Carnahan to commute the death sentence of Darrell Mease, and the governor complied with his request. Moreover, Saint John Paul called for the abolition of the death penalty:
The new evangelization calls for followers of Christ who are unconditionally pro-life: who will proclaim, celebrate and serve the Gospel of life in every situation. 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. I renew the appeal I made most recently at Christmas for a consensus to end the death penalty, which is both cruel and unnecessary. –Pope John Paul II, January 27, 1999, St. Louis, Missouri
Current Catholic teaching views executions carried out by state authorities as morally justified if it is “the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.” Paragraph 2267 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church adds:
“Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm–without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself–the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity ‘are very rare, if not practically nonexistent’” (quoting John Paul II, Evangelium vitae, 56).
The execution of Christeson is not absolutely necessary for the protection of the citizens of Missouri (or for the protection of the officers, staff, or other inmates at the prison).
Finally, all persons, Christians believe, are made in the image of God – not only the victims of violent crime and their family members, who definitely need our love and support, but also the murderers, for even perpetrators are persons. As Saint John Paul II put it, “Not even a murderer loses his personal dignity, and God himself pledges to guarantee this” (Evangelium vitae, 9). Hard as it is for me to fathom, we believe that no one is beyond God’s redemption.
Short of that, let’s at least err on the side of staying Christeson’s execution in order to allow for full legal representation in federal appeals to occur.
Thank you for your time and service.
Tobias Winright, Ph.D.
Editor's Note: This piece originally appeared at catholicmoraltheology.com.