Death Penalty

Sister Helen Prejean: Tsarnaev ‘Genuinely Sorry for What He Did’

Sr. Helen Prejean. Photo via REUTERS / Judy Fidkowski / RNS
Sr. Helen Prejean. Photo via REUTERS / Judy Fidkowski / RNS

Sister Helen Prejean, the Catholic nun and anti-death penalty activist whose story came to fame with the 1995 film Dead Man Walking, took the stand on May 11 in the penalty phase of convicted Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s trial. She said he is “genuinely sorry for what he did,” and told her how he felt about the suffering he caused to the bombing’s victims.

“He said it emphatically,” Prejean said.

“He said no one deserves to suffer like they did.”

In Every Human Heart

vectorbest / Shutterstock.com
vectorbest / Shutterstock.com

News reports about the trial and the jury’s deliberations spark fury online. Tempers rise as commenters express their opinions about what they believe should be Tsarnaev’s fate. For example, when the Catholic bishops stood in front of the courthouse expressing their opposition to the death penalty, many responded with outrage: “He should be made to suffer as much as he made others suffer.” “Let him fry.” “Torture him and then kill him.” Similarly, when Bill and Denise Richard, the parents of the 8-year-old boy killed by the explosion, wrote a letter expressing their desire to take the death penalty off the table, their views provoked ire.

What motivates these different perspectives? Is justice about vengeance, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth? Is someone who advocates for life imprisonment soft on crime? Is such a person naïve?

Confusing Jesus with Daredevil

Image courtesy Marvel's Daredevil on Facebook
Image courtesy Marvel's Daredevil on Facebook

Like many comic book fans, I spent the weekend binging on Daredevil, Marvel’s newest release. The entire first season was created for Netflix, and it dropped in its entirety on Friday. I waited until Saturday night to dig in (longer than some friends of mine), and I was hooked from the opening scene.

It's a scene that opens with Matt Murdock (lawyer-by-day alter ego of the masked vigilante Daredevil) sitting in a confessional. He begins by telling the priest about his father, a boxer who fought harder than his record could ever show. He ends the conversation by asking not for penance, but for future forgiveness — forgiveness for what he’s about to do. “That’s not how this works,” the priest says.

Yet so much of how Murdock as Daredevil works in this latest iteration of the character is how we want it to work. Based closely on Frank Miller’s writing of the character, Daredevil proves to be someone who deals justice unflinchingly. This isn’t someone who hesitates when the situation allows for a grim, overly firm hand. Contrast this with Batman, a character who struggles to commit severe violence even when it seems to be the only option.

Racial Reconciliation Demands Christians Reconsider the Death Penalty

Photo via California Department of Corrections / RNS
San Quentin death chamber. Photo via California Department of Corrections / RNS

A new report by the Equal Justice Initiative documents in horrific detail the nation’s widespread practice of lynching and points to a link between lynching and a practice that persists today: capital punishment.

In the Jim Crow South, lynching declined as officials turned to executions as an alternative method for killing blacks in disproportionate numbers.

This report challenges us to confront our nation’s legacy of racial violence. Sadly, too many Christians were complicit in this violence, which has prompted Christian denominations to apologize and emphasize racial reconciliation. Last week, the Southern Baptist Convention held a two-day race summit in which it urged pastors to do more to diversify their churches.

These are important steps.

But they only mark time if important actions don’t follow.

National Latino Evangelical Coalition Calls for Death Penalty Repeal

Death penalty protest in Seattle. Photo by javacolleen / Flickr.com
Death penalty protest in Seattle. Photo by javacolleen / Flickr.com

The National Latino Evangelical Coalition has voted to support repeal of the death penalty, calling it an anti-life practice. Urging their 3,000 congregations to support efforts to end capital punishment across the country, NaLEC joins an increasing number of Christians across the country and internationally who are realizing afresh the moral problems with the death penalty. Most recently Pope Francis went beyond the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church to call the “death penalty inadmissible, no matter how serious the crime committed.”

“After prayer, reflection, and dialog with anti-death penalty organizations like Equal Justice USA,” said Rev. Gabriel Salguero, president of NaLEC, in a news release. “we felt compelled to add our voice to this important issue. As Christ followers, we are called to work toward justice for all. And as Latinos, we know too well that justice is not always even-handed.”

Pope Francis Takes a Dim View of the Death Penalty, but Not All Catholics are Convinced

Pope Francis celebrates a Mass in Naples on March 21, 2015. Image via RNS/Reuter
Pope Francis celebrates a Mass in Naples on March 21, 2015. Image via RNS/Reuters.

On March 20, Pope Francis issued his most forceful call yet to abolish the death penalty, one that seemed to go even beyond current church teaching. Francis’ latest moves could signal a further development in Catholic teaching against capital punishment — and in his relationship with some U.S. Catholics.

“Today the death penalty is inadmissible, no matter how serious the crime committed,” Francis wrote in a detailed argument to the president of the International Commission against the Death Penalty, based in Madrid.

The pope said capital punishment “contradicts God’s plan for man and society” and “does not render justice to the victims, but rather fosters vengeance.”

Francis added that executing a prisoner can no longer be justified by a society’s need to defend itself. He addressed two issues prominent in the American context: He declared that the death penalty “loses all legitimacy” because of the possibility of judicial error, and he said “there is no humane way of killing another person.”

Several recent botched executions have given anti-death penalty advocates more ammunition for their arguments.

In his letter, the pontiff also repeated his view, expressed last October, that keeping inmates isolated in maximum security prisons is “a form of torture” and that life sentences are “a hidden death penalty” that should be abolished along with capital punishment.

These are unusually categorical and expansive statements, and they come on the heels of a campaign to abolish the death penalty worldwide, which gained Vatican support at a United Nations meeting in Geneva earlier this month.

In addition, four national Catholic journals from across the ideological spectrum — the National Catholic Reporter; America; Our Sunday Visitor; and the National Catholic Register — earlier this month published an unprecedented joint editorial calling for an end to the death penalty in the U.S. in the wake of those botched executions and increasing doubts about the fairness of the justice system.

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