Hearts and minds were moved as two Notre Dame professors and a Holy Cross priest sat in panel to discuss the question of capital punishment. Professor Ed Kelly of Writing and Rhetoric discussed a prison-exchange program he coordinates, Father Tom McNally offered personal insights from his ministry as a chaplain to death-row inmates, and Professor Jay Tidmarsh of the Law School reflected on the legal aspects of the issue.
Kelly began his thoughts by offering three arguments against the death penalty. First, he believes that “systems of privilege and oppression” existing in the legal system make the death penalty impossible to implement correctly. He argues that the ratio of poor people and minorities who receive the death penalty is disproportionately high.
In addition, Kelly also believes that violence will not fix violence. Violence on the part of the state is still violence, and for those who argue that the penalty deters crime, Kelly argued that “the surest way to make someone violent is to punish him.”
At the end of the day, Kelly contended, the state is killing human beings who have inherent dignity. Through his prison exchange program, Kelly said that he has met “warm, compassionate human beings” behind bars, whom most people would regard as monsters. He recalled the execution in 1994 of an inmate he knew, who, on being led to the gas chamber, cried, “I’m human, I’m human!”
Based on his experiences as a prison chaplain, McNally offered another perspective. Every Sunday and Thursday he drives to the prison in Michigan City to serve the 120 Catholics interred there. On Sundays, he offers Mass, and on Thursdays he visits the “segregated unit,” which houses the death row inmates. He visits with the men on death row on a one-to-one basis, because as many as 20 of the interred there would like the opportunity to speak with a priest. McNally refers to these men, with whom he prays and to whom he offers Communion, as his friends.
McNally then described the process of execution, when “time runs out.” The execution itself takes place at midnight; he stays with the prisoner from seven until ten o’clock. He encourages the prisoners to talk about their pasts and childhoods, which they usually depict in extremely negative terms. If the inmates are willing, he will hear their confessions and offer them Last Rites. McNally finished his account with these powerful words: “You can imagine how very much opposed I am to the death penalty… I’ve seen some of my friends die.”
Finally, Tidmarsh provided the audience with legal reflections on the death penalty. In his legal practice, Tidmarsh has been effective in preventing many executions. He confirmed that there exists “a system of privilege” against certain populations, especially the mentally ill and handicapped. The legal problem with the death penalty, according to Tidmarsh, is the lack of consistency in its application. Every county has its own protocol; as an example of this, all death-row inmates in Indiana come from 2-3 counties.
To win the battle against capital punishment from a legal perspective, argued Tidmarsh, lawyers ought to claim that the death penalty is comprehended in “cruel and unusual punishment”, i.e. that the meaning of cruel and unusual punishment has “changed in significance over time.”
The panelists then heard questions from the audience, the first of which asked for their opinion on life without parole. McNally very hesitatingly said that he would keep life without parole “for now,” but explained his reservations. Some people he has encountered would prefer death to life in prison; the penalty is extremely severe and permits no leeway for conversion, but seems necessary at this time.
Every person has the potential for redemption, Kelly argued, and the existence of prison-exchange programs and the participation of former criminals are critical in achieving this. McNally agreed.
Tidmarsh also expressed the legal reservations he held about life-without-parole: since the death penalty is always on the table, some prosecutors call for death, hoping to negotiate the penalty down to life in prison. Tidmarsh believes that this is an abuse of the system.
Another important question posed to the interlocutors was the question of abortion in the hierarchy of life-issues, and whether it should in some way trump the death penalty. McNally, who has dedicated a large portion of his life to the death penalty question, even still argued that “abortion has gotta be number one”, and in turn questioned whether people fighting against the death penalty sometimes did not fight sufficiently against abortion.
Dale Parker is the editor emeritus of Religion & Ethics. He has retired to living the good life and enjoying the finer things. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.