A personal decision: going on the record against capital punishment

It’s time for some self-disclosure, as we used to say in psych class a generation ago. Deep breath now:

I am opposed to the death penalty.

There. I said it. I speak for myself and not for friends, family, clients, or employers. Some of you are thinking “so what? You’re pro-life. Of course you’re against the death penalty.” Others are thinking “that’s not our issue.” Others – probably the majority of the fine people with whom I’ve labored in the vineyard for years – will shake their heads and tell me that I just don’t understand the difference between innocent human life and those murderous thugs on death row. This isn’t an academic matter in my state, as we have a man on death row, and a bill to repeal the death penalty will be considered in Concord next January.

This isn’t a road-to-Damascus moment. It’s taken me a long time to get here, just as it took time for me to reject the laws that let us treat our preborn children as property. Unlike abortion or euthanasia, capital punishment isn’t cut-and-dried. Even in the official teachings of my religious faith, there’s a teensy bit of wiggle room on the death penalty that is utterly absent in discussions of abortion and euthanasia. (“[C]ases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity are very rare, if not nonexistent.”)

It’s not the possibility of erroneous convictions that I find most persuasive. It’s the uneven results of sentencing hearings in capital trials, despite the careful consideration that characterizes every case.

Two trials, two outcomes

In my state, the death penalty is very rare; the state’s last execution was in 1939. A few years ago, two capital cases came up at roughly the same time. One was a murder-for-hire case. The other, prosecuted personally by then-Attorney General and now-U.S. Senator Kelly Ayotte, was the trial of a man who murdered a Manchester police officer.

Both defendants were found guilty, and I have no doubt that they were rightfully convicted. Then came the penalty phases. The man who arranged the contract killing got life in prison. The cop-shooter got the death penalty for murdering the police officer. (His case is under appeal.) The killers are of different races and sharply different socioeconomic backgrounds.

When the trials were over, the differing sentences jarred me. The disparity made no sense to me. I don’t see how Jack Reid’s family is any more or less bereft than Officer Brigg’s widow and children. The murder of a police officer is a horrible outrage against public order – as is hiring people to lure an innocent man to a place where men wait to beat him to death.

Vengeance is tempting, at least to me

Later, the horrific murder of Kimberly Cates and the accompanying attack on her daughter in 2009 led to convictions for five young men involved in her death (two killers, two willing bystanders, one accomplice after the fact). A more heinous crime is hard to imagine. The two killers were not eligible for the death penalty, because “home invasion” was not included in New Hampshire’s death penalty statute. (The age of the killers might have made that penalty difficult to impose in any case.) They got life in prison without parole.

The next legislative session brought a bill to add home invasion to the death penalty statute. Kimberly Cates’s husband supported it, which guaranteed its ultimate passage. I went to the House hearing and was one of the many people who had to listen from the hallway since the room was packed.

The desire in that room for vengeance was nearly palpable. Anger and grief and frustration overwhelmed all other considerations. My blood ran cold. I had never before been part of such a crowd. The thing is, if any one of Kimberly Cates’s killers had been in that room, I would have taken pleasure in seeing him get the same treatment he had meted out to her. That wouldn’t have made me right. It was sobering to realize the violence I’d have been capable of had the law been on my side.

I have no problem with self-defense. I just don’t accept that executing someone is self-defense, particularly when incarceration for life is an option.

Hearing from a family member of a murder victim

A few days ago, while contemplating this post, I listened to a presentation by Kristin Froehlich in Manchester. Kristin’s brother and four of his friends were murdered in Connecticut in a 1995 rent dispute (how much more pointless can a crime get?). The killer was up for the death penalty until the state changed its law; he is now serving life without parole. Still, the families of the dead men had to consider at first that the prosecution would lead to a death sentence.

“It’s been a wild journey. Never in my wildest dreams” did Kristin expect to be a public speaker, least of all on the abolition of the death penalty. But here she is. She professes an aversion to both violence and public speaking, but she immerses herself in both, “because I believe so strongly that the death penalty does not have a place in our society. I just don’t think we need to kill people to be safe.” She didn’t believe that at first. Her experience as a survivor changed her mind.

I won’t go over all she said. One of her arguments in particular resonated with me: the option of the death penalty vs. life imprisonment without parole “creates a hierarchy of victims.” True. Michael Briggs, Jack Reid, Kimberly Cates: are two of them less important because only the Briggs trial put a man on death row? Of course not. Their deaths were horrible crimes, where talk of “mitigating factors” is insulting to the families of the victims. Kristin’s quick to say she understands that some families of murder victims actually want to see the death penalty imposed; “they have every right to feel how they do.”

She recoils from the word “closure.” ” I hate that word. There is no closure from my brother’s murder.” So what has she done since the killer was convicted, and how has she moved to her current efforts to abolish the death penalty? She cites family, even though she has family members who disagree with her; peer support from other families of murder victims; counseling, and “telling my story.”

How does this add up?

“I think the death penalty is central to pro-life belief, because it’s the hardest,” says Kristin Froehlich. She’s right about it being the hardest. People of good will, some of them dear friends of mine, see a sharp distinction between the innocence of preborn children and the guilt of condemned criminals who chose to do evil. They strongly believe that a life for a life reflects justice, and that failure to support execution is an insult to the victims’ families.

At the hearings on New Hampshire’s repeal bill next year, I’ll see the same faces that I saw at the hearing for the bill that expanded the death penalty not long ago. I’ll hear the same arguments. I will be agreeing there with some people who are as adamantly and outspokenly in support of abortion as they are in opposition to the death penalty. They probably won’t know what to do with me.

I will not press the groups of which I’ve been a part to take up this particular fight. Moving past Roe v. Wade is a full-time job. It’s tough to establish a culture of life when the President says “God bless Planned Parenthood!” to the nation’s largest abortion provider, when medical standards for abortionists are not driven by concern for women’s health, and when even the “official” but undercounted tally by the government adds up to hundreds of thousands of abortions annually in the U.S. I don’t consider anyone a squish who fights peacefully for the moms and babies. I believe that in any case promoting a culture of life will inevitably lead to eventual reconsideration of capital punishment.

On the other hand, I have yet to figure out how opposition to the death penalty squares with support for abortion. Go to any hearing involving capital punishment, and look at who’s testifying for repeal.  Sure, there are some ministers and family members of murder victims who have a consistent ethic against abortion and the death penalty. They are outnumbered by people familiar to me: there’s the woman who argued against collecting statistics on abortion. There’s a legislator who holds that a preborn child is nonhuman. There’s the lobbyist for an organization that opposes informed consent for abortion, saying “trust women” without mentioning just what it is I’m supposed to trust them to do. When it’s mom vs. baby, they’re with mom. But are they saying “trust society” when it’s society vs. convicted killers? No.

Ah, well. If all I did was agree with my friends all the time, life would be way too comfortable. And this makes me very uncomfortable. I am under no illusion about the depths of depravity to which some people will descend – just look at the murder cases I’ve cited from here in New Hampshire. No getting around it, though: I can no longer abide capital punishment. Life-for-a-life is no way to run a civilization.

“I had to ask myself what kind of world I wanted to live in. The death penalty is not part of that,” says Kristin Froehlich. “The death penalty offers the tragic illusion that we can defend life by taking life,” say the American Catholic bishops. “Do what Jesus would do,” said Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, asked to intervene on behalf of a condemned inmate.

I agree.


3 thoughts on “A personal decision: going on the record against capital punishment

  1. Dear Ellen,
    I have never personally known someone who has been murdered. I, too, confess to conflicted feelings about the death penalty. However, I have come to believe that execution is wrong because of the possibility that the murderer might at some time be open to that moment of grace where he/she regrets and is sorry for the crime committed and turns to God. I do not believe that life should be taken away – who are we to know that mercy might not be given and accepted if only enough time was given for grace to work?
    I just wanted to share that with you.

    1. Katharine,
      I think you have an important point with “moment of grace.” Like you, I don’t believe condemned prisoners are beyond such grace. Thanks for writing.

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