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Boom times for America’s death row

By James J. Megivern
Paulist Press, 641 pages, $29.95, hardcover

Photographs by Ken Light
Essay by Suzanne Donovan
University Press of Mississippi, 128 pages, $30, paperback


As one would expect of followers of Jesus, Megivern tells us, the first Christians seem to have been opposed to all killing of humans. A logical position, too, because they were in the fast lane to be killed. But after Christianity became the established religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century, it quickly adjusted to a harsh Roman legal system that imposed death for a wide range of offenses. The change was facilitated by appeal to the Mosaic Law which, according to one Jewish scholar, listed thirty-six capital offenses, eighteen calling for death by stoning, ten by burning, two by decapitation, and six by strangulation.

Support for the right of the state to kill was quickly escalated to the duty of the state to kill in support of Christian beliefs. In little more than a century following Constantine’s establishment of Christianity, sixty-six decrees were enacted against heretics and another twenty-five “against paganism in all its forms.” This mentality culminated in the Inquisition in the Middle Ages, the official attitude being that the way to fight heresy was to kill heretics.

Christianity consequently lived with an unresolved conflict of values. On the one hand, it proclaimed the sanctity of life, the right of every human being to life, and the equal dignity of all persons. On the other, it insisted that the state had not only the right to kill as punishment but the obligation to exercise that right in defense of religion.

The resolution long offered for this paradox was to present the death sentence as an opportunity for the guilty to repent and earn eternal rewards by accepting the just punishment. Religious processions, with ringing of bells and chanting of litanies, accompanied the malefactor to the scaffold. Theological and canonical treatises not only justified but glorified the process as an integral part of God’s eternal plan. “If tempted to waver on this,” writes Megivern, “one needed only to consult the bedrock authorities from Aquinas to Suarez. Questioning it could seem an act of arrogant temerity. If one did not believe in the death penalty, what other parts of the Christian faith might one also be daring or arrogant enough to doubt or deny?”

Ironically, the first serious challenge to the legitimacy of the death penalty came precisely from a source that questioned the basic beliefs of Christianity, namely, the Enlightenment, the 18th century philosophical movement that rejected traditional social, religious and political ideas while emphasizing rationalism. The understandable response of most believers was to defend the death penalty as a way of emphasizing that life continued after death.

World War II is seen by Megivern as the catalyst that forced European theologians, both Catholic and Protestant, to ask what in the Christian heritage condoned the massive destruction of human life. The discussion quickly spread to the mentality that supported the death penalty. By the 1960s, theologians were asserting openly that, quite apart from the question of its moral legitimacy, the death penalty was unjustified because it had no deterrent or other socially desirable effect.

In this they were merely following the extraordinary change in public opinion which within a few decades brought about the abolition of the death penalty in almost a hundred countries. A July 1997 report from Amnesty International lists 57 countries as abolitionist for all crimes, 15 as abolitionist for crimes other than those committed under military law or in wartime, and a further 26 that have de facto ceased judicial killing. They included all the major countries in which Roman Catholicism or Protestantism is the dominant religion, with one striking exception -- the United States.

Megivern reports at considerable length the factors that have left the United States in this anomalous position. After World War II there was a steady fall in the annual number of executions, which had peaked in 1935 at 199, to 82 in 1950, 56 in 1960, and one in 1966. Religious opinion followed national sentiment. A National Council of Churches statement in 1968 listed seven reasons to oppose the death penalty, including the worth of human life as a gift of God, the danger of errors, and the one-sided application of this penalty to the poor, including racial minorities, unable to afford exhaustive legal defenses.

Individual Catholics, including Jesuit Father Donald Campion, John Cogley, and Msgr. Salvatore Adamo were heard from about the same time. In 1972 they were joined in denouncing state-sanctioned executions by the Indiana bishops, who insisted that the force of the divine prohibition of killing “is blunted by all of these so-called legitimate exceptions.”

Two years later, however, U.S. bishops remained deeply divided, rejecting by 119 to 103 votes a recommendation that the state should adopt a policy of not using the death penalty. While deploring this division, Megivern sees significant subsequent progress in Catholic attitudes, especially since Pope John Paul II in 1995 urged that the state should execute the offender only “in cases of absolute necessity.” Just weeks ago, the Vatican announced new language in the most recent version of the Catechism that suggests it is practically impossible in the modern world to meet all the conditions under which the death penalty might be justified.

While world opinion against the death penalty mounts, the United States has moved in the opposite direction. After a decade without a single execution, a firing squad in Utah killed Gary Gilmore in January 1977. The number of executions in 1985 rose to 18, and in 1987 to 25, one of whom, according to Amnesty International “may have been innocent, another was mentally retarded, and a third was executed after a 4-4 vote of the Supreme Court denied him a stay of execution.” By 1995, with death penalty laws in 38 states, the annual number of executions was up to 56, and legal changes to restrict both public funds and appeal procedures indicated even higher figures to follow.

Since the Reagan era with its glorification of greed and selfishness, citizen opinion has strongly supported the revival of the death penalty. The mood has intensified more recently with the growth of economic insecurity caused by massive downsizing and the explosion of part-time jobs without health or other social benefits. Megivern would here include “the sensory overload of TV and movies that present endlessly unrelieved violence and killing as the unquestioned norm.”

Megivern is disappointed but confident. International opinion has changed irreversibly, he insists. The United States will follow.

The Death Penalty is the product of two decades of research by a major historian and theologian. It gives us the voices of two thousand years of Christian thinkers on punishment by death, with 81 pages of notes and 39 of bibliography. A formidable task. A timely achievement.

Texas Death Row constitutes the perfect complement to The Death Penalty. Donovan and Light had unprecedented access for a year to the four hundred men waiting in the Ellis maximum security prison to be executed. The statistics are staggering: disproportionately poor, uneducated, African-American; average age, 22 to 25; average education, ninth grade; average time between conviction and execution, over 7 years.

No words could do justice to the pictures. Their total impact is well described by Donovan: “I was struck by what we have in common, the fragility of our lives and the potential for violence within all of us. ... Most people don’t want to think about how much they share with someone sentenced to die.” The photos that hit me hardest were Randy visiting with his two-year-old daughter (a metal screen preventing physical contact), Martin similarly projecting a kiss to his mother, and Robert being baptized by immersion in a tub with two prisoners as sponsors.

Donovan, while insisting on the high probability that each of these men is a murderer, is able to see them as human beings uncomfortably similar to ourselves. “Time, with its corollaries hope and fear, is a thread running through conversations,” she says. “How to spend time, how it crushes those who let it, how it feels to wait to be executed.”

James shared with her a decade of reflection: “When you go through life out there, time is like air to you. You breathe it in and you breathe it out; it passes through you, and you sort of pass through time. But when you’re here and it’s final ... time doesn’t go anywhere. It comes and it stops. It builds up inside, and it’s actually like a weight after a while. Ten years weighs an awful lot.”

Texas has “the largest and most prosperous prison system in the free world.” With a reported 90 percent public approval rate, it is also the state that has most enthusiastically embraced capital punishment (27 killings by lethal injection already this year). Donovan deplores this situation, which she believes results from ignorance. “The system is mad,” she approvingly quotes one prisoner. “Nothing is being solved here. There are no answers here.”

Gary MacEoin lives in San Antonio, Texas.

National Catholic Reporter, November 7, 1997