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Editorial: Our screwed-up system cures only to kill

A Missouri newspaper columnist noted for his ability to ferret out stories that highlight life’s ironies, delicious or otherwise, recently told a tale that bears retelling.

Beyond its particularities of person and place, it says much about deep, unresolved conflicts in U.S. society over the most fundamental human values.

As Bill McClellan recounted events in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on March 11, the Missouri Supreme Court in December unanimously upheld the death sentence of Thomas Brooks, one of Missouri’s high-profile criminals. In 1993, paroled three months earlier on an armed robbery conviction, Brooks sexually assaulted a 10-year-old girl before beating her to death with a bed slat. He was in his mid-20s at the time.

A defense attorney’s portrayal of Brooks’ miserable childhood, a tale of poverty and abandonment, of living in a car as a third-grader, of suicide attempts, poor education and defiant behavior ineffectively addressed, failed to convince a jury that Brooks deserved to live.

Not long after the Missouri Supreme Court rebuffed Brooks’ appeal, he was taken to a St. Louis hospital -- a Catholic hospital, in fact -- for treatment of various health problems. Details were not forthcoming, because medical records of Missouri prisoners are confidential. But McClellan was able to learn that Brooks suffered from pneumonia, tuberculosis and AIDS -- illnesses so severe that he spent weeks in a private room in intensive care. According to McClellan, no costs were spared in giving the best medical treatment available to a man condemned to die. Bills mounted to more than $500,000 -- a half million dollars -- before Brooks was discharged in early March. (He had reportedly returned to the hospital for another round of care as NCR went to press.)

Apparently taxpayers will not suffer unduly, although it’s possible the hospital may have to write off some costs. The state pays $4.37 a day for medical care for each of its more than 24,100 inmates.

What piques our interest in this story is not that Brooks got the best of care. Legally he is entitled to no less, in part the result of a class-action suit brought several years ago by prisoners on death row. Readers of these pages will know that NCR would find it morally reprehensible to deny prisoners basic human rights. Fortunately, the state of Missouri agrees -- but only up to a point, for like many states, while it would not deprive Brooks of his health, it would deprive him of his life.

The Brooks’ story dances seductively into many contradictions of our societal values: our obsession with medical technology; our willingness to spend hundreds of thousands to physically build up a man even as we are preparing to put him to death; our seeming inability to find remedies for the worsening ills of the inner cities. If Brooks were struggling for life at the time of his scheduled execution, would it be harder emotionally for us as a society to accept or easier? Should the execution be advanced, so that less money be spent to keep him alive? Or should it be delayed until he is in better health? Should he be allowed to die of natural causes? Or, if he is terminally ill at the time his execution occurs, could his death be classified as euthanasia -- an act that is illegal in Missouri, as in most states.

It could be dangerous to explore the contradictions too fully. Simple cost analysis and logic could easily lead to inhumane conclusions: that it is futile to expend money on care of a man doomed to die; that many good people in the poverty pockets of our cities -- people who have committed no capital crimes -- are denied the sort of care that is being accorded Brooks. (Therefore, they should get the care and Brooks should not?)

Logic and cost analysis are of limited use when it comes to fundamental human values. Those instruments have already fueled the finding that Brooks, the murderer, should die (even though his death will not bring back 10-year-old Cassidy Senter). That is why we need the gospels, to remind us that logic, like other tools, can be morally detrimental unless it is used in the service of love.

In the end, we leave the story of Thomas Brooks -- a story that so poignantly underscores the barbarity of capital punishment -- with readers willing to contemplate subtle ironies that defy easy answers.

Meanwhile, should Sr. Helen Prejean, foremost storyteller in opposition to capital punishment, be planning to write a sequel to her book on the topic, we suggest that, in recognition of such ironies, she call it Dead Man: Keep Him Walking.

National Catholic Reporter, March 27, 1998