e-mail us


The anguish of the ultimate sanction

In 1986, Jonathan Nobles, while drugged, killed two women. He was tried and sentenced to death by lethal injection.

But something extraordinary happened on the way to death row -- Nobles became a Catholic. He also met Bishop Edmund Carmody of Tyler, Texas. Nobles asked him to be one of the witnesses to his execution. For two years, the bishop and Nobles prayed the rosary together.

Nobles made great progress in sanctity during the years of his incarceration. He fasted on the day of his death and asked for Holy Communion as his last meal.

Carmody was with Nobles as he entered the death chamber. The bishop and other witnesses held up their rosaries so that Nobles could see that they were praying for him.

The bishop was profoundly affected by the execution. In an interview with the Catholic newspaper of East Texas, Carmody described the experience as “brutal” and “contrary to every fiber of my being.”

Carmody related that Nobles in his years in jail had become a third-order Dominican and was buried in the habit of that group, founded for lay people aspiring to a deeper Christian life.

It is appalling to think that 3,517 people on death row will be killed the way Nobles’ life was taken by the state. The spectacle defies understanding. How did the United States come under the delusion that homicides will be deterred by killing those who kill? There is no scientific or even anecdotal evidence to prove deterrence.

But the struggle of Catholics at every level to abolish the death penalty goes on. The Catholic bishops have denounced the death penalty on four different occasions in the last 30 years; the Florida bishops have noted the large number of persons on death row in that state and have condemned the death penalty on six occasions in recent years.

The bishops of the state of Washington stated bluntly on Oct. 6, 1998, that if the death penalty were abolished society “would make a powerful statement reaffirming that God grants all people the opportunity for ... reparation for the evil done.”

On Oct. 13, the Florida bishops urged all voters to cast their ballots against a constitutional amendment that would elevate the death penalty to a new status. They said the amendment would place new legal burdens on the 360 people on death row. The amendment was passed 70-30.

On Nov. 13-15, several organizations working against the death penalty conducted an impressive symposium at Northwestern University on the evils of capital punishment. Several men who had been sentenced to die and then were vindicated presented compelling testimony on the possibilities for error in the administration of the ultimate sanction.

In August the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and the Conference of Major Superiors of Men adopted a joint statement urging a moratorium on the use of the death penalty. The group cited the second optional protocol of the United Nations Covenant on Civil and Political Rights by which nations pledge to take all necessary measures to abolish the death penalty. The U.S. ratified the convention but has not agreed to any optional protocol.

The American Friends Service Committee has scheduled a national conference for all religious organizations against the death penalty. It will occur April 8-11, 1999, in San Antonio. This follows up on the program conducted on the death penalty by the Friends in Washington in 1997.

Underreported action against the death penalty from the religious community, including Catholic, goes on. Chicago’s Cardinal Francis George protested the scheduled execution of Anthony Porter, who was reputed to have an IQ of 51; the Illinois Supreme Court granted a stay of execution in order to measure his fitness for execution.

But the bad news continues to accumulate. The number of federal defendants charged with capital offenses has increased from 28 in 1993 to 153 in 1997. The legal costs to the American taxpayer for prosecuting each federal death penalty case have risen to about $365,000.

In Massachusetts, a Republican governor, Paul Cellucci, was elected Nov. 3, 1998. He is in favor of the death penalty and could see it go into effect in the near future. The Catholic bishops and virtually all religious groups in Massachusetts will continue their struggle against the death penalty, although 70 percent of their citizens, including Catholics, favor it.

Each person on death row has to experience the anguish that faced Nobles in Texas, but few have the good fortune of having a friend who’s a bishop to help them find the grace to become a Catholic.

Death row inmates, 44 percent of whom are African-American, are afflicted with intellectual and psychological disorders, often have inadequate legal counsel and are treated as outcasts during the months and years they’re locked up as animals.

Thirty-four of the convicts are women.

It should be noted that Nobles’ government -- our government -- killed him Oct. 7, 1998, the feast of the Holy Rosary.

Jesuit Fr. Robert Drinan is a professor at Georgetown University Law Center.

National Catholic Reporter, January 8, 1999