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No way to right death penalty wrong

By Thomas C. Fox

“Perhaps the bleakest fact of all is that the death penalty is imposed not only in a freakish and discriminatory manner, but also in some cases upon defendants who are actually innocent.”
-- Justice William J. Brennan Jr., 1994

You’re killing an innocent man,” said Roy Michael Roberts, strapped to a gurney, just minutes before being injected with three lethal drug doses in the Missouri death chamber.

Others had questioned the man’s guilt and had fought to delay the execution. Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan would have none of it. He turned down a final appeal two hours before executioners placed chemicals in Roberts’ veins. Roberts died March 10 just after midnight.

Roberts’ appointment with death seemed as unfortunate for him as his immediate predecessor’s appointment had been fortunate. Darrell Mease’s death rendezvous happened to be scheduled during Pope John Paul’s visit to St. Louis last January. The pope pleaded with Carnahan to save Mease’s life. The governor, moved by the pontiff or pressured by the politics of the situation, commuted Mease’s sentence to life in prison.

That decision set off an uproar locally as conservatives lashed out at Carnahan for having caved in on the death sentence. Some locals were upset that the governor had allowed the pope to interfere at all. In the days that followed, some came to Carnahan’s defense, but curiously absent was any strong defense of the governor’s action by Catholics or Catholic organizations.

Local pundits say the governor’s move has cost him political capital. Carnahan has an eye on a U.S. Senate seat and is likely to make a bid in 2000. Being viewed in any way “soft” on the death penalty in Missouri is not likely to help him. And his opponents are unlikely to forget the name Mease in the months ahead.

Carnahan’s staff has denied that any political considerations were involved in the Roberts case, and the governor is not known for granting reprieves. Nevertheless, it is difficult to imagine that politics played no role when he turned down Roberts’ appeal despite lingering doubts about his guilt or innocence. “Roy Roberts is as likely to be innocent as he is guilty,” said Tom Block, an anti-death penalty activist in St. Louis shortly before the execution.

Unlike Mease, who admitted to three murders, Roberts had always insisted on his innocence. He had been convicted of helping to kill a prison guard during a riot at the medium security state prison in 1983. Witnesses testified at his trial that he held the guard while two others plunged makeshift knives into his body. Roberts denied it. Others questioned it. No blood was found on Roberts. An initial investigation did not name him.

Curiously, the two who used the knives are still in prison. One or both may never meet Roberts’ fate.

The relative merits of the Mease and Roberts cases are not the point here. The point, once again, is the highly capricious nature of the way capital punishment is carried out in America. Carnahan has highlighted the inherent unfairness of capital punishment. As the Kansas City Star editorialized: “Is it fair for the state to kill prisoners because the pope failed to show up in time to argue against it?”

The pontiff’s point was simple. There should be no capital punishment. Mease’s guilt was beside the point. In fact, by intervening in the case of an admitted murderer John Paul sent out his clearest statement on the death penalty.

Church teaching on capital punishment -- and it has become more clear and emphatic during the pontificate of John Paul II -- is way out in front of Catholics in general. The same could be said about church teaching on abortion. The teaching on both topics stems from the belief that human life is sacred and must be protected. Our understanding of the sacred mystery of life continues to unfold, extending to the far reaches of the universe, as we learn from science. One can only imagine how these mysteries will find their way into our lives in the years ahead.

For the moment, we are faced with what seems to be a growing gap between the world we long for and the world in which we live. Because our nation seems all too comfortable with capital punishment, death penalty opponents are focusing on education efforts.

The haunting truth about the death penalty is that it’s irreversible. That innocent people are being sent to their deaths should stop us all in our tracks. This very point was reinforced just weeks ago when murder charges were dropped in an Illinois case. Anthony Porter was released from death row after another man confessed to the 1982 Chicago murders for which Porter had been convicted. His release resulted from an investigation by journalism students at Northwestern University. Porter -- who came within two days of being executed last September -- was the eighth person to be released from Illinois’ death row in the past five years.

In February in Maryland, another man, Anthony Gray Jr., was freed from prison for the 1991 rape and murder of a Calvert County woman. Gray, who was serving a life sentence, had confessed to a crime he did not commit after prosecutors threatened him with a death sentence.

Last year, Northwestern Law School in Chicago hosted a Conference on Wrongful Convictions and the Death Penalty. Attending were 35 of the 75 innocent men and women freed from death row since 1976.

We cannot remain silent. One immediate action would be to join the Equal Justice USA campaign and get our communities or organizations on record calling for a moratorium on executions (www.quixote.org/ej). Our political leaders will not budge until enough voices are raised throughout the country.

Tom Fox, NCR publisher, can be reached at tcfox@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, March 26, 1999