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Execution, even in this case, is wrong

Take political ambition and prosecutorial zeal, combine them with the death penalty and a 24/7 media frenzy surrounding the cruel and calculated shootings of more than a dozen people, and you’ve got a recipe for ugliness. That’s precisely what we have in the aftermath of the arrests of the “Beltway snipers.”

In a three-week period ending Oct. 24, John Allen Muhammad and his teenage sidekick, John Lee Malvo, allegedly placed 13 unsuspecting men, women and children within the sites of their .223 caliber rifle. Eleven died. Muhammad and Malvo have subsequently been linked to other killings or attempted murders.

These crimes cry out for justice -- not state-sanctioned murder.

The reason the Catholic church opposes the death penalty is because Catholics believe all human life is made in the image of God. All human life sacred. No human life is beyond redemption.

It is, therefore, especially in cases such as these, that we are called on to assert our beliefs.

What a marvelous moment it would be if some prominent public office holders spoke up against the execution of these alleged murderers. What we’re getting instead, at least from the Justice Department and prosecutors in the half-dozen or more counties that claim jurisdiction, are calls for vengeance.

Adding to the ugliness, it does not seem to matter much that Malvo is a minor, or that, as a vulnerable youth, he came under the heavy influence of Muhammad, his “uncle” and surrogate father.

Douglas Gansler, the grandstanding state’s attorney for Montgomery County, Md., clearly wants his suburban Maryland jurisdiction -- the site of six of the shootings -- to be the first to prosecute Mohammad and Malvo. As he made the all-too-expected rounds of the Sunday network talk shows, Gansler seemed almost sorry that Maryland does not allow for the execution of minors. He was equally uneasy that the state sets a relatively high standard for executing adults. In the frenzied competition to prosecute Mohammad and Malvo, those factors work against Gansler’s argument -- in line with his ambitions -- that Montgomery County should go first.

Gansler seems positively benign compared to prosecutors in Virginia (the location of five shootings) and Alabama (where Mohammad and Malvo are suspected of one murder and an additional shooting), who argue they should get first crack at Mohammed and Malvo because their states have no prohibition against executing teenagers. Virginia is second only to Texas in its willingness to execute convicted murderers.

Not to be outdone, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft stepped in last week with a bloodthirsty, 20-count criminal complaint, aimed at putting the two to death.

On the other hand, it was nearly four years ago that Pope John Paul II took on a tough case when he appealed to then-Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan to spare the life of Darrell J. Mease, a sleazy methamphetamine dealer who killed two of his drug-dealing partners and an innocent bystander. Amazingly, miraculously even, Carnahan -- himself an ambitious politician, death penalty supporter and non-Catholic -- stayed the execution.

The pope’s words from 1999 have even greater meaning in the current circumstance. “A sign of hope is the increasing recognition that the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil. Modern society has the means of protecting itself, without definitively denying criminals the chance to reform. I renew the appeal I made most recently at Christmas for a consensus to end the death penalty, which is both cruel and unnecessary.”

Amen to that.

National Catholic Reporter, November 08, 2002