Catholics who attend mass in Fairfield County, Connecticut, on Sunday, January 16, will know that in doing so they are being dutiful, it being church law that the sabbath should be observed. But this Sunday, the faithful will be asked to declare themselves as dutiful also in a different sense — by signing a petition posted at the door at the behest of the Most Reverend William Lori, who is the bishop of Bridgeport.
The proximate cause of the current commotion is the impending death of Michael Ross on January 26. Much attention fastens on him because he would be the first person executed in the State of Connecticut in 44 years, and incidentally the first ever to be executed by injection.
There is a lot that is special about Mr. Ross, other than his singularity as a condemned man this side of Texas whose execution might actually take place. Most notably different about him is that he has requested that the State get on with the execution. This confounds everybody, and is tangentially inconvenient for the defense squadron who have kept him alive for 20 years, which is when he committed his most recent murder.
That was the 8th girl he killed, and one of several he also raped. The Hartford Courant sent a reporter down to Huntsville, Texas, to accompany the Connecticut official who wanted firsthand knowledge of how actually to implement the law on the books. The two were among the witnesses at the execution of James Scott Porter, and the Courant noted that between the time he was led out from his prison cell and the time he was pronounced dead, only 12 minutes had gone by. Porter was already in jail for murder, but had now attacked a fellow inmate in a prison day room and smashed him to death with a rock. Porter was the 337th person to die in Texas of the lethal injection: the 337th murderer to die, not the 337th Texan to die at the hands of a murderer — that number is many times larger.
What Bishop Lori is asking churchgoers to do is sign a petition to repeal the death penalty in Connecticut. The Connecticut bishops are of course hoping that Michael Ross’s life can yet be saved, notwithstanding that he wants to die, that the Connecticut courts have found nothing to invalidate the sentencing, that the U.S. Supreme Court declines to intervene, and that the governor of Connecticut has said she finds no reason to commute the sentence. “As a community of faith and reason,” Bishop Lori has said, “as believers and as citizens, we need to ponder carefully what is about to take place and then to make our voices heard.”
But of course capital punishment has been pondered, and it is the deliberated law of the state. The bishop’s assumption that such punishments do not deter isn’t verified. An important article in the Stanford Law Review in 1988 by Stephen Markman and Paul Cassell cited the research of Professor Stephen Layson of the University of North Carolina, which “concluded that increases in the probability of execution reduced the homicide rate.” Markman and Cassell took that research and wrote that “we can estimate that the death penalty has deterred roughly 125,000 murders in this country in this [the 20th] century.” Moreover, Layson’s research “demonstrates rather starkly that under any realistic risk assessment the presence of capital punishment saves more innocent lives than it jeopardizes.”
The bishop goes on to cite Pope John Paul’s disapproval of capital punishment as expressed in his encyclical letter Evangelium Vitae. But the bishop does not pause over the critical point here, which is that the pope’s encyclical does not condemn capital punishment in absolute moral terms; what the encyclical asks is that the death penalty be exercised only in cases of “extreme gravity.” That means that prudence is to be consulted. This is sharply different from the church’s position on abortion, which is categorically rejected. A Catholic can in good conscience approve capital punishment for the guilty, but never capital punishment for the innocent.
Those who favor capital punishment do so in part because they fondle the deterrent claims of the penalty, but mostly because they wish to legislate the gravity that attaches to the government’s responsibility to preserve human life — by being willing to execute those who take innocent lives. In the case of Michael Ross, the only reason to fail to execute him is that he wishes to be executed.