By Maureen Kramlich.
January 17, 2003
A most simple but most profound response. It was the answer to a question a reporter asked of man recently released from Illinois's death row. How does it feel? How does it feel to be released from death row? The man, Leroy Orange, responded, "Alive."
Orange was one of four death row prisoners pardoned by the governor. Another 167 were given clemency, and will spend the rest of their lives in prison. As the governor was quoted in the Washington Post, "They will be confined in a cell that is 5 feet by 12 feet. In summer months, the temperature gets as high as 100 degrees. It is a stark and dreary existence. Life without parole has even, at times, been described by prosecutors as a fate worse than death."
Nonetheless, clemency is a kind of mercy. And this mercy as small as it may be, as much as it may be "worse than death," in the eyes of some, was not well received by some loved ones of these prisoners' victims. One was reported as saying, "I wish I'd been there so I could've cursed him out loud so much that they'd have had to drag me out of there in public, on TV. I wish I could've been there to call him a liar. I wish I could've called him a criminal. . . . When Ryan said that the only justification [for capital punishment] was revenge, I said, 'Well, yeah.'"
From a prisoner's perspective, life in prison may or may not seem worse than death. Maybe it is not. From a different perspective, from a broader perspective, life in prison surely is better than death. To hold out the sentence of death as a way to comfort grief wrongs the loved ones of murder victims. The grief will endure whatever the punishment, and only forgiveness brings peace of heart. To call upon ordinary citizens to serve as jurors and spend their days deciding whether a man or woman should live or die wrongs them. To request prison guards to participate in an execution as a routine job duty is an injustice to them. To tell medical professionals dedicated to healing to confirm the prisoner's death—or worse, to prepare the deadly injection itself—wrongs an entire profession and those of us who place trust in it.
In the end, life without the possibility of parole provides us with an opportunity to respect life. When the Holy Father issued The Gospel of Life, he counted as a sign of hope a "growing public opposition to the death penalty, even when such a penalty is seen as a kind of 'legitimate defence' on the part of society."
Defense of the innocent is necessary. Official promotion of a culture of vengeance is not. In the end, Governor Ryan's decision was one that all of us can live with. It is one more small step toward building a culture of life.
Maureen Kramlich is a public policy analyst with the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities in the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops