by Maureen Kramlich
October 25, 2002
The Illinois prisoner review board recently conducted clemency hearings in the cases of 142 prisoners who live on its death row. By all accounts, the hearings were intensely emotional. Family members of crime victims reheard—and thus relived—the details of the murders of their loved ones while family members of death row prisoners pled for the lives of their loved ones. Based on these hearings, the review board will make recommendations as to who shall live and who shall die.
During the middle of these days of hearings, the United States Supreme Court briefly but rather sharply engaged in its own life or death debate. The Court considered the petition of Charles Foster who has lived on death row 27 of his 55 years. In those 27 years, the state twice set execution dates. Each time the execution was stayed. This time, he was before the United States Supreme Court once again fighting for his life. The Court denied his petition.
Supreme Court Justice Breyer voted to grant review of the case, writing, "Death row's inevitable anxieties and uncertainties have been sharpened by the issuance of two death warrants and three judicial reprieves. If executed, Foster, now 55 will have been punished both by death and also by more than a generation spent in death row's twilight." Justice Thomas, who voted against reviewing Foster's case, coldly replied, "Petitioner could long ago have ended his 'anxieties and uncertainties' by submitting to what the people of Florida have deemed him to deserve: execution."
Who shall live and who shall die? The people of Florida have decided.
There are over 3700 men and women living under sentences of death in the United States. Sentences sought by prosecutors, imposed by juries, affirmed by judges, and approved by governors. Sentences that will be carried out by prison guards. Executioners, exercising dominion over life and death.
But we, as Catholics, are "called to extend God's love to all human beings created in his image, including those convicted of serious crimes. In so doing, we can help to make 'unconditional respect for life the foundation of a new society'." (Pastoral Plan for Pro-Life Activities, www.usccb.org/prolife/pastoralplan.shtml).
How can we build this society? In the Pastoral Plan for Pro-Life Activities, the bishops have developed a program to protect the dignity of all human beings, "even those guilty of committing horrendous crimes." The program involves efforts on the national, state, diocesan and parish levels. And in four areas—public information and education, pastoral care, public policy, and prayer.
The program extends compassion both to victims of crime and to perpetrators of crime. In particular, the pastoral program aims to "encourage outreach to prisoners through programs of visitation or letter-writing" and " foster pastoral outreach to victims of violent crime."
Those on death row have for the most part (but not always) done horrible things. Still they are children of God. If we are to have a culture of life, we should follow the bishops' advice and bring light to those on death row's twilight.
Maureen Kramlich is a public policy analyst with the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities in the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.