Kirk Bloodsworth had everything a young man could hope for in 1984. At 23 years old, he had served honorably in the U.S. Marines, was married, and had a good job on Maryland’s eastern shore.
But then “my entire world went sideways,” Bloodsworth recounted to Angelus News. Over a period of eight months, he was arrested, tried, convicted and sentenced to die in the gas chamber for the brutal rape-murder of 9-year-old Dawn Hamilton — a horrific crime he never committed.
Bloodsworth spent two years on death row, served another six years, and converted to the Catholic faith before he was finally able to prove his innocence through DNA testing in 1993.
“I don’t know how I survived it other than God’s grace,” he said, recalling those painful years.
Bloodsworth, now a program officer with the Innocence Project, is just one of the 156 men and women since 1973 in the U.S. who have been exonerated of the crimes that put them on death row, either through acquittal or dismissal of all charges, or a pardon based on evidence of innocence, according to the Death Penalty Information Center’s Innocence List.
This November, California’s voters will directly reckon with the vocation of the executioner, and weigh the fate of 747 men and women on death row. In the confines of the voting booth, with the touch of a screen, they will decide between two ballot choices: Prop 62 would abolish capital punishment and turn death sentences into life without parole. The other, Prop 66, intends to limit the appeals process and speed up the killing.
The Catholic Church in California has sought to convince Californians to vote “Yes on 62; No on 66.” But the Church also sees the ballot battle over capital punishment as nothing less than a referendum on whether Californians believe that human beings possess inherent human dignity that guarantees their right to life.
Ned Dolejsi, executive director of the California Catholic Conference, explained to Angelus News that they are educating the faithful about the Church’s teaching on the death penalty as articulated by St. John Paul II’s Evangelium Vitae. Clarifying the Church’s 2,000-year tradition, the Holy Father declared that the state had to limit itself to bloodless means when those were sufficient to protect society. He said the state only had the right to invoke the death penalty to stop an unjust aggressor whom it was unable to contain — a situation he declared “practically nonexistent” in modern penal systems.
Admitting that the debate is “emotionally fraught,” Dolejsi pointed out that the state has spent $5 billion on death row since 1978, and has not executed anyone since 2006. The state’s data from 2015 shows that the number of murders dropped by 25 percent, and the number of violent crimes dropped by 14 percent, over the past 10 years.
“Killing doesn’t add anything,” he said.
A great part of the Church’s concern with Prop. 66 — the measure to speed up the death penalty — is that it will increase the chances of more innocent people being condemned to death. Prop. 66 requires the appeals process for a person on death row to be wrapped up within five years. A person would have to find the evidence that would overturn his sentence or prove his innocence of the crime within that period before being executed. But according to the Death Penalty Information Center, it took an average 11.3 years between a person being sentenced to death and their eventual exoneration.
But the killing of innocent persons, according to Evangelium Vitae, is “morally evil and can never be licit” — a position echoed by St. Thomas Aquinas, a defender of capital punishment, in the Summa Theologiae.
“We don’t want to be guilty of making a mistake by executing someone who may be innocent,” Dolejsi said.
Catholic moral debate
Catholics are divided about the morality of capital punishment, and both sides claim support for their positions by pointing to authorities within the Catholic tradition and Sacred Scripture.
Opus Dei Father C.J. McCloskey III, a fellow at the D.C.-based Faith and Reason Institute and advocate for the retention of capital punishment, argued the Church has upheld the death penalty as an act of state-sanctioned retribution for heinous crimes “from the beginning.” He pointed to St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Charles Borromeo’s Catechism of the Council of Trent and statements by Pius XII supporting a retributive justification of the death penalty.
“No one should be bloodthirsty and want to kill people,” he told Angelus News. “But it is only just that the person should pay the price.”
People who commit heinous crimes, he said, should be put to death. The 9/11 terrorists, should they have lived, would rightfully be put to death because they “killed thousands on that day.”
St. Thomas Aquinas, Father McCloskey added, defended capital punishment as necessary to secure the community from wrongdoers, deter others from similar crimes and expiate the offender’s guilt.
He argued the system served the common good by making sure violent persons did not kill or rape again — even if that meant some innocent persons were executed. He asserted that it is “very rare to find out a person afterward is not guilty of that thing.”
But 1,437 executions have taken place since the Supreme Court reinstituted the death penalty in 1976, meaning at least one person on death row has been found later not guilty for every hundred persons who have been executed.
Did Aquinas get it wrong?
According to E. Christian Brugger, author of “Capital Punishment and the Roman Catholic Moral Tradition” and a professor of moral theology at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver, the early Church until Constantine forbade Christians from any occupation that would involve them in executions. The majority of the early Church Fathers after Constantine, he told Angelus News, defended the state’s right in principle to exercise the death penalty, but “expressed outright reluctance to outright revulsion” at the practice.
Brugger explained that Catholic defenders of capital punishment have relied on St. Thomas Aquinas’ arguments for 800 years. But Aquinas’ arguments for the death penalty are based on a grave error about human nature, Brugger said. In the Summa Theologiae, Aquinas argues that the law of charity does not apply to the condemned man, and he can be killed like an animal because he “falls [from his humanity] into the slavish state of beasts.”
But the implication that persons can become subhuman through their crimes and lose their right to life, taken to its logical conclusion, undermines the Church’s foundational teaching of the “intrinsic dignity of the human person.”
“Aquinas’ argument fails. Malefactors don’t fall from human dignity,” Brugger said.
St. John Paul II, Brugger added, returns to the principle in Evangelium Vitae that directly killing a human being is wrong, since “not even a murderer loses his personal dignity.” Quoting St. Ambrose, he points out that God punished Cain, but forbade the human family from taking retribution for Abel’s murder by “another act of homicide.”
The state’s only justification for the death penalty, St. John Paul II stated, is in Aquinas’ theory of “legitimate defense,” as an absolute last resort, where the intention is to stop the actions of an “unjust aggressor.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church was changed in 1997 to reflect this “forward-looking means of preventing harm,” he said, pointing out that people safely secured behind bars “are not aggressors anymore.”
“He doesn’t leave the door open for someone to be killed for their [past] crimes.”
Argument for deterrence
But Joseph Bessette, co-author of Ignatius Press’ forthcoming “By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed,” a Catholic argument for capital punishment, told Angelus News that society needs the death penalty to anchor the schedule of punishments in the criminal code. He said the death penalty “will reduce murders over time,” and send a clear “moral message” to society that certain crimes deserve death because they are so terrible.
But removing the death penalty, he explained, would upend the whole foundation of punishment being primarily about giving offenders their just desserts for the crimes they inflicted on others.
“If over time, society gives up on retribution, we believe that will have negative consequences in the long run,” said Bessette, a professor of government and ethics at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, California.
Bessette and his co-author Edward Feser believe that they have evidence from a number of studies to suggest that the death penalty saves lives. The prospect of the death penalty, he said, can also push a person to confess to the crime in exchange for life without parole.
Besides the death penalty having a “deterrent” effect on potential offenders, this may have a “secondary deterrent effect” by keeping people behind bars who otherwise would be committing crimes.
But Bessette conceded that the National Research Council determined that studies could not prove the death penalty had any measurable deterrent effect on society.
“You can never statistically demonstrate this effect,” he said.
Challenging a throwaway culture
Father Chris Ponnet, the Southern California regional coordinator of Pax Christi, told Angelus News that he believes the evidence shows the death penalty has corrosive “spiritual and psychological” effects on California society.
The priest, who has worked with inmates and the families of murder victims and their murderers, explained to Angelus News that California’s death penalty is the capstone of a prison system mentality that strips convicted persons of their humanity on account of their crimes.
Capital punishment, he explained, illustrates the “throw-away culture” Pope Francis talks about, because it teaches people to believe that human beings do not have inherent dignity, and can be discarded, treated worse than animals, and forgotten.
“We just throw people away,” he said. “But God is still in that person.”
A number of European countries have reformed their prisons to embrace a vision of “restorative justice” after abolishing the death penalty. Father Ponnet explained those countries are looking at how they can help their incarcerated take the next step beyond prison — getting them education, mental health treatment, addiction treatments or job training — so they can reintegrate into society as actually changed human beings.
“There is a better way to incarcerate people,” he said.
Kirk Bloodsworth knows that the state can commit serious errors — and innocent people do end up on death row. Society sends the innocent and the guilty the same message, “his life doesn’t matter,” not “love thy neighbor as thyself.”
“Society that believes in hatred — it won’t last long,” he said.
Bloodsworth thanks God for the blessings of his “full life.” He handcrafts jewelry to “try to make people smile with my creations,” and a little more joy enters the world.