Pope Francis made a personal appeal to Catholic leaders worldwide last month: he asked them to make “a courageous and exemplary gesture” by not carrying out executions during the Church’s current “Holy Year of Mercy”. The Pope wants all people – guilty as well as innocent – to have “the possibility of rehabilitating themselves”.
The Catholic Governor of Ohio, Governor John Kasich, probably took little notice of the Pope’s plea. For pragmatic reasons (difficulties procuring lethal injection drugs) there will be no executions in Ohio this year. It is also known that Governor Kasich distances himself from his spiritual leader’s position on the death penalty:
“I’m… a secular official, right? I’m also the governor. Now, it doesn’t mean that my faith doesn’t influence me. But I have a job to do as administrator of the state of Ohio.”
The Governor justifies his pro-death penalty stance by citing the justice and closure that he believes executions bring to the grieving families of murder victims. His argument is flawed. Many family members of murder victims come to find that the death penalty does not help them. For instance, immediately after the Oklahoma City bombing most of the victims’ families and survivors demanded the death penalty for those responsible; but now most of them believe this was a mistake.
Melinda Dawson†, whose mother was brutally murdered in Barberton, Ohio in 1998, goes further: she believes that prosecutors use the death penalty for political gain only. Her theory could explain the motivation of some prosecutors to secure death sentences even when evidence is highly questionable, as in the case of Jeffrey Wogenstahl. In other words, the death penalty may in itself increase the risk of wrongful convictions.
Sister Helen Prejean, a Catholic nun, knows about the death penalty better than Governor Kasich and other Catholic officials who theorize about the death penalty from a safe distance:
“ In grasping the “meaning” of state killings, I had one advantage… I was there, close up to the anguish and terror of the condemned and their grieving mothers.”
Sister Helen understands that the death penalty creates many more victims: state sponsored killing traumatizes family and friends of the convicted, and often also jury members, prison staff, and attorneys.
If Governor Kasich does badly in the Ohio Republican Presidential Primary next week, he may have more time to reflect. If so, he would do well to consider not only the Pope’s words, but also those of Ohio’s Catholic bishops, who recently declared:
“Other states and other countries have found effective ways to protect society by justly punishing offenders through non-lethal means. Ohio should do the same.”
Yes, Governor Kasich. It is time to do your religious, moral and secular duty. The death penalty in Ohio must end.
†A video clip of Melinda Dawson is available here, at the Ohioans to Stop Executions website.