Virginia Catholic bishops oppose electrocution as 'especially barbaric'

The Virginia Catholic Conference, the political arm of the Catholic bishops of the Old Dominion, issued an email on February 7 urging Catholics to register their opposition to capital punishment, especially when it comes in the form of electrocution. Stating that Catholic doctrine is opposed to capital punishment, the bishops wrote “The government should not take a life when society can protect itself through other means. While we oppose the government executing condemned people using any method, SB 607 requires our particular attention as electrocution is a particularly barbaric method.”
 
The bishops’ missive concerns a bill that will soon be discussed in Virginia’s senate. It noted that several manufacturers have stopped selling the drugs to governments that use them to end the lives of convicted criminals through lethal injection. “Currently, the Virginia Department of Corrections lacks the drugs required to execute by lethal injection. Under current law, while those facing capital punishment are ostensibly able to choose between lethal injection or electrocution for the manner of death, since the necessary lethal drugs are no longer available, electrocution is now the default method.
 
Virginia Senate Democrats were successful in sending the bill back to committee on February 6 over Republican objections. It was referred to committee on a 21-19 vote, with Democrats and one Republican voting for the majority. The sole Republican vote was cast by Senator Mark Obenshain, who ran as a pro-death-penalty candidate for state attorney general in 2013. The Democrats argued that sending SB607 to the Courts Committee was prudent so as to avoid legal challenges based on the Constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment. According to local reports, Virginia Senate Majority Leader Richard Saslaw (D) feared that constitutional problems might arise with passage of the bill and said that he would “feel better if the attorneys take a look at this.”
 
There was debate between members of the respective caucuses, some of whom have lost family members to murder. SB607 sponsor, Republican Bill Carrico saw the delay as an excuse by the Democrats to quash his bill. He recalled the loss of family members to violence, Carrico asked the chamber to consider the feelings of the victims of violent crime who are expecting death sentences for the perpetrators. However, Senator Janet Howell (D) and Senator Louise Lucas (D), who have also lost family members to murders, disagreed. “Capital punishment is not good for all victims,” said Howell, who added that it “splintered my family.” when members were confronted with it.
 
Republican Obenshain, who has favored death-penalty legislation in the past, said that he is not persuaded of the need for SB607 on the basis of the drug shortage.
 
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, which was promulgated under Pope John Paul II, states the governments have “the right and duty to inflict punishment proportionate to the gravity of the offense. Punishment has the primary aim of redressing the disorder introduced by the offense. When it is willingly accepted by the guilty party, it assumes the value of expiation.” It goes on to say, “Assuming that the guilty party's identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.”
 
However, says the Catechism, if “non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people's safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity to the dignity of the human person. Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm - without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself - the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity ‘are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.’”
 
During the 19th century alone, there were numerous executions meted out by Vatican authorities in Rome and the Papal States. These resulted from convictions for civil crimes that included murder, insurrection, theft, and robbery. Many of these were hanged or beheaded. The last to be executed was Agatino Bellomo, who met his execution just two months before Italian armies captured the Vatican in 1870. The best known of the papal executioners was Giovanni Battista Bugatti, who served faithfully from 1796 to 1861. Bugatti recorded 516 executions at his hands. 
 
In 2013, the European corporations that manufacture the usual three-drug cocktail used to execute the condemned have ceased to sell their products to the US on the basis of ethical considerations. The 32 states that use lethal injection or other deathly means are weighing their options. Texas, Georgia, Missouri, Ohio and other states have resorted to using drugs formulated by unregulated compounding pharmaceutical facilities. In a recent case, the drugs used to executed a condemned man caused outcries among human rights activists. In January 2014, Ohio executed the death sentence for inmate Dennis McGuire. The convicted murderer gasped and snorted for roughly 26 minutes following the presumably lethal injection. "Nobody deserves to go through that," the inmate’s son, also named Dennis McGuire. No one knows whether the elder McGuire suffered during the ordeal. Ohio is now reviewing McGuire's execution. The state used a never-before-used cocktail of a sedative and a painkiller to end McGuire's life. 


Spero News editor Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. He is also a freelance translator.

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