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Cary Dean Moore who faces the death penalty Aug. 14 at the Nebraska State Penitentiary. Photo courtesy of the Omaha World-Herald

DEATH PENALTY: Weighing public safety, justice, mercy

Sharp contrast between Nebraska’s Catholic governor and its three Catholic bishops can help the faithful reconsider controversial practice

Editor’s note: Subsequent to the publication of this story, Pope Francis has ordered a revision of the Catechism of the Catholic Church to assert “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person” and to commit the church to working toward its abolition worldwide. Read more from Catholic News Service. Nebraska’s three Catholic bishops issued a statement in response to this development, which can be found on the Nebraska Catholic Conference’s website.

 
The end of a human life.
 
Death. … Finality. … Closure.
 
But not peace, at least for those still living. And not the end of the story, especially for those grappling with the death penalty – and the gravity of taking a life.
 
If the state of Nebraska has its way, two-time convicted killer Carey Dean Moore will be executed Aug. 14 using a combination of four lethal drugs. It would be the first execution in the state in 21 years, and the first by lethal injection.
 
Many contend the execution is justified. In 1979, Moore planned and carried out the cold-blooded killing of two cab drivers. By taking the lives of innocent people, they argue, he forfeits his own. He gets what he deserves. Justice is served.
 
Others are more circumspect. The execution involves taking yet another human life, they point out, cheapening all human life, innocent or guilty. Behind bars, Moore is not a threat to public safety. His death, therefore, is unnecessary. It does not serve the common good.
 
PUBLIC SAFETY FIRST
Prominent among those vying for Moore’s execution is Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts, a Catholic. He emphasizes public safety, the need for a commensurate sentence for heinous crimes and a way to prosecute the worst criminals. 
 
Ricketts laid out some of his thinking May 26, 2015, when he vetoed a bill by the Legislature to ban the death penalty and replace it with life in prison without parole. 
 
“Repealing the death penalty sends the wrong message to Nebraskans who overwhelmingly support capital punishment and look to government to strengthen public safety, not weaken it,” he said. “Under this bill, there is no guarantee that convicted murderers will stay behind bars for life or not harm other innocent victims.”
 
“The Legislature’s decision will test whether our state has the prosecutorial tools to manage the ‘worst of the worst’ cases,” the governor said. “Their decision will determine whether the families of the victims of 10 (Editor’s note: now 12) men on Nebraska’s death row will ever receive the justice meted out by a very deliberate and cautious judicial process in each of their cases.”
 
Along with Ricketts, Brian Petersen, president of the State Troopers Association of Nebraska, has argued the death penalty is an important tool for law enforcement, and a deterrent that protects lives. Pierce County Sheriff Rick Eberhardt has said the death penalty helps prosecutors and police in difficult cases. 
 
After the Legislature overturned his veto, Ricketts was among death penalty proponents who helped gather enough signatures to place the issue on the November 2016 ballot. Nebraskans then voted 60.9 percent to 39.1 percent to reinstate the death penalty. Ricketts contributed $300,000 to that campaign. His father, Joe Ricketts, donated $100,000. 
 
OPPONENTS’ ARGUMENTS
Citing the death penalty’s high cost and rare use, a group of state senators joined other death penalty opponents three years ago to convince the Legislature to pass the repeal bill and override Ricketts’ veto.
 
Opponents also argued the death penalty could lead to execution of an innocent person. Tom Venzor, executive director of the Nebraska Catholic Conference (NCC), which represents the public policy interests of the state’s three Catholic bishops, pointed out in the course of those debates that more than 150 people in the United States had been freed from death row since 1976, many as a result of DNA evidence showing they were wrongly convicted.
 
Venzor and others also cited racial bias and inadequate defense – a disproportionate number of racial minorities and the poor receive death sentences. The death penalty doesn’t take into account or provide for rehabilitation, and there is no clear evidence it deters crime, opponents argued. Death penalty appeals also extend the suffering of victims’ families, they said.
 
MOORE’S CASE
An inmate who has spent 38 years on death row, Moore, 60, has become a born-again Christian. He has said he will not contest his execution.
Convicted of killing Omaha cab drivers Maynard Helgeland and Reuel Van Ness five days apart in 1979, Moore was sentenced to death in 1980. Courts have issued multiple stays over the years preventing his scheduled execution, and he has served more time in prison than any of Nebraska’s 11 other death row inmates.
 
At his sentencing hearing, three of Moore’s siblings told a three-judge panel their father beat Moore with electric cords and leather straps as a child. He was in and out of foster homes and often in trouble in the years before he became a murderer, they said.
 
In an interview with the Lincoln Journal-Star seven years ago, Moore dismissed harsh upbringing as an excuse for what he did.
 
“When I killed the two men, that was my responsibility, my fault,” he said. “The devil didn’t make me do it. That was just me.”
 
Moore said he had become a born-again Christian, but he had grown “very much tired of death-row life,” and at one point instructed his attorneys to stop fighting; he was ready to die. His pastor told the newspaper Moore’s conversion was genuine, and he was remorseful and repentant of his crimes.   
 
CHURCH TEACHING
In a statement released July 6, one day after the Nebraska Supreme Court issued a death warrant for Moore, Archbishop George J. Lucas of Omaha and Bishops James D. Conley of Lincoln and Joseph G. Hanefeldt of Grand Island restated their opposition to capital punishment.
 
The bishops said they opposed the execution, they urged mercy and counseled that public safety would not be compromised.
 
“As the Catholic bishops of Nebraska, we recognize that our society has a pervasive culture of violence and death which can only be transformed by a counter-culture of justice and mercy,” the bishops said. “Each time we consider applying capital punishment, Nebraska has an opportunity to respond to an act of violence with an act of mercy that does not endanger public safety or compromise the demands of justice.”
 
“There is no doubt the state has the responsibility to administer just punishment,” they said in the statement released by the NCC. “However, given our modern prison system, the execution of Carey Dean Moore is not necessary to fulfill justice and, for that reason, would undermine respect for life. We continue to offer our sincerest prayers for all victims and those affected by the heinous crimes of Mr. Moore, and we pray for his conversion of heart.”
 
That statement echoed the bishops’ longstanding opposition to capital punishment, grounded in the Catechism of the Catholic Church and St. Pope John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical, “The Gospel of Life.”
 
“Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined,” the catechism states, “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.
 
“If, however, 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 with 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 definitively 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 non-existent,’” the catechism says, quoting in part “The Gospel of Life.”
 
DEATH PENALTY AND PRUDENCE
Justice can be served without the death penalty, the NCC’s Venzor told the Catholic Voice in a recent interview. Still, the death penalty is not an intrinsic evil like abortion, and there is room for prudential judgment, particularly in the area of public safety, he said. 
 
“Nevertheless, the Catholic Conference has made strong arguments over the years that the death penalty is not necessary for public safety,” Venzor said. 
 
Omar Gutierrez, director of the Society for Propagation of the Faith for the archdiocese and someone who has spoken extensively about the death penalty, said Ricketts and others need to determine what kind of danger Moore is to society before they execute him. Even if the death penalty remains part of state law, it must be administered justly – case by case, he said.
 
“That’s what the catechism states,” he said. “If the public safety can be protected through bloodless means, society must use those bloodless means. It couldn’t be clearer.”
 
“I would say the burden of proof is on the governor,” Gutierrez said. “Exactly how is Mr. Moore living the rest of his life behind bars a danger to society?”
 
REPENTANCE AND MERCY
Showing mercy and allowing people time to repent are strong arguments against the death penalty, Venzor said. Those efforts also take people beyond retributive justice, he said.
 
“That’s the beauty of revelation – and the magisterium – granting us a fuller picture of how we should look at these issues,” he said. 
 
Moore’s professed conversion of heart would be a very good thing, Venzor said. And if he is executed, “that’s the most important thing to pray for, a conversion of heart and to make amends. The bishops (in their statement) are alluding to that.”
 

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