At 12:21 a.m. on Sept. 30, Kelly Renee Gissendaner – a Georgia woman who, in 1997, instructed the man she was involved with to kill her husband, which the man did – was executed. It was the first time that Georgia had put a woman to death in 70 years, and it came after years of appeals at both the state and federal level. In this way, Gissendaner’s death followed the usual pattern of capital punishment in the United States: horrific crime is committed, jury orders death, prisoners spend many years on death row and are eventually executed. But Gissendaner’s story had an unusual appeal at the very end. On the heels of a powerful message to Congress condemning – and calling for the abolition of – capital punishment, Pope Francis sent a message through a spokesperson urging that Gissendaner’s execution be canceled. The papal appeal did not matter, though, and the mother of three was put to death.
Gissendaner’s crime was, of course, terrible. Though she didn’t kill her husband directly, she called for his death and carefully planned how it was to be carried out. Indeed, this is usually the case for all prisoners on death row; they are there for a reason. Their crimes are unthinkable atrocities that make us squirm and recoil in horror. Their acts are cold and calculated, despotic and evil; they offend humanity. And the people who commit them need to be punished – this is justice. But, even with their egregious sins, these people are still human; they still have dignity.
I had the incredible opportunity to be in Washington, D.C. last week when Pope Francis addressed Congress on Thursday, Sept. 24. As His Holiness spoke to the joint session of the legislature, I stood on the Capitol lawn and watched the speech – along with thousands of others crammed there with me – on giant TVs set up on the steps of the capitol building. When the Pope came out to address the crowd gathered, I heard him say “Buenos dias,” and bless us; it was truly an experience that I will never forget. But, for me, the most powerful aspect of the Pope’s message came when he urged Congress, in his slow, accented English, to abolish the death penalty.
“I am convinced that this way is the best,” Francis said, “since every life is sacred, every human person is endowed with an inalienable dignity, and society can only benefit from the rehabilitation of those convicted of crimes.”
“[A] just and necessary punishment must never exclude the dimension of hope and the goal of rehabilitation,” he continued.
It seems that Gissendaner had made efforts to change her life while she waited to be executed – to rehabilitate herself. According to an NBC News article covering her death, she completed a theology program while behind bars, and she admitted that her husband was an “amazing man who died because of me.” But her conversions and confessions were not enough to convince the courts to spare her life.
Partially because of what the Pope has been saying, there has been a lot of conversation in the political world around reforming the corrections system in the U.S. Our country certainly seems outdated – or, rather, backwards – in its support of the death penalty. Indeed, according to statistics CNN compiled from the Death Penalty Information Center, the U.S. is number five on the list of the top six countries with the most executions in 2013 – ahead of Yemen and behind China, Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. And, in a note that hits close to home, Missouri is fifth on the list of states with most executions since 1976, with 83. (Texas tops the list with 524.) But one set of statistics is the most frightening. While most executions since 1976 have been by lethal injection (87 percent), some other cited methods should make us rethink our entire judicial and correctional system – electrocution, 11 percent; gas chamber, 1 percent; hanging, 0.5 percent; firing squad, 0.5 percent. Gas chamber? Firing squad? Who are we?
The statistics, however, are only complementary. The real argument is exactly what Pope Francis iterated: Everyone has dignity, and everyone is loved by God. True justice includes hope – never death. But our country seems to be polarized – both politically and in how it defines right and wrong. As Francis said, “this is the simplistic reductionism which sees only good and evil; or, if you will, the righteous and sinners.”
The U.S. correctional apparatus must be reconstructed – the death penalty must go. We need to find ways to bring justice to the most terrible of criminals in a way that befits their crimes but still allows for hope to remain – for the enormity of their crimes does not diminish their humanity.