Catholic judge defends death penalty sentence on theological grounds

Catholic judge defends death penalty sentence on theological grounds

Credit: California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Wikipedia CC 2.0.
Credit: California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Wikipedia CC 2.0.

.- A Catholic judge in Ohio who recently sentenced a man to death defended his decision on both legal and theological grounds.

Hamilton County Common Pleas Judge Patrick Dinkelacker sent convicted serial killer Anthony Kirkland to death row Aug. 28, agreeing with a jury’s recommendation of capital punishment.

Kirkland, 49, was convicted of killing three women and two teenage girls. He has been serving a life sentence for two of the adult murders, while the death sentence was handed down for killing a 13- and 14-year old girl.

“As a person who morally believes in the sanctity of life, to judge another to determine if the imposition of the death penalty is appropriate is not a duty I take lightly,” Dinkelacker said, according to the Cincinnati Enquirer.

He stressed the rule of law, saying without it, “those not able to protect themselves become prey for those like Kirkland.”

“I took an oath to follow the law and I will do that,” the judge said, according to Fox 19 Now. “To do otherwise, is morally, legally, philosophically and theologically wrong.”

But Dr. Kevin Miller, a theology professor at Franciscan University of Steubenville, suggested that following the law does not require the use of the death penalty.

“Prosecutors in Ohio are never obliged by state law to request – and judges are never legally obliged to impose – the death penalty,” Miller told CNA.

He explained that the Church has taught since John Paul II’s Evangelium Vitae in 1995 that the death penalty can only be justified when it necessary to defend society. Evangelium Vitae states that “as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent.”

“Pope Francis has strengthened that part of the teaching,” Miller said, adding that there is still room for prudential judgement while taking into account these principles.

However, he cautioned, “A prudential judgment can’t be a simply arbitrary one. It has to be based on a reasonable reading of the evidence. It’s hard for me to see why the ones made by the prosecutor and judge in this case should be regarded as a reasonable reading of the evidence.”

Earlier this month, Pope Francis approved a change to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, to say that “the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that ‘the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person,’ and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.”

Reasons for changing the teaching, the new Catechism paragraph says, include the increasing effectiveness of detention systems, growing understanding of the unchanging dignity of the person, and leaving open the possibility of conversion.

Hamilton County Prosecutor Joseph Deters, also a Catholic, pursued the death penalty in the Kirkland case and argued that the Vatican stance was misguided.

Fr. Paul Mueller, superior of the Jesuit community at the Vatican observatory, wrote a letter to Deters earlier this month, the Cincinnati Enquirer reported. Mueller and Deters attended the same high school.

“I am disappointed, embarrassed, and scandalized that you, not only a Catholic but also a fellow alumnus of St. Xavier High School, have used the platform of your public office to oppose and confuse the moral teaching of the Church in so open a fashion,” Mueller wrote.

“As Prosecutor, you are obliged to enforce civil law. But as a Catholic, you are obliged to endeavor to conform your own mind and heart to the higher moral law and help others in their efforts to do the same – not to undermine their efforts. The teaching of the Church is clear: in defending society against evil, it is morally unacceptable to make use of the evil of the death penalty.”

Deters defended his position, saying it was his job to protect society from evil in the world.

According to local media, Deters called Kirkland “a homicidal piece of garbage” who had shown no remorse and would kill more people if he was not executed.

Miller objected to the claim that execution was necessary to prevent Kirkland from further killing.

“It seems unlikely that there is much evidence that this is true,” Miller said. He pointed to low prison rates in Ohio, as well as the fact that Kirkland had been in jail for more than nine years without killing anyone during that time.

Kirkland’s defense attorney plans to appeal the sentence. The attorney had asked for life in prison without the possibility of parole, arguing that Kirkland had suffered from severe physical, psychological and sexual abuse, as well as mental illness, and should be shown mercy.

Tags: Catholic News, Death Penalty, Capital Punishment