by Margarita Mooney Suarez on December 7, 2011

This post originally appeared on the Black, White, & Gray blog.

At the end of her talk to a packed house at Trinity United Methodist Church in Durham, North Carolina, on Friday, December 2, Sister Helen Prejean (whose work on death row was made into the award-winning film Dead Man Walking) lifted her arms out wide and said, “What does the Gospel of Jesus say? We have to show compassion for the victims of murder on one side of the cross and for the perpetrators of murder on the other side of the cross.”

The closest I have come to knowing a victim of murder and the perpetrator of that murder occurred around the death of Eve Carson, the UNC student body president who was murdered in the spring of 2008.

I was just finishing my course preparation when I received the email that the body of a murdered victim found near campus had been identified as the beloved student body president. Shocked and horrified, I stumbled toward my class on that bright sunny day wondering, “What will I say to my students?” Faltering, I cried in front of the class and said how horrible this was. “I understand there will be a vigil for her shortly, I suggest you all go,” and I ended the class. Although I had never met Eve, as I looked at my students I thought, “Any one of them could have been the victim.” My heart broke for Eve’s family and friends.

My mind wondered, who would do such a thing? When the alleged perpetrators were caught a few days later, I found out that one of them had recently been released from a juvenile detention center I had recently visited in Durham. During Advent of the previous December, I went with a group of volunteers from Holy Cross Catholic Church to give a special treat of food, juice and cookies, to the youth inmates. Because of trouble inside the center, the incarcerated were being held in solitary confinement inside their cells which had no windows and they could not even turn on or off their light.

With the guard next to us, we knocked on the doors one by one, the guard turned on their light, and we asked if they would like a treat. I then asked each person their name and what they wanted to pray for. Each and every single one of them said, “I want to pray that when I get out of here I’m a different person.” or “I don’t want to do bad no more.” One girl, who could not have been more than 15 years old, was about 7 months pregnant. “I want to get out of here and be a good mother to my baby!”

I then made the sign of the cross on their forehead, held their hand, and said to each one. “I claim you as a child of God,” and asked God to help them become better people. Those little words -calling them by name, calling them a child of God, asking God to help them, seemed to energize them. I was convinced they meant it–they wanted to live different lives. Yet, now Eve Carson had been allegedly killed by someone just like them, someone who likely would have held my hand and asked me to pray for him to change.

Crimes like the murder of Eve Carson that rally support for the death penalty. Who would not be outraged at the brutal and senseless killing of Eve? But Sister Helen, and the mother of a murder victim who spoke on behalf of Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation, challenged the quick assumption that the death penalty for murder is fair or justified.

Our response to crime cannot stop at demanding justice, we must also exercise mercy. One of the most prominent Catholic theologians of the 20th century, Cardinal Avery Dulles, wrote this theological reflection on Catholic doctrine and capital punishment in 2001:

He concludes that, in modern societies, the death penalty should not be imposed when “punishment can be equally well or better achieved by bloodless means, such as imprisonment.”

In his 1995 encyclical “The Gospel of Life,” Pope John Paul II also wrote that “modern society in fact has the means of effectively suppressing crime by rendering criminals harmless without definitively denying them the chance to reform,” and he quotes the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which states:

“If bloodless means are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons, public authority must limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.”

These statements again point to justice–the modern state has other means of protecting society–and compassion–people do not lose their human dignity, nor their right to life, because they committed a crime.

Other than compassion, arguments against the death penalty abound, and Sister Prejean named most of them:

1) Innocent people get convicted of crimes and we know that innocent people have been executed; read this chilling testimony from former Illinois Governor George Ryan who voted to re-instate the death penalty and then halted all executions after 13 death row inmates were exonerated.

2) There is substantial racial bias in how the death penalty is applied (see the Death Penalty Information Center);

3) Despite promises of a fair trial, prosecutors routinely hold back information that could exonerate the accused (read this WSJ op-ed arguing that prosecutors often violate the law).

With all these good reasons to oppose the death penalty, why do we still have it? My companion Friday night, Ashley Lucas, a professor at UNC who works on theater in prisons and the effects of incarceration on the families of prisoners, told me few people like Sister Helen actually reach out to have personal contact with prisoners. (check out Lucas’s blog post on the talk). The following day, a friend confirmed that, saying, “I think of myself as a compassionate person, but I never think about prisoners at all.”

Sister Helen Prejean is so influential both because her arguments are based on sound reasoning, strengthened by religious teachings, and because of her powerful witness to compassion.  On tough, highly politicized issues people are not easily swayed numbers and reasoning alone. Sister Helen presented her sound arguments woven in with stories of real death row inmates she has known, showing us their humanity and dignity. She challenged stereotypes about prisoners, without demonizing those who oppose her views.

Undoubtedly, my work among the poor, first in Washington, DC, with Exodus Youth Services, and also here in North Carolina, opened my heart to the struggles of persistent poverty, racism, and discrimination that lead to crime. Of course individuals have choices, and I do not believe in environmental determinism. But those of us who grew up with two parents, or at least parents who had finished school and did not use drugs or alcohol, those of us who grew up in crime-free neighborhoods, have very little idea how the other half lives. People who make bad choices deserve a chance to reform. I believe in the sincerity of the people in juvenile detention who told me they want to reform. Yet, as a sociologist, I also know the power of social conditions that will lead to much recidivism despite good intentions.

It is quite unlikely that crime, and hence imprisonment, will ever go away, but we have abundant reasons to think we can do better justice than the death penalty. We should cultivate a justice system based on a sound understanding of the human person. Justice is not vengeance, it must be compassionate. Don’t take it from me or even from Sister Helen, take it from the families of murder victims, like the parents of Eve Carson, who stated they do not want her alleged murders to receive the death penalty. We can, and we must, carry out justice while living compassion.