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Commentary

Death Penalty Diminishes Us as a Society

October 27, 2000|GABINO ZAVALA and MICHAEL KENNEDY | Gabino Zavala is the Roman Catholic bishop for the San Gabriel region of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. Father Michael Kennedy is pastor of Dolores Mission Church in Boyle Heights

In his second debate with Al Gore, Texas Gov. George W. Bush proudly, forcefully and even with a tinge of satisfaction proclaimed that the killers of James Byrd were going to be put to death by his state.

The three white men who chained Byrd to the back of their pickup and brutally dragged him to his death did so simply because he was black. They proved themselves to be inhuman and, as the logic goes, justly deserve the ultimate punishment for their evil acts. Indeed, two were sentenced to death, and the third received life imprisonment.

Killing these men does nothing but drag our society down with them. The Byrd family's devastation and loss won't be alleviated by taking the lives of the killers. And if our society's outrage is tempered by the spilling of blood, even guilty blood, then our society is in serious trouble. Capital punishment reduces the humanity of all who live in a society that imposes it.

On Oct. 17, a delegation of Catholic leaders visited San Quentin State Prison to spend the day with inmates on death row. We began our visit with a prisoner named James. He cried when he spoke about the recent death of his mother and the guilt he felt because he could not attend her funeral. He also talked about how he spends his days and his love of reading. Before us, in the crisscrossed metal of the cage, was a human being, not an animal.

Next we spoke with Jaime, who has been on death row for four years. His daughter had just celebrated her birthday, and he described with great joy what it was like to get a visit from his family.

Presuming Jaime and James are guilty, they committed brutal acts and destroyed life, something that can never be undone. But both are also human beings, as fully human as anyone else. They are responsible for terrible actions and, at the same time, are givers of life, fathers of children who treasure their daughters' birthdays and yearn for their families' success and prosperity.

A week before our visit to San Quentin, Stephanie Raygoza--a vibrant, 10-year-old girl--was riding her bike with friends when she was hit by cross-fire in a drive-by shooting in Boyle Heights.

Later that day, I watched helplessly as her father, who had brought her to the hospital, stumbled into the emergency room, supported by his brother, his shirt stained with his daughter's blood. If any man had a reason to thirst for justified vengeance, this was the man.

Yet, as we spent the next several days planning for Stephanie's funeral, the family sought to make the Mass a celebration of life. Her cousins prepared many of the prayers, including one that read, "Pray for those who killed Stephanie. May we forgive them. May they find peace." How difficult it must have been to say those words. How much more natural it would have been to call for retribution.

The men we spoke to at San Quentin are awaiting execution. The word used for these men is "condemned." Stephanie's family, devastated by the death of this innocent child, was able to say that revenge will not bring back their daughter. They certainly want justice, but justice is not synonymous with revenge.

The prison system uses the word "condemned"; Stephanie's parents and siblings use the word "forgiveness." Already, Stephanie's family is beginning the process of healing. Are they angry, burdened with a scar for life? Of course. Should the men who committed this crime be prevented from killing again? Of course. But for the victims, rather than satisfying the ache for more blood, praying for the ability to forgive and to deal with the unimaginable pain is what will bring them peace.

After visiting with prisoners, our delegation was taken to see the death chamber. While there, we could not help but think of Stephanie's family. They want to forgive. They want to find a path that leads to life. It is the gang members who retaliate, who believe that killing someone will solve the problem. What are we doing to ourselves, still using this primitive solution? Is the government's execution of human beings any different than the gang members'?

Currently, 565 people sit on California's death row. Fortunately, many people today are questioning the death penalty because of its disproportionate impact on minorities, inadequate legal representation and the number found innocent through DNA testing.

In the final presidential debate, Bush very somberly talked about the responsibility and duty of a governor to execute the laws of the state, i.e., execute criminals. Even more important than the duty to give the go-ahead on a death sentence is the duty of politicians to respect the life and dignity of everyone.

Hopefully we can heed the voices of Stephanie Raygoza's family and pursue a system of justice that leads society forward and offers true healing for the victims of crime.

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