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Life & Family | Life and Bioethics

Victim’s Mom Battles Death Penalty

WASHINGTON — Vicki Schieber is a crusader for justice: Her 23-year-old daughter Shannon was brutally murdered by a serial rapist in 1998.
by Tom McFeely | Source:
But Schieber isn’t campaigning for a stiffer penalty for her daughter’s killer and other murderers — she’s dedicated herself to fighting against the death penalty.

And she explains that opposition to capital punishment is a matter of living out her Catholic faith.

“I believed all the Church’s teachings about the value of human life, and what we say in the Lord’s Prayer, ‘Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive others,’ and to turn the other cheek and don’t hate anyone, because I grew up in a very big, strong Catholic family,” said Schieber, who lives with her husband Sylvester in Chevy Chase, Md.

After Shannon was murdered, Schieber said, “I had to come to the same position, and my husband did and our whole large family did, saying, ‘This is what we believe and we will stick to these beliefs.’”

Capital punishment was in the public eye in early January, as the Supreme Court heard arguments Jan. 7 in a Kentucky case challenging the use of lethal injections on the grounds that they can cause excruciating pain and therefore constitute cruel and unusual punishment.

The Supreme Court is expected to deliver its judgment in the case before it adjourns this summer, but even if it holds that lethal injection is unconstitutional, capital punishment by other means would remain legal.

But since the court agreed to take the case in September, there has been an effective nationwide moratorium on executions, as lower courts and state governments put executions on hold because they use the same three-drug combination for lethal injections as the method challenged in Kentucky.

The federal government and all but one of the 36 states that have capital punishment use the combination as their primary method of execution.

The Church does not teach that the death penalty is always immoral. However, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, if non-lethal methods of punishment are sufficient to protect public safety from murderers they should be employed instead.

The Catechism states, “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 definitely 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 nonexistent’” (No. 2267).

The teaching that the death penalty is not justified in modern societies was reiterated in Pope John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae (The Value and Inviolability of Human Life).

Thou Shalt Not Kill
According to University of Notre Dame law professor Gerard Bradley, the central point underlying the Church’s new emphasis on opposition to the death penalty is the principle that it is always wrong to intentionally kill another human being.

Lethal force in self-defense or defense of others is permitted, Bradley noted, but that does not constitute intentional killing but rather the acceptance of another’s death as a side-effect of defensive action.

But Bradley thinks that most Catholic Americans — like most American as a whole — continue to support capital punishment.

“I think that the refinements in Church teaching [as observed in Evangelium Vitae and the Catechism] have changed a few minds, but not many, largely because that change is so poorly understood and so rarely preached on,” Bradley said in an e-mail interview.

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia is the most prominent American critic of the Church’s new emphasis on opposing the death penalty. In an article published in the May 2002 issue of First Things, Scalia argued that society’s need for retribution, which is a fundamental element of justice, is independent of the issue of the defense of society.

Scalia also said that canon law experts had advised him that opposition to capital punishment was not a binding Church teaching.

“So I have given this new position thoughtful and careful consideration — and I disagree,” Scalia said. “That is not to say I favor the death penalty (I am judicially and judiciously neutral on that point); it is only to say that I do not find the death penalty immoral.”

Bradley agreed with Scalia that the Church’s “emerging teaching” of a “practical abolition” of capital punishment is not binding on Catholics and that retribution is fundamental to justice. But, Bradley said, the Church has ruled out the death penalty “for reasons extrinsic to any theory of punishment.”

Said Bradley, “Just as a decent state does not rape or mutilate convicted criminals because it is simply wrong to rape or mutilate anyone, so too [I think] it is wrong to intentionally kill anyone — even a criminal who in some sense deserves to be killed.”

New Jersey
Death penalty opponents won a significant victory last month in New Jersey, when Gov. Jon Corzine signed into law a state bill banning capital punishment.

The New Jersey bishops lobbied in support of the bill.

In a Dec. 10 statement to the New Jersey General Assembly, Bishop John Smith of Trenton, N.J., said the Catholic Church is guided by its belief “that every person has an inalienable right to life.”

While Bishop Smith affirmed the state’s duty to “punish criminals and to prevent the repetition or occurrence of crime,” he said he also believes “greater efforts must be made to bring the criminal to repentance and rehabilitation.”

Vicki Schieber, who serves on the board of Cambridge, Mass.-based Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights as well as the board of Maryland Citizens Against State Executions, called New Jersey’s action a “beautiful outcome” that demonstrates public sentiment is shifting on capital punishment.

Many death penalty proponents insist that justice and “closure” for murder victims’ families require the execution of murderers. Schieber said that the Philadelphia district attorney who handled the case against her daughter’s killer in 2002 made that argument to her family, and was upset when the Schiebers disagreed.

Shannon’s murderer, Troy Graves, was sentenced to life in prison after he pleaded guilty and is serving his sentence in Colorado.

Schieber said that when a state seeks the death penalty a murder case drags on for an average of 15-20 years in the legal system, which doesn’t provides any closure for victims’ relatives.

“That system re-victimizes the family,” she said.

With respect to justice, Schieber said that a life sentence is adequate punishment for any crime. Since becoming involved with opposing capital punishment, she has visited death row in a number of prisons and says that it’s “horrible” to be deprived of freedom and confined to such a place.

What’s really necessary to gain peace is to acquire a spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation, Schieber said.

Schieber acknowledged this can be extremely difficult, but she said Christians can be inspired by the example of Jesus, who willingly gave his own life on the cross for humanity and forgave those who had persecuted him unjustly.

“It’s such a gift from God,” Schieber said. “It’s so healing, and I feel like my daughter would be sitting on my shoulder saying, ‘Go, Mom!’ She would be so proud of what we were doing.”

(CNS contributed to this story.)
Tom McFeely is based in Victoria, British Columbia.
Source: National Catholic Register - January 27- February 2, 2008 Issue

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