El Chapo (or ‘Shorty’, whose real name is Joaquin Guzman Archivaldo Luera), the infamous fifty-something-year old drug lord, recently made a dramatic escape through an elaborate tunnel from a maximum-security, and supposedly ‘inescapable’, prison in Mexico. This raises a number of questions, such as, a propos, whether Mexico is a failed state. Does that even bear asking? Would you want to live there?
But here is one question that came to my mind: The proper use of the death penalty. In class, commenting on John Paul II’s teaching on capital punishment in his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae (par. 56), I point out that the Holy Father does not outright condemn putting criminals to death. Unlike abortion and euthanasia, capital punishment is not intrinsically evil. However, the Pope does limit its application:
This is the context in which to place the problem of the death penalty. On this matter there is a growing tendency, both in the Church and in civil society, to demand that it be applied in a very limited way or even that it be abolished completely. The problem must be viewed in the context of a system of penal justice ever more in line with human dignity and thus, in the end, with God’s plan for man and society. The primary purpose of the punishment which society inflicts is “to redress the disorder caused by the offence”.46 Public authority must redress the violation of personal and social rights by imposing on the offender an adequate punishment for the crime, as a condition for the offender to regain the exercise of his or her freedom. In this way authority also fulfils the purpose of defending public order and ensuring people’s safety, while at the same time offering the offender an incentive and help to change his or her behaviour and be rehabilitated.47
It is clear that, for these purposes to be achieved, the nature and extent of the punishment must be carefully evaluated and decided upon, and ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Today however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent.
In any event, the principle set forth in the new Catechism of the Catholic Church remains valid: “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”.48
In other words, we cannot put people to death out of revenge, but rather only to ensure public safety. Are ‘concrete conditions’ such that if and when El Chapo is caught again, he should be executed, Mexican style? (I would guess that would be by firing squad). I struggle in class to come up with examples where a morally justified use of the death penalty is applicable, but it may be so here. Shorty seems to have so much money, influence, power, connections that no prison, at least no prison in Mexico, can hold him.
Then again, perhaps he could be extradited to the United States (as the U.S. authorities originally requested). I am not so sure he could escape from a SuperMax prison, but one never knows…Napoleon, sort of a 19th century El Chapo (not a drug dealer, so far as we know, but they were the same height, 5’6″), was exiled to the island of Elba in the Mediterranean, from which he escaped to lead another bloody uprising in France (ending with his capture after Waterloo). After that, he was sent even further into the nether-world of the South Atlantic island of Saint Helena, with its damp air and climate (the South Atlantic is not quite the same as the South Pacific), where Napoleon, alone and reflective, eventually met his natural and God-appointed end, apparently reconciled to his Creator and his fellow man.
We are facing the same question of punishment with the case of James Holmes , the infamous ‘Joker’ killer, who on July 20, 2012, stormed in to a screening, ironically enough, of Batman: The Dark Knight Rises, with 420 people in attendance. He was bullet-proof vested, armed with a smoke grenades, Glock pistol and shotgun. People thought it was part of the show, until the bullets started flying. In all, he killed 12 people in cold blood, ranging in age from a six-year old girl to a 51-year old father of four, and wounding seventy others, all the while listening to heavy metal music on his ear-buds; one may surmise, he did so to drown out the screams and any pangs of conscience to which such might give rise.
The jury has rejected his plea of insanity. Rightly so, it seems, given the degree of planning and forethought he put into the massacre (including a distraction-causing bomb in his own apartment).
As a rather pathetic, maladjusted loner, no one is likely to storm any prison, or build a tunnel, to help Mr. Holmes escape. There is no reason to put him to death, besides a rather misguided sense of revenge and retribution. He may well repent in his time in prison, like Alessandro Serenelli in the early twentieth century, the would-be rapist of Maria Goretti; the young saint resisted so forcefully that he killed her, puncturing her body with an awl (a sort of ice-pick) fourteen times. The mob would have meted out swift justice had it not been for the intervention of the police.
Alessandro was sentenced to life in a forlorn Italian prison, later commuted to thirty years. For three years, he was uncommunicative and showed no remorse. Maria appeared to him, whether in a dream or vision, after which he converted, and began a penitential life of conversion. One of his first visits after his release was to Maria’s mother, before whom he begged forgiveness, which she gave; as the elderly Mrs. Goretti replied, since her daughter forgave him on her deathbed all those years ago, she could do no less.
Alessandro joined a local monastery as a lay-brother, spending the rest of life in prayer and penance, and was present at the his victim-saint’s canonization in 1950.
The jury is still out on what punishment to give Mr. Holmes, with the death penalty one realistic option. However, we should not be so quick to seek an ‘eye for an eye’, or a life for a life, but rather give the opportunity, and the time, for God’s grace to act upon a soul. As I have mentioned before, John Paul II dramatically declares in the same encyclical quoted above (par. 3) that in all the heinous crimes against life, more harm is done to the perpetrator than the victim, for spiritual death is far worse than physical.
James Holmes, and even El Chapo, deserve a chance to repent, so long as they are kept secure from committing any further harm. I just hope Shorty is found before such is too late.
July 18, 2015