Maybe I care about this topic more than most because my cousin’s son was sentenced to death for the contract murder of a real estate agent. No, he is not a person of color who dropped out of school or an inner-city drug dealer. Peter was raised on a farm in northeast Nebraska by good Catholic parents and graduated from local schools. Between the time of the murder and his arrest, we were pall bearers together at his grandfather’s funeral at the Catholic Church in our hometown of 1600 residents. I was baptized in this church and we have buried my parents from there as well. His grandpa’s funeral was the last time I have seen Peter in person.
Thankfully, if there is any reason for gratitude in all of this, Nebraska has a peculiar clause written into its state constitution that enables death-row inmates the grounds for seemingly endless appeals. I still remember anguished notes from my dear Aunt Rose asking for prayers as the date set for her grandson’s death in the electric chair approached. These last minute appeals – a delay tactic based on this “generous” state constitution – remains the legal strategy of choice for Nebraska’s death-row inmates. For my Aunt Rose and Peter’s mother, my cousin, such excruciating suspension of any resolution constituted its own “cruel and unusual punishment.”
Relief came with the US Supreme Court decision which put into question the way the death penalty was being applied in the various states – not its legality, to say nothing of its morality! A review of all death row cases was mandated across the country. A three judge review panel voted 2 to 1 to uphold Peter’s sentence. Only that one dissenting vote on a panel of three judges provided that tenuous “reasonable doubt” – in the application of the death sentence, not the conviction – to have Peter’s sentence commuted to life in prison. Coincidentally, that dissenting judge grew up two blocks from me in Omaha. We went to the same schools. To this day, I don’t believe he knows anything of our family connection because of the differences in surnames. Yes, capital punishment is up-close and personal!
I am outraged at every murder and my heart grieves for victims’ families – at the time their father was murdered, the sons of the man Peter shot were students at the same Jesuit high school from which I graduated. With this family association, a brief op-ed in the current issue of America magazine grabbed my attention and approval. “It is a cruel irony that people debate about the ‘most humane’ way to kill a person… Is lethal injection morally preferable to the electric chair? Does a firing squad provide a more efficient execution than a gas chamber?”
The family of the victim in a tragic case in Ohio currently receiving a great deal of attention is, understandably, less sympathetic. “He is being treated far more humanely than he treated her,” they said in a statement. America — the magazine, at least — frames the issue perfectly: “True. But is this the right standard for judging the means of execution? Arguments about the relative humaneness of different methods of execution miss the essential point: When the state applies the death penalty, it deliberately ends the life of a human being. Whatever method it uses, the state perpetuates the cycle of violence.”
Where will it all end? Where will it end?