Judge Carolyn Dineen King of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit was the main speaker at the “Red Mass” on October 4 at the Catholic cathedral in Corpus Christi, Texas. The Red Mass is an annual liturgy held for members of the legal profession near the beginning of the judicial term. Its traditions extend back to 13th century Europe. Judge King spoke about the death penalty, both from her perspective as a judge and as a Catholic. In both areas, she raised strong concerns about the application of the death penalty in the U.S.

Judge King described the recent legal history of the death penalty, with a particular emphasis on Texas’ statute. She noted that the court of which she is a member mistakenly interpreted a Supreme Court ruling, and then many executions occurred over many years before the Supreme Court corrected the error. She also expressed serious misgivings about the risk of executing the innocent. Judge King stated:

[T]he injustice of executing capital defendants under laws that were for so many years undeveloped and in flux is troubling. Think about it. My court’s opinion … was on the books for twelve years before the Supreme Court struck it down. During those twelve years, many defendants were executed without the constitutionally-required judgment by the jury on whether the defendant was sufficiently morally culpable to be sentenced to death. That is not to say that those defendants were innocent of the crimes for which they were convicted. But it could certainly lead one to ask why, if the jury’s judgment about moral culpability was constitutionally required, so many went to their deaths without it.

Also profoundly troubling is the risk that an innocent man will be executed. I must say that from my experience with capital cases, there is usually a great deal of evidence that the defendant is, in fact, guilty. But the lengthy investigation of the Houston crime lab, which exposed evidence of serious problems such as falsified test results, including DNA test results, and the tailoring of reports to fit police theories, certainly suggests that even scientific evidence, to which we normally attach considerable confidence, can be flawed. Only God’s justice is perfect justice. The assessment of the death penalty, however well designed the system for doing so, remains a human endeavor with a consequent risk of error that may not be remediable.

In discussing her moral views as a Catholic, she clearly indicated that those views did not dictate her constitutional rulings from the bench. Nevertheless, she finds a strong denunciation of the death penalty in the U.S. in Catholic teaching, especially given the alternative sentence of life in prison without parole. Under that teaching, vengeance is not a legitimate justification for the death penalty. She stated:

Catholics, the people of life, have an opportunity to advocate to our legislators changes in our laws that will align them more closely with the moral law. For the solution to the problems that we face with the death penalty is a political one (not a judicial one), and each of us, as a Catholic citizen and voter, is called upon to promote it.

The Catholic bishops have recently issued a call to the Catholic community, inviting every Catholic to join in the Catholic Campaign to End the Use of the Death Penalty, not as a partisan campaign but as a moral commitment.

The Church’s campaign has been long in coming, centuries long, but at last it is here and all of should actively and prayerfully support it.

(South Texas Catholic News, Oct. 20, 2006). Read Judge King’s entire statement. See New Voices and Innocence.