Unlike most Canadians, I have an intimate knowledge of capital punishment. As an American attorney, I aided in the appeals of death row inmates. I have sat across the table from convicted murderers. I have spoken to them. I have heard their stories and listened to their fears. I can honestly say that I have never met a person on death row who was both sober and sane at the time they committed their crimes.
I wasn’t always against the death penalty. I was born and raised in Oklahoma. That’s a culture where everyone carries guns, and murderers aren’t given mercy. We were the last state to execute someone who committed their crime while a juvenile. Most of my family are still quite in favour of the death penalty.
My views began to change due to St. John Paul’s teachings. I was privileged to see him in 1979 in Mexico. At least I saw a white dot in the distance that I knew was him and heard his words. I listened. I was just a teenager, but I became a JPII groupie. When he said conception to natural death, I listened.
We are all called to examine our consciences when they aren’t in line with Church teachings. I did and came to believe that John Paul II was right. Even killers are still human beings of equal human dignity to my own.
Years later, when the opportunity came along to assist in a capital case appeal, I jumped at the chance. Most attorneys want to work for those suspected of being innocent. Not me. I wanted to work only for the guilty, for two reasons. I wanted the person I represented to acknowledge that they were in fact guilty. I felt that was important for their own reconciliation.
Secondly, I truly believed that if I was going to be against the death penalty, I had to oppose it even for the most grievous criminal. To me it was the same as being against all abortions, even in cases of rape and incest. In addition, I also only represented those with other convictions so that if I got them off death row, they wouldn’t be leaving jail. I didn’t want to be responsible for freeing someone who might kill again.
What I saw instead was a man about my size who seemed more afraid of me than I was of him.
My first visit to death row was eye-opening. I had visited clients before behind bars, but those were county jail facilities or the minimum-security federal facility outside Oklahoma City. This was a maximum security fortress. After a variety of checks, searches, and heavy locked doors, I finally came face to face with a killer.
I was the product of an ordinary family with a stay-at-home mom and a present, working father. I had no real experience with bad guys. I was expecting a manacled rabid dog. What I saw instead was a man about my size who seemed more afraid of me than I was of him.
That’s how all these people were. Many were severely mentally ill. They were often from horrific backgrounds and had limited educations. None had been in a financial position to afford a dream team for their defence. They all had been either drunk or high when they killed. I rarely felt afraid to be in the same room with them. What I remember most vividly is the smell of fear and desperation these places carried.
I was unsuccessful many times more than I was successful with these cases. My job was to review their lengthy trial transcripts to find appealable issues. Not as cool as legal shows on TV make it look. My last death row client asked me to witness his execution. He had no one else who would come.
It wasn’t something I looked forward to, like some new experience in life. I had been intellectually curious about the process, but had not sought to attend previously. He was my last client because his execution went badly, and I could no longer face the possibility of having to attend again.
What stands out to me most vividly, now some 20+ years later, is the humanity of these individuals. It makes it easier to hate people when we dehumanize them. Their humanity was broken, but not gone. Their deaths didn’t bring the promised closure for their victims loved ones. I saw true closure only come with forgiveness.
I’m so glad that Pope Francis has taken this necessary step in revising the Catechism around capital punishment. The previous wording, while clear enough to me that the death penalty should never be an option, still allowed the faithful to look the other way. Now he has given us a hard dictation that I hope will finally lead others to better inform their consciences.
Catherine Mardon is a retired attorney, author and Newman Theological College graduate living in Edmonton