In the years that I have worked with the Respect Life Office of the Archdiocese, I have had many opportunities to hear Cardinal Egan preach on pro-life issues.
One of his favorite arguments against abortion was rooted in common sense and the natural law — if there is any possibility that the being in the womb is an innocent human life, you may not act to kill it. To back up this point, he loved to point to the clear photographs of babies in the womb, and talk about the unequivocal proof they provided as to the humanity of the unborn.
To me, that argument is also the best reason for opposing the death penalty.
In recent weeks, there have been several cases in the news where prisoners were executed despite significant concerns being raised about whether they were, in fact guilty. To me, it’s not just a question of whether an actually innocent person has ever been executed. It’s the fact that the judicial process is insufficient to remove that risk, and cannot be trusted to remove it infallibly.
I worked for years in law enforcement as a prosecutor. I have profound respect and admiration for those who dedicate their lives to that calling. But I have seen the imperfections and uncertainties of the criminal justice system from the inside, especially in cases that rely on the testimony of informants. Proof beyond a reasonable doubt is sufficient to justify imprisonment, but I do not believe that it can deliver the level of certainty that is necessary to justify the use of lethal violence in an execution. It is not enough to eliminate the possibility of error.
People who trust the system to act infallibly should peruse the website of the Innocence Project of Texas — the state that has executed the most prisoners. You might particularly wish to consider the case of the man who was convicted of capital murder, served 18 years, but was later released because of the egregious prosecutorial misconduct that led to his conviction.
This is where we need to rely on the classic pro-life argument that Cardinal Egan presented. Just like the hunter who hears a rustle in the bushes, if there’s a risk that your actions may take an innocent human life, you must not act.