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Bishop Angell Issues New Statement on Death Penalty

Released to Vermont House Judiciary Committee
On the Occasion of the Execution of Timothy McVeigh

May 9, 2001

The Most Reverend Kenneth A. Angell today released a statement arguing against capital punishment to the Vermont House Judiciary Committee and the People of Vermont. The statement and supporting research material opposes any attempt to re-instate the death
penalty in Vermont.

In a letter to Representative Margaret Flory, Chairperson of the Judiciary Committee, Bishop Angell called the upcoming execution of Timothy McVeigh "the quintessential test of our nation's resolve to achieve justice without inhumanity."

Text of the statement is herewith. Supporting research material available upon request.

For Further Information
Please Contact: Gloria J. Gibson
Director of Communications
(802) 658-6110, Ext. 300

-- Statement on the Death Penalty --
By Most Reverend Kenneth A. Angell
Bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington
May 10, 2001
To: Vermont House Judiciary Committee
Chairperson Margaret Flory
People of Vermont

Madam Chairperson, Members of the Judiciary Committee, People of Vermont:

On the sixth Day God created man and woman. He breathed life into Adam and Eve. By the second generation, man took that breath of life from his brother. He committed murder. Cain killed Abel. But Cain's Maker did not strike him down in retribution. Nor would He allow others to kill Cain in revenge. Rather, he marked Cain to protect him from execution, saying: "If anyone kills Cain, Cain shall be avenged sevenfold." And then He banished Cain to the forsaken land of Nod, east of Eden. 1

That's the way the Highest Judge of all ruled, and I believe He left us a clear and incredible example of justice. This Judge, that we will all face someday, gives us hope that we will be shown an amazing mercy. This Judge did not rob the murderer of personal dignity even
though Cain had robbed his brother of life. The message He left to us is that true justice must remain merciful even while it punishes. The message is that correction of the criminal is more preferable than his execution. The message is our Eternal Judge does not waiver in His total respect for life, and neither must we.

We must not perpetuate the crime of murder by becoming a society that kills for retribution. We must not rob the killer of his banishment from society and his disfavor with the Lord. We must not rob the Lord of the time and the mercy He wishes to grant the killer in hopes
that he will repent, maybe even rehabilitate.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I think that ancient example holds firmly today. I think our culture can rise to the task of "Marking" not `Murdering" those who take human life. As a matter of fact, don't we already do this in Vermont? We mark murderers with accusations, trials, media publicity. We mark their fingerprints, mark their records, mark their very beings with black and white stripes, bright orange prison uniforms or the like. We mark them, wetry them, and then we banish them to prison. (Although I grant you that perhaps we should be stricter in the length of some of their banishments.)

Mercy and respect for life do not preclude punishment. Those who take human life need to be punished, and we need to punish them. We need to banish the offender in order to protect an innocent society from further violence, to protect us from those who lack respect for
life. But we must not bloody our own hands. We must show mercy, advance the science of rehabilitation, and at the very least, respect the gift of life and the time which the Lord has given even to murderers. This is a time he has given them to possibly repent and save their souls.

But perhaps most importantly, we must not allow the death penalty to perpetuate a cycle of violence in our country. We must not promote or justify a culture of vengeance. We cannot hope to teach that killing is wrong by killing.

Now, if we exclude revenge as a motive, why would we want the death penalty anyhow? Is the death penalty a deterrent? I don't think so. It does not work. The rate of homicides in states that carry the death penalty is not reduced in comparison with states that do not have a death penalty. During the 1980's, death penalty states
averaged 7.5 homicides per 100,000 population, while states with no death penalty actually fared better with an average of 7.4 per 100,000. 2 Furthermore, in a 1995 poll, the nation's police chiefs rated the death penalty last as a preventative measure. 3

But the American people are not well educated to the facts. I believe that is why many Vermonters, including Catholics, continue to support demands for a death penalty. When people are educated however, support declines. National polls taken in 1999 showed that
public support for capital punishment wanes considerably when the option of life without parole is given as an alternative to the death penalty. The number of those in favor of capital punishment then drops from 70% to 44%! 4

If not for revenge, why would we want the death penalty? Ironically, even the price is not right. The economics argument does not hold. Studies prove that it actually costs less to support a criminal for a lifetime in prison, than to execute him once. A 1993 Duke University Study of capital cases in North Carolina, for example, showed the state spent $2.16 million per execution. Florida spent $3.2 million per execution…nearly six times the cost of life imprisonment. 5

Then, if not for revenge, why would we want the death penalty? Would it have anything to do with discrimination…a temptation that many harbor in their hearts and most of us must fight to avoid? Horrible
and tortuous execution methods have been historically used against the socially disfavored and disdained. Jesus Christ himself was such a victim of discrimination, murdered by the state, though he was innocent of any wrongdoing. Still he forgave them, forgave us, his
prosecutors and persecutors as he hung on their instrument of execution, saying "Father, forgive them. They know not what they do." How many of today's innocent victims of the mistakes made in our criminal justice system would be so merciful to us?

Incidentally, the Crucifixion of Christ was an execution method preserved for the victims of Roman discrimination. No Roman citizen was ever crucified. Today, there is justified concern also that minorities are treated unfairly in the judgement process of our nation. Opponents have long cited figures to show that a
disproportionate number of blacks are put to death in the United States. Still other studies show the race of the victim determines whether or not the death penalty is imposed. 75% of those executed in the U.S. since 1977 had killed a white person, even though over half of all murder victims each year are black. The apparent message is a white person's life is more valuable than a black's. 6

So here's where we are…the death penalty does not deter murderers. The death penalty costs the people more money than life imprisonment. The death penalty harbors a discriminatory justice toward minorities. And just what does it do for those left behind? What of the living victims? What of the families, loved ones and
friends of murder victims? Those of us who oppose the death penalty would be terribly inconsistent if we did not embrace the most profound respect for the victims of crime and their families. Consideration for the inherent dignity of criminals should never be misconstrued as a defense of their crimes.

But are survivors entitled to their pound of flesh? How do you ever punish someone enough for destroying a loved one? I recall the statement of one grieving mother. She said of the man who had murdered her children: "Once he was dead, I felt like I wanted to kill him again just to vent my anger." Understandable? Indeed. Healing? I don't think so. Revenge does not heal, and the death
penalty is an act of revenge which is beneath our dignity. It perpetuates a cycle of violence, and does not satisfy our needs for justice and peace. It will not be surprising to find that those most thirsty for justice through the death penalty, may not obtain closure after all. Vengeance does not bring peace, but more violence. And more violence will not compensate for the death of a loved one, nor redeem serenity for the living. Harm does not heal. Only mercy and forgiveness can lead to a true peace for a "pain that cannot forget." "A pain," that Aeschylus said: "Falls drop by drop upon the heart," until "in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom
through the awful grace of God."

May God grant our legislators and the people of Vermont the wisdom to resist misguided efforts to re-instate the death penalty in our beautiful State.

1. Genesis 4: 15-16
2. USA Weekend: The Death Penalty Debate, May 5, 1996
3. Ibid: Peter D. Hart Research Associates
4. USCC, Talking Points, March, 1999
5. USA Weekend: The Death Penalty Debate, May 5, 1996
6. Ibid.


NEWS RELEASE: Bishop Angell Re-Issues Statement Against Death Penalty
January 8, 2001

Once again Vermont has been rocked by a series of violent murders that frighten, sadden and sicken us, unleashing raw emotions and testing our serenity. And once again, as in the fall of 1997, Governor Dean is being pressured by some to re-instate the death penalty in Vermont.

Certainly we understand the pain and loss involved in such crimes that prompt a desire for serious, sometimes even vengeful, retribution. But as I said before and state again, it is precisely because of these emotions and their tendency to cloud our logic and ethics, that we must be careful to follow our unyielding pledges to respect life, no matter how unattractive or offensive that life may be.

Statistics continue to show that Capital Punishment is simply not the answer. It does not work as a deterrent. It does not cost less than life imprisonment. It does not mend broken hearts, either. Only the Lord can grant the grace to heal such wounds.

In such trying times, it does not hurt to re-visit the reasons we respect the lives of even those who destroy life. For that reason I am re-issuing a diocesan statement originally released on Good Friday, 1999. I am hopeful it will renew our resolve to respect all life at all times, and to resist the emotional temptations of vengeance and violent retribution.

I also once again ask all Vermonters who respect life to join me in prayer for our Governor and our legislators that they be given special strength and insight in their duties to protect all human life.



NEWS RELEASE: Bishop Kenneth A. Angell issues statement on Death Penalty
April 4, 1999

"Today I join my brother bishops in a Good Friday Appeal to End the Death Penalty. On the day when we recall the execution of Jesus Christ, the Administrative Board of the Bishops’ Conference has released a statement calling for an end to the death penalty in the United States. Vermonters will not be surprised to learn that I support this appeal totally. Many of you have joined us in petitions of pardon for those on death row. Over the years, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington has maintained a strong and consistent pro-life position, a position which demands respect for all life…and that includes even those who do not respect the lives of others. This is not an easy issue, and all of us need to consider how we will stand up for life, and still stand with the victims of violent crime. We must strive for a society that does not try to solve its problems with more violence. I not only support the Good Friday appeal of my brother bishops, but I take this opportunity to release our own diocesan statement against the death penalty. I pray for the support of Vermont Catholics, and all people of good faith."


Statement herewith
Good Friday



Statement on Death Penalty

By Most Reverend Kenneth A. Angell
Bishop of Burlington

April 2, 1999 – Good Friday

I wish to address the faithful people of our Church and people of good will throughout Vermont regarding the question of capital punishment. Specifically, I want to invite all to join in courageously opposing the mistaken belief that violence will prevent violence – that disrespect for the life of one who disrespects life will somehow prevent further disrespect.

Still, in opposing capital punishment, I am very much aware of the fact that a majority of Americans support the death penalty, and so do many Catholics. People are understandably tired of violence in our society. They want a deterrent and many turn to the death penalty as that deterrent.

But experience has shown that the death penalty does not effectively deter serious crime. It does not better safeguard the people. It does not protect society more effectively than alternatives such as life imprisonment without parole. Of its very nature, it cannot and does not restore the social order breached by offenders. More humane and effective methods of defending society exist and should be used.

I am also aware that opposing the death penalty often leads to the conclusion that we lack sensitivity and sympathy for the victims of capital crime and their families. We must commit ourselves to a platform, which consistently demonstrates compassion, support and justice for those who have lost loved ones to violence. We know of their deep wounds, their grief, and their great sadness. We are not indifferent to their sorrow, but we must ask: is taking another life the answer?

The United States has executed five hundred people since it re-introduced the death penalty in 1976. Today, it has thirty-five hundred prisoners on death row. Four countries were responsible for eighty-four percent of executions world-wide in 1997: China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United States.

A few months ago, in his Christmas message, Pope John Paul II made an explicit plea for the worldwide abolition of the death penalty in the Year 2000. He pleaded with all people of good will to eradicate capital punishment. He did not direct his remarks at the United States but he might well have done so. No other developed democratic country utilizes the death penalty as much, and nowhere else in the democratic world is there such a public thirst for capital punishment.

More recently, in St. Louis, Pope John Paul II called for Christians to be unconditionally pro-life. This, in part, is what he said:

          "As believers, how can we fail to see that abortion, euthanasia, and assisted suicide are a terrible rejection of God’s gift of life? A sign of hope is the increasing recognition that the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil. Modern society has the means of protecting itself, without definitively denying criminals the chance to reform. I renew the appeal I made at Christmas for a consensus to end the death penalty."
We are grateful that Vermont has not joined the growing lists of states which have acted to re-instate the death penalty. Still, we must maintain vigilance lest such a misguided movement surface in our state. We must not let it happen. Certainly, we believe that violent criminals must be brought to justice and made accountable for their actions, but we do not believe that the violence of capital punishment is the solution. We oppose the death penalty not only for what it does to those guilty of crime, but also for what it does to all of us: "it offers the tragic illusion that we can defend life by taking life." We must embrace the biblical call to choose life over death, to reject all forms of violence and vengeance as incompatible with the teachings of Jesus Christ.

The American Bishops in 1998 issued a document on Catholic Social Teachings. This, in part, is what they said about respect for human life:

          "In a world warped by declining respect for human life, the Church proclaims that human life is sacred and that the dignity of the person is the foundation of a moral vision for society. In our society, human life is under direct attack from abortion and assisted suicide. The value of human life is threatened by the increased use of the death penalty. We believe that every person is precious and that the measure of every institution is whether it threatens or enhances the life and dignity of the human person."
It is not always easy for us to show mercy toward those who have shown no mercy, but together we can learn and earn this grace through mutual support and prayer. Prayer is powerful. We need only recall Dismas, the criminal who died at Christ’s side on Golgotha. His simple and final prayer for remembrance was answered not only with mercy, but with the promise:

"I assure you: this day you will be with me in paradise."

Luke 23:43  

(Death Penalty - continued)

News Release: Bishop Responds to Governor on Death Penalty
October 23, 1997

The Most Reverend Kenneth A. Angell, Bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington, today addressed Governor Howard Dean’s recent statements on the death penalty in Vermont.

Said Bishop Angell:  “I am sorry that Governor Dean has expressed second thoughts on his support for the physicians’ pledge to “do no harm.”  The Governor reportedly stated that “’Do no harm’ also...pertains to letting people out of jail...who would be a terrible harm to innocent people.”

That may be true, but must we apply such “either-or” logic which would either release a dangerous criminal to prey upon the innocent or exterminate that criminal?   Cannot society find a solution that both punishes the guilty and protects the public? Could we, for example, consider stronger enforcement of life-sentences?

I can well understand the emotions involved, especially in the more heinous crimes, that prompt the desire for serious, sometimes even vengeful, retribution.  But it is because of these
emotions and their tendency to cloud our logic and ethics, that we must be careful to follow our unyielding pledges to respect life, no matter how unattractive or offensive that life may be.

Certainly I agree that severe punishment and restraint is called for in many murder cases.  But as Governor Dean himself said:  “I truly don’t believe it’s a deterrent.”  What then would be the motive for the death penalty except vengence?   Statistics and surveys suggest that life imprisonment is actually more economically feasible than capital punishment with its attendant and on-going high-cost of litigation.   Furthermore, mistakes do happen in our system of justice.  Innocent people are wrongly convicted, and life-long sentences can be reversed, the death penalty cannot.

I can understand the frustrations and weariness that come with our society’s apparent inability to prevent such violent, heart-breaking crimes.  But compromising our own respect for life only adds to the tragedy.

We pray that God will strengthen the resolve of Governor Dean and all who are charged with the responsibility of protecting all human life.


(Death Penalty - continued)

News Release: Bishop React to McVeigh Sentence

We were greatly disappointed, though not surprised, by the sentencing of Timothy McVeigh to death. Despite our understanding and sharing of the passions unleashed by the despicable destruction of 168 human lives, we cannot see how their memories could be honored by more death and destruction.

Certainly the perpetrator of such tragedy should not go without severe punishment. But we believe a lifetime of imprisonment would not only satisfy justice but perhaps present the time and opportunity for the man to achieve an awareness of the intensity of the crimes he has committed against his brothers and sisters.  Such an awakening of conscious would not only be a far greater sentence than death, but would perhaps also offer an opportunity for reconciliation between a destroyer of life and the Author of Life.

The death penalty is an act of revenge which is beneath our dignity, perpetuates a cycle of violence begetting violence, and does not satisfy our need for justice and peace. It will not be surprising to find those most thirsty for justice through the death penalty may not obtain closure after all. Vengeance does not bring peace, but more violence, and more violence will not compensate for the dead nor redeem serenity for the living. Only mercy and forgiveness can lead to a true peace for a “pain that cannot forget,”a pain that Aeschylus said “falls drop by drop upon the heart,” until “in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”

For those who do not find the peace they seek in the execution of Timothy McVeigh, we pray they will remember that it is never too late to turn to the merciful wisdom and abundant grace of God.

“In our sleep, pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart
  And in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the
  awful grace of God.”



Copyright © 2004 Victor Claveau. All Rights Reserved