As we complete "Respect Life Week" we want to bring up a subject that is often overlooked and compromised by our views on society. Everyone who is pro-life and espouses upholding the Sanctity of Life is against abortion and euthanasia. But there is another element that is so often looked at with mixed feelings and even pro-lifers often turn their heads the other way when the subject is broached. We're speaking of capital punishment and the death penalty. In our "culture of death" society, it is increasingly difficult for people to make proper moral judgments. Often, our minds are clouded by emotions when it comes to members of society who are hardened criminals. It is easy to carry the standard for morality, decency and life for all innocent unborn babies and the innocent elderly who are victims, but it's another thing to have compassion on someone who is guilty of murder. Far too often we all find ourselves getting emotionally caught up in the news reports, film snips and headlines that blare guilt and recreate all the gory details. This prompts a mentality back to the Old Testament idea of "an eye for an eye," pushing onto the back shelf the fundamental truths of the Roman Catholic Church and all Pope John Paul II teaches, especially in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae on all aspects of life.
We bring this up because of the national headlines of a murder case right in our own backyard here in Vista, California where less than five miles away a trial just concluded that found Brandon Wilson not only guilty of first degree murder of nine-year old Matthew Cecchi in an Oceanside restroom earlier this year, but unanimously recommended the death penalty for the 21 year-old drifter from Wisconsin. No doubt you've heard about it for the dastardly deed and the unusual arrogant manner of the killer has made headlines internationally. Here in San Diego there isn't a talk show, news program or newspaper you can pick up that isn't featuring it and almost to a man, every caller, every announcer, every writer is applauding the decision and saying "even the death penalty is too good for Wilson." It would be easy for us to go with the flow for our emotions can get the best of us and, as any parent, we are greatly concerned for the welfare of our children and want to assure something so evil that happened to young Matthew won't happen to our sons and daughters. This same scenario of emotions was played out even moreso last year at Columbine High School in Denver.
What makes the Wilson case so unique is that this extremely bright individual urges people to hate him. Possessing a "Manson-like personna, Wilson spews from his mouth heinous words when on camera that he "was chosen by God to wipe out civilization, to wipe out society," for he tells us that he believes that God wants him to kill off people so they can be in Heaven with God. Does this sound like a seriously disturbed young man? You bet. Should he then be declared insane? His attorneys tried that angle and the jury didn't buy it. Various psychiatrists at the trial have been on different sides from the beginning and it was the testimony of a psychiatrist testifying for Wilson that convinced the jury the killer knew exactly what he was doing and the insanity ploy would not work. He was found sane by the jury and then the task of determining the punishment - life or death. Yesterday they unanimously rendered the verdict of death. There really was no other alternative considering the circumstances they rationalized.
Our first reaction was, "it's about time" and "now we'll all be safer." But we caught ourselves in the reality of the situation, realizing the death penalty is wrong in the eyes of God and His Church. Why? For the very reason that God is a merciful and just God. In Sacred Scripture, Jesus taught His Apostles, and us through them and their successors, that they must forgive their fellow man by forgiveness of the heart. "Then Peter came up to Him and said, 'Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?' Jesus said to him, 'I do not say to thee seven times, but seventy times seven'" Christ taught that God alone has the right to give and take life. He taught the Apostles that they must forgive their fellow man by forgiveness of the heart. "So also My Heavenly Father will do to you, if you do not each forgive your brothers from your hearts" (Matthew 18: 35).
Jesus never condoned murder, even those who attacked Him such as the centurion in the Garden of Eden, Our Lord ordered Peter to put away the sword. God gave man the Commandment, "Thou shalt not kill" and the Son of God made it quite clear that when the Ten Commandments were broken, it was the duty of every faithful Christian not to exact revenge but to pray for the offender. It is only through prayers, sacrifices and acts of mortification and sincere petition to God that such individuals may yet be reconciled with God before their death, which God brings about, not mankind. As Saint Paul affirms in Romans 12: 19-21, "Do not avenge yourselves, beloved, but give place to the wrath, for it is written, Vengeance is Mine; I will repay, says the Lord. If thy enemy is hungry, give him food; if he is thirsty, give him drink; for by so doing thou wilt heap coals of fire upon his head Be not overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good."
The trial of Brandon Wilson tests those words and stretches them to the limits. This case was difficult for all to hear, to bear in their minds and souls. A young child from inland Oroville, California was on vacation with his Aunt at the beach in Oceanside, California. One minute he was with her, the next he was lying in a pool of blood, his throat slashed in the most hideous fashion. A young life snuffed out, a family shattered, hopes and dreams died that night when Wilson played God by taking someone's life. The media and public were calling for his head from the beginning. Justice needed to be done. It struck us then how little outrage is raised when a baby is ripped from its mother's womb in the same hideous fashion, its skull crushed for the sake of expediency for the mother to be. Maybe we need the media right there in the abortuary mills, filming and reporting on the spot just as they do for other murders and tragedies. Maybe we need the media carting their cameras and lights into rest homes and some hospitals, filming and reporting on the spot the euthanasia killing of many elderly citizens who often don't have the capacity to decide and more often than not someone on the outside has orchestrated this "murder" for their own purposes, either for financial reason or they were tired of taking care of them. Maybe if the media were there in both places, just as they are when someone is executed and they pack in like sardines, then maybe there would be justified outrage at the silent murders going on. We can only hope and pray!
As parents it's difficult for us to get beyond the emotions of being loving guardians of our children, of protecting them from any and all harm, be that spiritual, psychological, emotional, or mental harm. We'll do anything to protect them. It's a natural instinct and often, we want to lash back at anyone who would attempt to disturb that peace or hurt them. Nonetheless, it our duty as loyal Catholics to also seek the murderer's conversion as Christ asks. To pray for him and forgive him seventy-times seven. True, it is never easy. God didn't say it would be. On the other hand, should the crime go unpunished? No! There must be a system of checks and balances.
Pat Ludwa wrote yesterday in his excellent column View from the Pew on rules and societal boundaries, what works and doesn't work. In the same vein, if the death penalty worked, as its proponents claim, then we should have seen a steep decline in murders and other capital offenses. We haven't. Instead, when and where the death penalty is in effect, the system of justice gets tangled in red-tape and legalese that entails years of appeals. When these appeals are finally exhausted, the moment then comes when the death penalty is applied, and a life is snuffed out in retribution for the life taken. We've seen that with Karla Faye Tucker who was executed in Texas on February 2, 1998 despite the Holy Father's pleas on her behalf. There have been others and, to our knowledge, only one was spared and many believe it was a publicity stunt done under pressure by Missouri Governor Mel Carnahan who bowed to the Pope's request while he was in St. Louis last year that Darrell Mease was given a reprieve, but it was only to mollify the Holy Father at the time for others have been executed since under Carnahan. In the case of Mease and Tucker, they were repentant. Tucker had said she had found God and knew the grave errors of her ways. Now contrast that with Wilson who actually asked the jury to sentence him to the electric chair or he would kill again. No remorse and yet in those words he is asking for help. It is help no jury or finite judge can give him, only the Almighty Judge.
As bad as Brandon Wilson is, consider for a moment that God does not create junk. Wilson's mother did not give birth to a killer. She gave birth to a son created in the image and likeness of God and this child of God must be given every opportunity to return to his Creator. The only difference between Brandon Wilson and Matthew Cecchi is that satan infiltrated the former. The devil can be driven out through prayer. Yet, because of today's culture of death mindset, we abhor the sinner as much as the sin. We fail to recognize the soul of a person who has committed an unspeakable crime. Seeing him sitting there in his skin-head Nazi arrogance, we conjure up memories of Adolf Hitler, Saddam Hussein, Attila the Hun and all the other murderers throughout history. As a society, we are quick to emulate Pontius Pilate and wash our hands of the whole affair, silently condoning the culture of death by our actions. We seek the speediest way out, which we think is the death penalty, whereas in truth, if he is not put in isolation on death row, he would most likely die sooner in the jungle known as the prison system where the inmates exact their own justice. To that many say, "amen." The problem is we too often judge not as God would have us judge, basing our laws on His law, but upon our emotions. If time heals all wounds, as we pray it will for both the murdered boy's family, and the family of the killer, then we must, at the same time, seek time for the convicted killer to be reconciled with God. We cannot say that there is no hope, which, in effect, the death penalty says, but rather, if we truly believe our faith, if we practice our faith and base our lives around God's laws, then we must believe that even someone so vile as Brandon Wilson has enough redeeming qualities to be converted and time is an essential element for anyone who seeks the Mercy of God. He, on the exterior, shows no remorse or desire to seek that Mercy. But inside he is just a scared little child putting up a front to mask his despair. Judas Iscariot knew the depths of that despair and many rejoiced at his suicide, but not Our Lord and His Blessed Mother Mary for they understood God's Law. They would agree that to put Brandon Wilson behind bars for the rest of his natural life, even throw away the key, is as far as we can and should go in our society. Consider that the Public Defender who had no choice but to defend Wilson, Curtis Owen resigned after this case because, he had had enough of the "system" and the toll it takes on everyone.
We offer two examples of forgiveness and never-say-die attitude to praying for the vilest of sinners. Consider the Holy Father's compassion and sincere forgiveness of the man who tried to murder him on May 13, 1981. He could have said "good riddance" and "he got what he deserved." Instead the Pope made a special point of meeting with the would-be assassin and praying with him and for him. That takes courage and guts. It is that same Sovereign Pontiff who demands that we do the same. Consider Saint Therese of the Child Jesus and the story told in her autobiography about a convicted criminal who was to receive the death penalty for his crimes. The Little Flower asked God to convert the man's heart, for she was certain in her soul, that God wished to give His Mercy to the murderer and so she cooperated in her prayers and sacrifices in her "little way" to bring down Mercy upon this man. She also asked the Almighty for a sign that she was truly on the right path in praying for this convicted killer so hated by all others. On the day of his execution, at the final moment, the man confessed his sins to a priest, received absolution and went to his death peacefully, knowing that what he had done was terribly wrong, but that God was his Father, and wanted this prodigal son to come home...even if it meant a very, very long time in Purgatory. Therese took this as a sign from God to confirm her deepest knowledge. The death penalty is wrong because it goes against the Will of God. No matter how hard we try to justify it, no matter how high our emotions run, we cannot and must not go against the law of God. When we do, we are no better than the person who stands accused and convicted. We convict ourselves before God by sentencing another to death. We fail in Mercy, and upon our death, we will have to answer to the Almighty Judge as to our reasons for acting in such a manner. At that moment before God there will be no human emotions running rampant. There will be only Truth, which is God, and our feeble excuses can never stand the test of Truth. They just won't cut it!
Our society is corrupt, morally bankrupt. We cannot replace our lack of morality by being immoral before God. There is a price to pay for disobedience. As hard as it is to swallow given the circumstances of the Wilson case,
it is far better to offer our very lives for the sake of one confessed killer than to give up hope and condemn the person to their own death. It is not ours to give or take a life. We are all subject to a Higher Power. If we deny Him now, will He deny us at the moment of our death? This is certainly food for thought, deep prayer and meditation, which we should all diligently undertake in our lives. We have no clue when the moment of our death will come. It most often comes, as Our Lord says, like a thief in the night, when we least expect it and often when we are least prepared for it. If we seek to be prepared, then we must seek, through prayer and sacrifice, to have the confessed killer properly prepared as well. That is love of neighbor, that is forgiveness. That is the way to eternal life!
What a tragedy we have made of our laws here in this country, of our system of justice, of our whole government, which, each day brings us closer and closer to the full abyss of evil. Yet there is so much reason for hope because we can make a difference. We can do it by praying and by speaking out against the death penalty. Yes, we'll be going against the grain, especially when the groundswell of hate against Wilson has so solidified the rationale for the death penalty in the public's mindset. As loyal Catholics our mission is to be messengers of His Mercy. We do this through our prayers, thoughts and actions. To pray for someone so seemingly evil as Brandon Wilson takes tremendous fortitude, but to do so is to fulfill the Divine Will. To have a heart truly converted as Our Lady and her Divine Son ask, then it is essential to pray for such a person as Brandon Wilson and others like him on death row so that in God's time they will be with us praising God in Heaven. Afterall, it takes a heroic heart to overcome the hurt and the hate!