Hard Cases

“He deserves death,” opines the main character in Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring.
”Deserves it!” replies the wizard Gandalf. “I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.”

Two years ago Brendt Christensen abducted a Chinese doctoral student named Yingying Zhang. He took her back to his Champaign-Urbana apartment, where he raped and murdered her. When he told his girlfriend about the murder, he said Zhang never stopped fighting for her life.

Her body has not been recovered.

On Monday Christensen was convicted of murder. The sentencing phase of the trial will follow in July. Zhang’s family is seeking the death penalty.

The case has received national news coverage, and the comments sections are peppered with calls for Christensen to die. Perhaps, say a number of commenters, he could be tortured first.

One of the most difficult tensions for Christians to resolve is the balance between justice and mercy. In recent decades the Church has spoken clearly about the obligation governments face to avoid the death penalty wherever possible. The teaching articulated by Pope St. John Paul II in his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae was reiterated by Pope Benedict XVI and expressed even more clearly by Pope Francis: we must phase out the death penalty. We can mete out justice without taking criminals’ lives.

Here in Illinois the death penalty was abolished in 2011, but Christensen is being tried in federal court. His life rests in the hands of the jury as it prepares to make its sentencing recommendations.

The details of the Christensen case are particularly disturbing: the premeditation, the violence, the troubling mixture of lies and braggadocio. It’s easy to understand why comments sections would be full of calls for him to be executed speedily.

But the old saying is true: hard cases make bad law. We cannot assert a need for the death penalty based on the existence of odious crimes. Painful as it may seem, we must restructure our criminal justice system to reflect the redemptive power of Christ’s death and our firm belief in the value of each human life.

In conversations about abortion the hard cases often come up: what about rape? what about incest? what about pregnancies that pose a risk to a mother’s life? For those on the fence about abortion, hard-line answers to those questions can seem cruel, tone-deaf, pharisaical. But the moral truth is clear: the unborn babies in those hard cases are no less human. Their intrinsic dignity and value are undiminished by the circumstances of their conception.

Often death penalty opponents highlight cases with sympathetic defendants; one such story appeared here last year. A criminal’s history can limit his or her culpability, and can help death penalty supporters to see the problematic nature of capital punishment.

But if we believe that Our Lord suffered and died on the cross for each one of us, then even Brendt Christensen’s soul is unfathomably precious. Let’s speak the Church’s truth in the hard cases, too: executing Christensen would answer a moral wrong with another moral wrong.

Let’s pray for the repose of Yingying Zhang’s soul, and for consolation for her heartbroken family and friends. Let’s pray also for conversion of heart for Brendt Christensen, and for God’s wisdom for the jury as it enters the sentencing phase of the trial.

Image from Wikimedia Commons