The National Catholic Review

In 1985 James Froemsdorf, a Missouri state trooper, a husband and the father of three young daughters, was shot three times and killed by a wanted felon who had been stopped for speeding. Although the criminal was handcuffed, he was able to free one of his hands, grab the officer’s gun and kill him.

Jerome Mallett, who was 26 when he killed Officer Froemsdorf, was himself killed on a warm July night in 2001. After 16 years in prison, he was executed by the State of Missouri. Although repentant and regretful, Mallett still apparently believed he had no other way out at the time of the killing. So also, the state saw no other alternative but to kill Mallett.

Michael Gorla, Mallett’s lawyer, had made a final plea that the death sentence be commuted to a sentence of life without possibility of parole. Missouri’s Governor Bob Holden did not find the appeal compelling.

I wonder what the honorable governor made of Gorla’s argument. The lawyer noted the particularities in this case, which reveal the legal reasons for stopping capital punishment. It is not just a racial matter, although that indeed may be involved; but it is without doubt a problem of equity.

We often read of “change of venues” that seem to favor the person charged with crime. What about a change of venue for a black man to a Missouri county that has all of three black people in its entire population? Even more troubling is the variance of judges. Three of seven Missouri supreme court justices and three U.S. Supreme Court justices were in favor of “life without parole” for Mallett. (In the very month when he was executed, yet another Supreme Court justice called into question the fairness of the death penalty.) With such division in the highest courts of our land, is it not wildly arbitrary that this particular man was killed?

Finally, there is the disparity of application. In Green County, Mo., for example, David Tate, a 25-year-old white male of neo-Nazi persuasion, was stopped by two highway patrolmen. He was transporting automatic weapons and hand grenades. When ordered out of his van, he fired on the officers with a .380 caliber machine pistol. (Jerome Mallett was unarmed.) He killed one officer with 11 shots and wounded the second. By a jury of his peers, he was given life without possibility of parole. (Two jurors in the Mallett trial voted for execution because they doubted that Mallett would actually serve a sentence of life without parole.)

Both were indeed vile crimes. But who can argue in justice that Jerome Mallett should be executed and David Tate should not? Why is Mallett killed by the state on the very day a terrorist responsible for the death of 223 people is given life without parole?

Most Catholics know that the church has in the past considered capital punishment an acceptable option as a state’s last resort to protect its people. Many in the hierarchy now, however, from the pope to the U.S. bishops, maintain that such resort need not, indeed, ought not be taken. This does not necessarily reject the earlier teaching, but it does require Catholics to form their moral judgment in the light of our present time and circumstances. Some Catholics (oddly enough, many of these are among those who insist that we must unfailingly follow the teachings of the pope) cling to the old position and resent that the pope or bishops speak out against executions. Others hold that we are more truly aligning ourselves with the teaching of Jesus.

What is most compelling is the fourfold repetition of Jesus’ parable concerning the end of the world and human destiny. In the 25th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, all nations are gathered and then separated according to the following standard: “Whatsoever you have done to the least, you have done to me.” The Lord actually identifies himself with the hungry, the poor, the homeless, the sick, the disconsolate and—yes—the imprisoned. He does not say the “innocently” imprisoned. What he stresses is the “least.” So when many Catholics protest capital punishment or euthanasia or abortion, they do this not as a matter of politics or because they are conservative (on abortion) or liberal (on the death penalty). They are protesting what they see, in faith, as a sacrilege.

The incarnation, the eternal Word taking on our very flesh, changes everything, even the identity of a murderer. In some way we, as well as God, encounter the face of Christ in the least human being.

As the hour of Jerome Mallett’s execution neared, I reached for some scrap of gratitude that he was repentant. After the first stage of the lethal injection failed, in those few extra minutes of life Mallett raised his head in the direction of Trooper Froemsdorf’s family and said two words two times: “I’m sorry.”

The scene did not, however, ease the terrible fatalism of the dwindling moments, sensing almost inevitably and irretrievably the horror of eliminating yet again, one of the “least.”

Yes, he had done evil. And there is nothing, not even his execution, that can make up for the loss with which Sarah Froemsdorf and her three children have lived for 16 years.

But a deeper question remains for us: can we ourselves be reconciled to God if we do not raise our voices in opposition to such an act done in our name, with our money, by our leaders?

John F. Kavanaugh, S.J., is a professor of philosophy at St. Louis University in St. Louis, Mo.