Beliefs Culture Ethics Institutions

Boston bombing jury excludes some Catholics

A courtroom sketch shows Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (2nd R) during the jury selection process in his trial at the federal courthouse in Boston, Massachusetts on January 15, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Jane Flavell Collins *Note: This photo may ONLY be republished with RNS-BOSTON-JURY, originally published on January 26, 2015

BOSTON (RNS)  As the quest for a jury in the Boston Marathon bombing trial approaches its fourth week, some of the area’s 2 million Roman Catholics are growing frustrated with criteria that effectively disqualify followers of church teachings.

Potential jurors in bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s trial must be able to impose the death penalty or a life sentence with no possibility of release. That standard eliminates Catholics who heed the catechism of the Catholic Church, which says a death sentence is not to be used when “non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor.” Cases warranting the death penalty “are very rare, if not practically non-existent,” according to the catechism, because the government has other means to keep the public safe from convicts.

“It is both ironic and unfortunate that Catholics who understand and embrace this teaching will be systematically excluded from the trial,” says the Rev. James Bretzke, professor of moral theology at Boston College. “It is frustrating.”

A courtroom sketch shows Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (2nd R) during the jury selection process in his trial at the federal courthouse in Boston, Massachusetts on January 15, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Jane Flavell Collins *Note: This photo may ONLY be republished with RNS-BOSTON-JURY, originally published on January 26, 2015

A courtroom sketch shows Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (2nd R) during the jury selection process in his trial at the federal courthouse in Boston, Massachusetts on January 15, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Jane Flavell Collins
*Note: This photo may ONLY be republished with RNS-BOSTON-JURY, originally published on January 26, 2015

Judge George O’Toole had hoped to hear opening arguments Monday, but they have been delayed because the individual questioning of jurors is taking longer than anticipated. A new start date has not been scheduled.

O’Toole has denied two defense motions to move the trial out of Boston, but the protracted jury selection process is keeping the issue alive.

The defense cited the attitudes of prospective jurors, saying of the 1,373 potential jurors who filled out questionnaires, 68 percent believe Tsarnaev is guilty and 69 percent have a connection or allegiance to people, places or events in the case.

One prospective juror fought back tears as she recalled having met Martin Richards, an 8-year-old who was among the three people killed in the April 15, 2013, twin-bomb explosions, which also injured more than 260. Others described personal ties to injured victims or police, or expressed a belief that Tsarnaev is guilty. A Catholic theologian said he couldn’t impose the death penalty.

With hurdles to overcome in jury selection, some local Catholics lament that the pool is likely to be purged of people trained in their faith to grapple with matters of justice and mercy.

Refusing on religious grounds to impose the death penalty “shouldn’t be enough to disqualify them,” said Michele Dillon, a University of New Hampshire sociologist and co-author of American Catholics in Transition. “We’re supposed to have a jury of one’s peers. And if one’s peers are informed by this sort of religious ethos, then that surely deserves some kind of recognition.”

Not all local Catholics have qualms about the way jurors are chosen. The Rev. Michael McGarry, director of a socially progressive Catholic congregation called The Paulist Center in downtown Boston, is a longtime opponent of capital punishment. Still, he isn’t bothered by the fact that he, like others who would refuse to impose death, would be ineligible for the jury if summoned.

“They’re doing the right thing by saying you shouldn’t allow people who are not open to the death penalty at all,” McGarry said. “Nor should you allow people who are eager for blood.”

Greater Boston is 46 percent Catholic, according to Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, but religion isn’t necessarily a strong shaper of local attitudes. Massachusetts is the fourth least-religious state after nearby New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine, according to Gallup, which surveys worship attendance and how important people say religion is in their daily lives.

Yet when faced with extraordinary decisions, even less-observant Catholics turn to church teachings for guidance, according to Dillon. They’re apt to do so if tapped for the Tsarnaev trial, she said.

“If they identify as Catholic, part and parcel of why they do that is because they believe these teachings have a lot of value,” Dillon said. “They make up their own minds, but it gives them pause” to consider what the church teaches.

Nationwide, 62 percent of Catholics favor the death penalty for murderers, according to the General Social Survey’s most recent data from 2012. That is a substantial decline from 30 years ago, when 82 percent of Catholics favored it.

In the interim, the Catholic Church ended its support for routine use of capital punishment via Pope John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical, Evangelium Vitae.

Catholics aren’t obligated to heed church teaching on the death penalty, Bretzke said, because the teaching is not considered infallible.

“I don’t think it much matters from the defense side” whether a potential juror is Catholic, said Karen Fleming-Gill, a Walnut Creek, Calif.-based jury consultant who’s worked on 60 capital cases. “There are plenty of Catholics who will impose the death penalty.”

(G. Jeffrey MacDonald writes for USA Today.)

YS END MACDONALD

About the author

G. Jeffrey MacDonald

G. Jeffrey MacDonald is an award-winning reporter and an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ.

6 Comments

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  • The bullet points in the Catechism are not prescriptive enough to be binding on lay Catholics, nor could they be. To deny that justice can be served by the imposition of a capital sentence would be an impermissible reversal of the ordinary magisterium and the pope lacks the authority to do that.

  • I don’t see the problem.
    Jesus advocated the death penalty many times and for many offenses:

    “Bring to me those enemies of mine who would not have me as their king
    AND EXECUTE THEM IN FRONT OF ME.” – JESUS (Luke 19:27)

    Of course he says forgive elsewhere – but not if you are jewish,
    or a witch, or a homosexual, or a child molester,
    or a believer in other gods…or ….(any sinner can be justifiably killed).

  • What a bizarre angle for this story. Surely there are people from all religious backgrounds who don’t support capital punishment. Surely some Muslims, Buddhists, Zoroastrians and atheists are also being excluded from the jury for that reason. So what? What’s special about Catholics? Why is everything a grievance with these people?

    This lady from UNH is particularly out to lunch:
    ” [It] shouldn’t be enough to disqualify them, …We’re supposed to have a jury of one’s peers.”

    Well, if you want to get particular about “peers” then in this case the jury should be comprised entirely of angry young Islamist men from Chechnya, not Catholic pacifists. And the reason opponents of capital punishment are excluded, dearie, isn’t because anyone has it out for your precious “religious ethos.” It’s because it would be counterproductive to include jurors who are assuredly going to vote “not guilty” on ideological grounds regardless of whatever evidence is presented.

  • I think this article misses the point of Catholic teaching on capital punishment, which it is a consequence of the Just War theory laid down by St Thomas Aquinas. It boils down to this, societies have the right to defend themselves in the same way individuals do. If this means the execution of criminals, then there is no moral problem applying this sentence. Once this principle is understood then need for the death penalty is easy to see, specially in less developed societies.More advanced societies, like in the USA, which have the capacity to make someone “disappear” (meaning extricating itself from these criminals by imprisonment without any hope for reintegration into society, and by cutting any communication with the outside world) that the death penalty is more problematic. However the question of “is our society threatened by the continual survival of this individual?” should be left to the individual. The assumption that one will automatically go against the death sentence just because one is Catholic, borders on Religious prejudice. Sometimes I’m amazed by how little we have move in this country from the days of the “no-nothing” party.

    “Viva Cristo Rey!!”
    DHS

  • “Of course he says forgive elsewhere – but not if you are jewish,
    or a witch, or a homosexual, or a child molester,
    or a believer in other gods…or ….(any sinner can be justifiably killed).”

    Max, you are “monologing” now… come back to us…stay on topic…

    “Viva Cristo Rey!!”
    DHS

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