Views on death penalty differ - Catholic Courier

Views on death penalty differ

GREECE — Andy Sperr had little reason to think about the death penalty until March 1, 2006.

On that day his son, New York State Trooper Andrew J. "A.J." Sperr, was killed when what appeared to be a routine traffic stop turned into a tragedy. Unbeknownst to Trooper Sperr, the occupants of the vehicle he stopped in the Town of Big Flats were on the run after having just robbed a bank. One of the men, Anthony Horton, has since been convicted of fatally shooting the trooper.

The first six months after his son’s death felt like a big black hole to Sperr, who said he then began to think about his son’s killer and how justice would be best served. A year and a half later, he has now solidified his position on the death penalty.

"The use of a firearm in the commission of a crime against a police officer deserves the death penalty," said Sperr, a member of St. Lawrence Parish in Greece. "You’ve crossed the line. You no longer respect individuals, but you tell all of society, ‘The hell with you.’"

The New York State Court of Appeals struck down the state’s death penalty as unconstitutional in June 2004. Sperr does not believe the death penalty should be reinstated for all circumstances, but only those in which people are convicted of killing law-enforcement officers.

"When someone pulls a gun and assaults you or me, while it’s serious, it’s a one-on-one thing and a very personal kind of thing. When he pulls a gun on a police officer, he is assaulting the entire community and telling everyone he doesn’t believe in laws," he said.

Sperr certainly is not alone in his belief that the murder of a law-enforcement officer warrants the death penalty. On May 14 the state Senate passed S.319, a bill that would establish the death penalty for people convicted of killing police officers. On June 20 the Senate passed S.4632, a bill that would reinstitute the death penalty by amending the provision ruled unconstitutional by the appeals court in 2004. As of press time Sept. 27 neither bill had been introduced onto the floor of the state Assembly.

Sperr said he believes the death penalty would stop criminals from murdering law-enforcement officials.

"(Horton) was quoted as saying, ‘You know, there’s no death penalty in New York,’" Sperr noted. "I really believe it could be a deterrent. I believe we could save the lives of police officers."

Sperr acknowledges that this sentiment is not universal, and retired police officer Kieran Hetzler is among those who respectfully disagrees.

Hetzler dealt with many criminals throughout his career as a member of the Horseheads Police Department and later the Rochester Police Department. He said he eventually came to the conclusion that criminals don’t think logically as most citizens do. Since they don’t consider the consequences of committing crimes, he said, the death penalty is unlikely to deter them from crime.

One of criminals’ main objectives is staying out of jail, and they’ll often do whatever is necessary to do so, even if it means gunning down a police officer, said Hetzler, a member of St. Mary Parish in Rochester.

It comes down to a lack of respect for life, both their own lives and the lives of others, he added.

"Why would you respect someone else when you don’t have any respect for yourself as a person? They have no self-worth, so it’s just as easy to kill someone else as it is to go to the store and get a loaf of bread," Hetzler said.

Oftentimes these criminals grew up in abusive homes or came from broken families, noted both Hetzler and Jann Armantrout, diocesan life-issues coordinator.

"I think that — although we are all responsible for our actions — reading the biographies of people on death row gives insight into the defects in our culture that exist in family foundation, in education, in dealing with emotional and mental-health problems," Armantrout said.

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, capital punishment is only appropriate when there is absolutely no other way to prevent an individual from committing further criminal acts, she said. With the means of incarceration available in today’s society, there is almost never a case for the death penalty in the church’s eyes, Armantrout said.

Capital punishment is irreversible, she noted, and there is always a risk of wrongly executing an innocent person. That fact has been brought to light in recent years as advances in DNA research have exonerated former death-row inmates.

Armantrout said people often ask her if she would feel differently if her son or daughter were murdered. She said she always responds that while she is sure she would want to do terrible things to the murderer, she hopes she could count on the society around her to prevent her from doing so and having blood on her own hands.

"I don’t know how many of us would have the strength of Jesus Christ to forgive those people as he was being tortured and put to death," she said. "(In spite of) the rage which I’m sure could come as a result of the hurt that happens when a terrible incident occurs, like the murder of a family member, we need to always look to creating the society that Jesus calls us to."


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