Opinion: Downsides of the death penalty, and a better way forward 

Four men were executed by the State of Oklahoma in 2023. I was at a prayer vigil outside the Oklahoma State Penitentiary during one of them, the execution of Anthony Sanchez on Sept. 21. 

The vigil was led by Fr. Bryan Brooks, pastor of Saint Benedict Catholic Church in Tulsa, who goes to pray at the penitentiary each time there is an execution and has been doing so for over 27 years. His life, his vocation as a priest, and his opposition to the death penalty are all informed by the Catholic Christian faith he professes.  

As I am Catholic too, I had arranged to join Fr. Brooks in his prayer outside the penitentiary. I eventually found where he and a handful of other people were gathered along the street leading up to the state penitentiary, nicknamed “Big Mac.” There were other Oklahoma citizens opposing the death penalty, a reporter from the McAlester News-Capital, and several law enforcement officers keeping watch near the penitentiary. 

The informal prayer service began shortly before 10 a.m., when the execution was set to occur. Inside the folders passed out to attendees were prayers and some readings from Scripture.  

“We begin each vigil by praying for the person or persons who were murdered and for their families, and we conclude by praying for the person that is being executed, and the corrections officers taking care of them,” Fr. Brooks said.  

After the initial prayers, the eight people gathered on the road outside the penitentiary stood to wait.  

Fr. Brooks stepped aside and began praying the Rosary. I considered getting my Rosary out too, but for now I just prayed silently. There was plenty of time to reflect.  

Anthony Sanchez was being executed for a crime that occurred nearly 30 years ago. In 2006, he was found guilty of the 1996 rape and murder of Juli Buskin, a University of Oklahoma dance student. However, Sanchez maintained his innocence even right up to his execution.  

Some of his last words were, “I didn’t kill nobody.” There has also been some evidence that points to Sanchez’s late father, Thomas Glen Sanchez. Most notably, in early 2023, Thomas Sanchez’s ex-girlfriend said he had confessed to killing Buskin. (An in-depth article from Newsweek that lays out arguments on both sides of the case can be found here.) 

A website organized by Death Penalty Action lays out evidence in support of Sanchez’s innocence and has a 20-minute YouTube documentary that reviews the facts of the case. (Photo from freeanthonysanchez.org and Death Penalty Action)

This highlights one of the potential difficulties involved with the death penalty – the chance that the inmate could be innocent. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, since 1981, eleven Oklahoma death row inmates have been exonerated, or released, due to things like insufficient evidence, mistaken witness identifications, or false confessions. DNA evidence also played a key role in three of those exonerations, as it commonly can because of continual advances in technology. Across the country, the number of exonerations is close to 200. 

For more information about inmates who have been exonerated from death row, you can visit the Death Penalty Information Center’s innocence database.   

However, Fr. Brooks would be there praying and opposing the execution even if there were no doubts about Sanchez’s guilt. As he put it, the death penalty “is inconsistent with the dignity of the human person from the moment of conception to the moment of natural death. And [that dignity is there] regardless of whether the person being executed is guilty or innocent.”  

And I agree. At the basic level, I don’t think we should kill people. After all, life is one of the “certain unalienable rights” mentioned in the Declaration of Independence. 

Of course, even with that knowledge, it can be hard to know what to do in these nuanced situations. What about in cases of rape or murder? Does arguing against the death penalty for a criminal equal condoning what that criminal did?  

No, I don’t think it equates to that. Arguing against the death penalty means believing that execution should not be a punishment for crimes. It is not saying there should be no punishment for crimes. Life in prison is a better option, for if it turns out the accused criminal is innocent, he or she can be released. 

Two men are scheduled to be executed in Oklahoma this year: Michael Smith on April 4, and Wade Lay on June 6. (Photo courtesy of the Death Penalty Information Center, deathpenaltyinfo.org)

What supporters of the death penalty often call for is justice for the victim, which is something good and natural to want. The question is, does killing another person enact that justice? 

From the Christian perspective, the answer to that question is a resounding “No!” In Matthew 5:36, Jesus rejects the instinctual “eye for an eye” method of the Old Testament and says that “when someone strikes you on (your) right cheek, turn the other one to him as well.” He also says to “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you… [and be] merciful, just as your Father is also merciful” (Luke 6:27 – 28, 36). Killing a killer seems like the opposite of all those things. It is more akin to retribution, as Fr. Brooks says. 

The Golden Rule also commands us to “do to others whatever you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7:12). Is putting a person, even a murderer, to death really treating someone the way you’d want to be treated? I don’t know about you, but I would not want to be killed even if I had committed a crime.

Fr. Brooks, through his example and words, shows that “the message of the Gospel is that of life,” and therefore support of the death penalty is inconsistent with foundational Christian beliefs.

He also points out that the execution of a criminal takes away the possibility of their rehabilitation, remorse, or redemption.

“The state has an obligation to protect us from those who would do violence, with the hopes of rehabilitating them,” he said. “If the state can protect us by putting them in prison for the rest of their lives, the state is fulfilling its role, without having to take the life of another person.”

And here in the United States, we certainly have the capability to keep a violent criminal in a high-security prison where he or she couldn’t harm anyone.

Fr. Brooks acknowledges that violence, “especially to the innocent, fills us with rage. And it should. The question is then how to react to it. Do we resort to violence in response?”

Can we really make things better by killing another person? There are lots of ways to help the family of someone who was murdered that don’t require killing someone else. Bringing food and helping cover funeral and medical expenses, doing all of the things that people normally do when a family is dealing with grief, with an added layer of compassion for the family’s unexpected and senseless loss.

Now, most of us are not the ones signing death warrants or administering the execution drugs, so we might say, “I’m not actually killing someone. The state is doing that.” But the state is doing it on our behalf.

And if we, individually and as a society, allow it and enshrine it into law (as Oklahoma voters did in 2016), then we are, in a way, signing off on it. And as South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, in a quote that’s often paraphrased by activists, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”

Fr. Brooks has been in the viewing room to witness four executions, the last one being in 2002. When asked if he thought witnessing an execution would change the minds of people who support the death penalty, he said, “It would for some, I think. And for others, perhaps not.” Death, and how we react to it, is quite a personal experience, after all.

Often, taking a stance on the death penalty seems like choosing the value of one person’s life over another’s – either the inmate or the victim. But Fr. Brooks shows that it doesn’t have to be that way.

A crucial part of what he does is “loving them both” – sharing God’s love for all people, regardless of their circumstances. In addition to praying for people set to be executed, during his 30 years as a priest, Fr. Brooks has presided over the funerals of multiple people who died by homicide.

“There’s a particular grief that is there when a person’s life is taken by violence,” said Fr. Brooks. “We’re called to bring the light of Christ everywhere, even into such difficult, grief-filled places.”

Shortly after 10:19 a.m. on Sept. 21, the group gathered outside the penitentiary received word: the execution had been carried out. Though we had known it was coming, the news was saddening none the less. And it was somewhat startling to think that someone who had been alive in this world just half an hour before was now… not.

Fr. Brooks led the closing prayers for the repose of Anthony Sanchez’s soul, and then after a while, the people departed.

Trying to find the balance of the right thing to do about the death penalty can be like trying to stand in the middle of a seesaw – it is easy to go back and forth. We shouldn’t kill a criminal, but we also shouldn’t forget about the victim. We shouldn’t just take revenge, but we shouldn’t discount a family’s loss either. We shouldn’t cause another loss, but there should be a punishment for crimes… It could go on and on.

The death penalty is a complex issue with logic-based arguments on both sides, and like with anything even remotely political, it can be easy to dig into the argument on your side and vilify people on the other. But perhaps, as Oklahoma tries to find the “right” way forward, the most important thing is to help, remember, and pray for everyone involved, and respect the dignity of all people.

Back To Top