The Pope, Richard Speck and the death penalty


By: Michael M. Bates

Last month the president of the Philippines visited Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican. She gave him a copy of a law she signed recently, one that ends the death penalty in her country. “Well done,” His Holiness told her.

I was thinking of that this week as we mark 40 years since Richard Speck’s wanton slaughter of eight student nurses. I realize that a blanket opposition to the death penalty is not official Catholic teaching. Indeed, only two years ago as a cardinal the current Pope wrote:

“While the Church exhorts civil authorities . . . to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible . . . to have recourse to capital punishment.”

Yet I know Catholics who think their Church requires them to oppose the ultimate sentence. In one recent poll, slightly less than half the Catholics surveyed now support the death penalty.

If Richard Speck isn’t a textbook example of why capital punishment is warranted, he’ll do until a better one comes along.

Slowly and methodically, he snuffed out the lives of the young women. He strangled five of his victims and stabled the other three. He raped one before killing her.

When he came to trial in 1967, the jury took only 49 minutes to find him guilty of eight counts of murder and recommend death. He was sentenced to the electric chair a few weeks later.

In 1972 a liberal U.S. Supreme Court declared the death penalty unconstitutional. Speck was then sentenced to 400 to 1,200 years in prison. He spent almost the next 20 years there, until his death at age 49 in 1991.

Maybe, just maybe, some of the victims’ families and friends would find a modicum of relief in knowing that the monster was finally gone after years of a wretched existence behind bars. Any such comfort wouldn’t last long.

Five years after his death, a recording of Speck in prison in 1988 emerged and excerpts were aired on television. Bizarre didn’t quite cover what the serial killer had been up to.

Cavorting in blue panties, Speck and his big house boyfriend are shown snorting cocaine, rolling marijuana and waving a roll of $100 bills. The murderer had developed feminine appearing breasts, possibly through injections of smuggled hormones.

Speck boasts of how much sex he’s had in jail. References are made to the “godfathers” on the staff who accord prisoners special privileges.

The killer speaks of how difficult it is to strangle someone. It’s not like it is on TV, he says. It takes a good deal of strength and about three and a half minutes to finish the task.

Speck murdered the girls, he flippantly says, because “it just wasn’t their night.” When asked how he feels about taking all those young lives he replies, “Like I always felt. Had no feelings. If you are asking if I felt sorry, no.”

Then he considers what the public, the people who provided food, clothes, shelter, medical care and everything else he didn’t acquire through his godfathers, would think. “If they only knew how much fun I was having, they would turn me loose.”

I don’t think so. I believe a solid majority would have wanted him executed without delay.

The Pope and other religious leaders often premise their opposition to the death penalty on a reverence for human life. It seems to me that when vicious murderers are allowed to live out their lives it represents a diminished respect for the lives of the people they killed.

Sentencing brutal criminals to living like Richard Speck did for all those years is an affront to the memory of the innocents they slaughtered. Moreover, it’s a signal that we as a society think the victims’ lives less important than those of the perpetrators.

True justice demands punishment that is proportionate to the crime. The death penalty is a communal affirmation that innocent human life is precious. It also assures that, at least in this one instance, a murderer will never have an opportunity to prey on others again.

For the most heinous of offenders, the death penalty is just and equitable. Religious leaders will have a difficult time convincing most Americans that it isn’t.

This column by Michael M. Bates appeared in the July 13, 2006 Oak Lawn Reporter.

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