When Pope Francis called for the death penalty to be abolished Thursday, there was at least one person in the audience who had condemned convicted criminals to death.
"Having been a judge in Texas who handled capital murder cases, I had come to a conclusion that there were some cases ... where that was appropriate, and I still think that way," Republican Rep. Louie Gohmert said in an interview while passing through the Capitol basement after the historic address to Congress.
"I appreciate, you know, the pope's comments but there are some places, there are some cases where it's appropriate. In Texas, if you commit a felony and a murder or multiple murders or a murder on a first responder, then that gets you there. I had three capital murder cases I tried." Gohmert told CQ Roll Call. "Two got the death penalty, and it is quite sobering to look somebody in the eye and tell them they're going to be taken and put to death."
Gohmert proceeded to tell a story of one of the men who was sent to death row on his watch, saying that while some people have been known to find religion as a way of improving their chances of getting clemency, he had a case where he thought there was a real change.
"I can understand the seriousness, but I also know that one of the two — who was being put to death — became a Christian while he was waiting for the death penalty. He was the farthest thing from a Christian before that," Gohmert said. "I agree with the pope that there should never be a lack of hope, and even with him, he found his hope, and that was before the death penalty."
The Texans who serve on the other side of the Rotunda said they also supported capital punishment, and it should be a state matter.
"I think that's consistent with what I understand the Catholic church's position is. It's not Texas law. I was glad to hear the pope's views, I think taken as a whole they were very inspirational," Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn said. "I'm not going to look to him to give us direction on public policy in Texas, necessarily."
His colleague, presidential hopeful Ted Cruz, said likewise.
"The Catholic Church doctrine has long opposed capital punishment, I certainly respect that teaching. As a policy matter, I don’t agree with it. Under our Constitution, capital punishment is a question for the states to decide. There are states that have chosen to abolish capital punishment, that's their prerogative," Cruz told reporters. "There are other states, such as my home state of Texas, that have quite properly concluded that capital punishment is a recognition of the sanctity of life. That for the most egregious crimes, they merit the ultimate punishment."
Democratic Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, whose home state of Connecticut recently abolished the death penalty, said members seemed surprised by the pope's words about the sanctity of life turning to a specific policy message about death sentences, rather than about the church's strong anti-abortion views.
"The golden rule also reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development. This conviction has led me, from the beginning of my ministry, to advocate at different levels for the global abolition of the death penalty. I am convinced that this way is the best, since every life is sacred," the pope said in his speech. "Every human person is endowed with an inalienable dignity and society can only benefit from the rehabilitation of those convicted of crimes."
"It was a bit of a head fake moment in the speech that seemed to catch some people by surprise, but it shouldn't be a surprise to anybody that the church doesn't, you know, support the death penalty," Murphy said. "It was a good reminder that the church is not just against the death penalty in name, but it's willing to give voice to that position as well."
Murphy said the imposition of capital punishment in Connecticut itself was so rare that the system was out-of-date.
Before the reference to capital punishment, members were gearing up for comments from the pope about abortion, and conservatives came away disappointed on that point.
"A lot more people in the chamber agreed with him on abortion than they did the death penalty," Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles E. Grassley said. The Iowa Republican was one of several lawmakers who suggested there's a false equivalency drawn between the two issues.
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