Face to Face with the Death Penalty

Last May in Tucson, Arizona, two young men named Armando Estrada and Rosendo C. Valenzuela were working for Mamie Gong, an elderly Chinese woman. Mamie, who owned a trailer park and some land outside the city, had hired the men to help her clean up some trash that had accumulated on the vacant parcel.  
The Lord said to Cain: “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground” (Gen 4:10). The voice of the blood shed by men continues to cry out, from generation to generation, in ever new and different ways.
— Evangelium Vitae
“Whosoever shall shed man’s blood, his blood shall be shed; for man was made to the image of God.”
— Genesis 9:6
Last May in Tucson, Arizona, two young men named Armando Estrada and Rosendo C. Valenzuela were working for Mamie Gong, an elderly Chinese woman. Mamie, who owned a trailer park and some land outside the city, had hired the men to help her clean up some trash that had accumulated on the vacant parcel.
According to their confessions, an argument developed between the young men and Mamie, most likely over money. Valenzuela got angry and hit her in the head with a baseball bat, or something like it. Then, not yet satisfied, he hit her again with a brick. How many times he hit her, or with precisely what, is unclear.
The two men loaded her into the back of her pickup truck and drove her to an abandoned trailer home she was storing on the land. They then took her inside and dropped her into the bathtub, leaving her for dead. They took her pickup truck and drove it back into town, abandoning it in the parking lot of a shoe store while she lay dying, or already dead, alone in the sweltering heat of the desert.
Mamie was my mother-in-law.
Unaware of any of this, I got the call a few weeks later, on June 18. It was an Arizona number, and one I didn’t recognize. I can’t say why, but I had an odd feeling about that call. I was in a meeting and couldn’t answer, but there was a voicemail. When I went to check it, it was my wife’s eldest brother, who had never called me in the four years Jamie and I had been married. The message was simple, understated. Mamie, who lived alone, was missing, and probably had been for at least a couple weeks. Nobody knew where to look. They were calling me because they couldn’t reach my wife.
Mamie was, to an extent, estranged from her immediate family. She spoke to my wife at least once a month, but far less frequently with her two sons in Phoenix or my wife’s father, from whom she had long ago been divorced. The one family member she did have regular contact with, her aunt, was in China at the time of her disappearance, and knew nothing until she came back weeks later and alerted the rest of the family.
Out of necessity, we got involved in the investigation. Stuck in Virginia while events unfolded in Tucson, we did our best to help the police over the phone while I peppered friends, family, and blog readers with requests for prayers. Suspicious individuals, knowledge of Mamie’s habits, and probably no small amount of Divine assistance helped us to lead the police down the right track. On June 19, we told them where to look. The next morning, I arrived to work and immediately ran a Google News search, as I had since I first heard she was missing. This time, I got a hit:
Detectives suspect a homicide victim whose badly decomposed body was found west of the city Tuesday could be a 64-year-old woman reported missing Monday.
Neither Tucson police nor Pima County sheriff’s deputies would release the name of the missing woman.
The body, found about 2:30 p.m., was so badly decomposed detectives could not immediately determine the gender . . . .
I had read enough. Maybe they couldn’t ID the body, but I knew. I made the call home, thinking my wife had heard from the police by then. She hadn’t. It was not the way she should have found out.
My boss graciously granted me extra leave time, and I was with my family on a flight to Arizona by the end of the week. My wife, having grown up in the rough area of south Tucson where her mother had lived, worked, and eventually been murdered, was oddly stoic. I’ll never forget leaving Phoenix on I-10 in our rental car, the sun pushing the temperature close to 100 degrees as we sped quietly into what felt for all the harsh sunlight like the heart of darkness.
We received the autopsy report in a voicemail during our flight, and it confirmed our suspicions. Head trauma. Broken ribs. She had been beaten to death. If the heat of the desert is unforgiving to the living, it is more so to the dead. The medical examiner couldn’t make a positive ID initially, not even with standard DNA procedures. To confirm the identity of the body, they needed dental records, which — unlike on television — are not something that can be simply pulled from a database. We had to sort through stacks of old mail, looking for a bill, until we finally figured out who her dentist was so we could obtain the records ourselves.
And so we spent the next week seeing to her affairs: Tracking down insurance policies, handling funeral arrangements, trying to piece together the last weeks of her life and pass on whatever relevant information we could find to the homicide detectives. Closure, however, wasn’t forthcoming. The funeral was held, but no one was arrested. When we left two weeks later, we still didn’t know what had happened, or why.
Months passed. We were back home, moving forward with our lives and had all but given up hope that the investigation could go any further. Forensic evidence needs to be collected in the immediate aftermath of a crime, not weeks later after time and nature have done their work. We tried to resign ourselves to the fact that we might never know, that justice might never be served.
Then, the week of Christmas, we got the call from police: They had apprehended two men, and better still, had gotten confessions. Shortly thereafter, we got another update — the prosecutors would be seeking the death penalty:
Two men accused of beating a 64-year-old Three Points woman to death in June could be sentenced to death if they are convicted.
The Pima County Attorney’s Office filed documents last week announcing its intention to seek the death penalty for Armando Estrada, 26, and Rosendo C. Valenzuela, 24.
Prosecutors cited four statutory reasons the men should be executed in the death of Mamie Lim Gong. They allege the slaying was especially cruel, heinous and depraved, and was committed for financial gain and in a cold, calculated manner without pretense of moral or legal justification. They also allege it took place during another serious offense, kidnapping.
I know all the Catholic arguments against capital punishment. But in that moment, knowing that the voice of my family could weigh against the state’s desire to execute two criminals who surely deserved it, I found myself unwilling to say anything. Any inclination I had toward the arguments of Evangelium Vitae against capital punishment left me in an instant. I was not opposed to these men being allowed to live, but neither was I opposed to their execution.
The state was going to pursue what has always been considered by the Catholic Church to be legitimate recourse against the worst sorts of criminals, and my wife and I had no intentions of stopping it.
As Cardinal Avery Dulles pointed out in his letter titled “Seven Reasons America Shouldn’t Execute” — a letter in which he agrees with the notion that capital punishment should be severely restricted:
If the Pope were to deny that the death penalty could be an exercise of retributive justice, he would be overthrowing the tradition of two millenia of Catholic thought, denying the teaching of several previous popes, and contradicting the teaching of Scripture (notably in Genesis 9:5-6 and Romans 13:1-4).
I doubt whether the tradition is reversible at all, but even if it were, the reversal could hardly be accomplished by an incidental section in a long encyclical focused primarily on the defense of innocent human life. If the Pope were contradicting the tradition, one could legitimately question whether his statement outweighed the established teaching of so many past centuries.
I believe that the Pope, without contradicting the tradition, is exercising his prudential judgment that in our time adequate punishment, including the moral and physical defense of society, can generally be accomplished by bloodless means, which are always to be preferred.
The fact that this is likely a prudential judgment throws cold water on the idea that Catholics must assent to a revised teaching on capital punishment that finds almost no cases in which it is acceptable.
I don’t hate the men who killed Mamie, nor do I want revenge. I have prayed for not only their capture but their conversion from the beginning. If they are sentenced to death, I am committed to praying for the repose of their souls. I do believe, however, that they should face justice in this life, with the hope of God’s mercy in the next.
Praying for those who killed my wife’s elderly mother is one of the bitter ironies of Catholicism that I am willing to accept. But wringing my hands and lobbying for their lives is not.

Steve Skojec is a columnist and blogger for InsideCatholic.com. He writes from Northern Virginia. Visit his blog at www.steveskojec.com.


  • Steve Skojec

    Steve Skojec serves as the Director of Community Relations for a professional association. He is a graduate of Franciscan University of Steubenville, where he earned a BA in Communications and Theology. His passions include writing, photography, social media, and an avid appreciation of science fiction. Steve lives in Northern Virginia with his wife Jamie and their five children.

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