Catholic support for the death penalty in this country has plunged in recent years to 48 percent, reports a 2004 poll by Zogby International. Following are some reasons many of us have changed.
In the case of Roper v. Simmons last March, the U.S. Supreme Court barred the death penalty “for offenders who were under the age of 18 when their crimes were committed.” The Court’s syllabus explained that the “United States is the only country in the world that continues to give official sanction to the juvenile death penalty.” The decision was based on “a national consensus” and the Eighth Amendment’s ban on “cruel and unusual punishments.”
The American Bar Association (www.abanet.org) said Roper v. Simmons “could lead to new constitutional challenges to the use of the death penalty on the basis of age, race, mental illness and other grounds.”
Alternates Serve Justice
Our bishops have been calling for an end to the death penalty for 25 years, “out of a commitment to the value and dignity of human life.” Shortly before the death of Pope John Paul II, who also pleaded for an end to capital punishment, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) launched a new campaign. “Our Catholic teaching on the death penalty is both clear and complicated,” explained Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, archbishop of Washington, D.C. “The Catholic Church has long acknowledged the right of the state to use the death penalty in order to protect society. However, the Church has more and more clearly insisted the state should forgo this right if it has other means to protect society.”
According to the Death Penalty Information Center (www.deathpenalty info.org), “public support for the death penalty drops to below 50 percent when voters are offered alternative sentences. More people would support life without parole plus restitution to the victim’s family....”
Citizens United for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (www.cuadp.org) advocates a minimum of 25 years before the possibility of parole for capital murderers. This organization admits that life in prison is fair in some cases. CUADP suggests a “portion of the prisoners’ earnings should go to pay for their incarceration, and a portion should go to a fund for the victims of violent crime and their survivors.”
Evidence of Innocence
Death-penalty statistics make the United States look like a backward country instead of a world leader. According to Amnesty International (www.amnesty.org), the United States “has executed more child offenders than any other country.” In 2003, 84 percent of all known executions took place in China, Iran, the United States and Vietnam. “Over 40 countries have abolished the death penalty for all crimes since 1990,” so that now a total of 120 countries have abolished it in law or practice.
“As long as the death penalty is maintained,” says Amnesty, “the risk of executing the innocent can never be eliminated.” Since 1973, 118 death-row inmates have been released after evidence of their innocence emerged.
ABA explains that, in many cases, “errors were discovered not by the justice system, but by journalists and law clinics.” Although ABA “has no position on the death penalty per se,” it calls for a moratorium because “the death penalty, far from being fair and consistent, is instead a haphazard maze of unfair practices with no internal consistency.”
In Illinois, a moratorium was declared in 2000 by then-Governor George Ryan because of the number of death-row prisoners who were found to be wrongly convicted, reports The Christian Science Monitor. A statement from Ryan’s capital-punishment commission said, “In some cases, the evidence was so minimal that there was some question, not only as to why the prosecutor sought the death penalty, but why prosecution was even pursued against the particular defendant.”
The American Civil Liberties Union (www.aclu.org) explains that the Illinois commission, which was composed of both opponents and advocates, “called for sweeping changes that include banning the execution of people with mental retardation, reducing the number of crimes eligible for the death penalty and improving the mechanism for appointing competent attorneys in death-penalty cases.”
USCCB’s Catholic Campaign to End the Use of the Death Penalty brochure (www.ccedp.org) asks us to “pray for victims of crimes and their families, those who have been wrongly convicted and those awaiting executions.” Praying for offenders is a difficult pill for some of us to swallow when we recall convicts like Christopher Simmons, who was 17 when he kidnapped and killed Shirley Crook. He boldly bragged that he could get away with murder because of his age, but that isn’t true: Simmons and 71 other teen murderers may no longer reside on death row, but they are imprisoned.
Regardless of our position on the death penalty, the evidence seems overwhelming that, at the very least, we need a moratorium so we can study and reform our flawed criminal-justice system. During that period, maybe more of us will realize that justice can be served with alternatives. Perhaps then we will join the rest of the civilized world in abolishing the death penalty.—M.J.D.
See book reviews for more about the death penalty.