The Death Penalty
"Perspectives on the Death Penalty" was a workshop presented at the 2009 Faith Formation Conference, facilitated by Terry McCaffrey, member and president of the California People of Faith Working Against the Death Penalty (CPF). To read an article about this conference which appeared in the Valley Catholic, click here.
Reflections on the Death Penalty -- October 12, 2006:
October is Respect Life Month. In the words of Bishop McGrath from San Jose "Life is to be respected at all stages." This means that we support the life of the unborn and it also means that we support the life of those who kill.
Although I am fortunate that none of my loved ones has been murdered, I would like to share some of my experiences with those that have been touched by the death penalty. I have met family members that have lost a loved one to violence. Their pain is enormous. Some are very angry. But some have transformed their pain and have come to forgive the perpetrator.
But there are others who are also suffering. I have met a mother whose son is on death row. Every other weekend she travels from Santa Monica to visit her son in San Quentin. She is devastated.
Then there are those who carry out executions. A few years ago I interviewed a Warden who was in charge of executing people. In his interview he said, each night after an execution, "I went home to my house in the middle of the night and climbed into the shower and scrubbed and scrubbed and scrubbed. But you can't make yourself feel clean."
"I was troubled as I stood and watched these guys die in the gas chamber thinking: What are my children deep down thinking of their father? And ultimately what is my God going to ask of me when my time comes to be judged?"
So you see there is plenty of pain to go all around.
For me the crucial issue about the death penalty is what does Jesus have to say. We have a direct answer. When Jesus was confronted by the woman who was about to be stoned to death he said, "Let you who is without sin cast the first stone." Jesus was about love, compassion and forgiveness. There is no love and compassion about killing someone.
The message of forgiveness and reconciliation is a very difficult one to bridge. Yet in our culture of violence we have a recent sterling example that stands out. You will all be familiar with the killing of five Amish school girls in Lancaster County in Pennsylvania. The universal response of the Amish community was one of forgiveness. In fact they have set up a trust fund to take care of the family of the perpetrator of this crime.
The challenge of the Gospel is not an easy path to follow. This is the challenge we face regarding the death penalty.
A Catholic Response to the Death Penalty
The Catholic Church has been an aggressive opponent of capital punishment since at least 1995 when Pope John Paul II issued Evangelium Vitae. He argued that the extent of punishment ought not to go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. “Today, however, such cases are very rare if not practically nonexistent.” He went on to say that if bloodless means are sufficient to protect public order and safety they are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person. (The new Catechism of the Catholic Church also reflects this position.) He mentioned that support for the death penalty is generally rooted in the desire for revenge and that justice can never be achieved through vengeance.
John Paul II reminds us that Jesus’ position on the death penalty was clear: turn the other cheek and forgive. Pope Benedict XVI in his first Encyclical Letter, Deus Caritas Est, states that the Holy Spirit harmonizes our hearts with the heart of Christ so that we see others with the eyes of Christ. Catholics are committed to justice and called to advocacy and it is the responsibility of lay faithful to work directly for a just ordering of society. During her recent visit to the Vatican, the president of the Philippines was greeted by Pope Benedict with the words, “Well done!” The Pope was referring to her decisive role in the abolition of the death penalty in her country.
In the 1994, the U.S. Catholic Bishops wrote in their pastoral message, Confronting a Culture of Violence, that our society looks to a reliance on the death penalty to deal with crime and that we are tragically turning to violence in the search for quick and easy answers to complex human problems. Violence is not the solution; it is the most clear sign of our failures. We cannot teach that killing is wrong by killing. The cycle of violence diminishes us all, especially our children. How do we teach the young to curb their violence when we embrace it as the solution to social problems? Violence is a lie for it goes against the truth of our faith, the truth of our humanity.
“We believe that capital punishment is not just a question of public policy, but is at its very core a moral issue, and therefore a religious issue and we must speak to it.”
Archbishop John Roach, St. Paul-Minneapolis.
Evolving Standards of Justice
We can observe an evolution in religious teaching as societal conditions and attitudes have evolved. History tells us the application of the death penalty (including the Church's penalty for heresy) was more frequent and more savage. Today, with few exceptions, developed and industrialized nations execute quickly and more humanely; indeed, most of them have abolished the death penalty. According to Amnesty International, in 2005, 94 per cent of all known executions took place in China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the USA. Most European and Latin American countries have abolished capital punishment. (In the U.S. there are 12 states and the District of Columbia without the death penalty.) Notably, Pope John Paul II and his bishops have been very vigorous in their opposition. But doesn't it almost go against human nature and our sense of justice to feel concern about executing a "clearly-guilty" and "fairly-convicted" killer who, besides a dead victim, has offended the grieving families and friends and a society whose fabric of order has been torn by that act? "An eye for an eye . . . " is scriptural, and lt seems SO RIGHT! in such a case. Lex talionis - the law of retaliation.
A Little History
In the following we rely on two additional sources: 1. "Dictionary of Biblical Theology", Xavier Leon-Dufour, 2nd ed. 1973 (vide "Vengeance") 2. Dictionary of the Bible", John L. McKenzie, S.J., 1965 (vide "Avenger" and "Murder".]
In a nomadic society, before settlements and laws became fixed, the clan was the protector of it members or it killed a murderer and thus safeguarded justice. (But nothing then prevented the killer's clan from retaliating, and the resulting feuds went on and on.) With the advance of a more ordered civilization the right of retribution passed to society and its laws. Gradually there were restraints on excesses of anger (eye for eye Ex. 21:23-25 = tit for tat). There was a call for measured retaliation (Dt. 19:6); determination of intent (Dt. 19:4); restraint on revenge against countrymen (Lv. 19:17-18), and pardon of countrymen (Jg. 15: 3,7) . All this showed less rigor, more restraint and more selectivity. [Still, this was no namby-pamby justice system. The law killed for adultery, idolatry, false prophecy, working on the Sabbath, sorcery, cursing God, and disobedience to religious authorities.]
Lastly, it was Jesus who said, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." - the ultimate rejection of vengeance. . . . God/Man said this.
The Real Question
The rationale for the Catechism's stricture against the death penalty is public order and the safety of persons. There exists in the U.S. (and in all non-death penalty nations) a sentence of Life Without Parole (LWOP) = "throw away the key" to provide this safeguard. LWOP, moreover, does not risk the execution of an innocent person. Countless news stories have shown the danger: In the past 20 years 112 people have been removed from Death Row after appellate judicial review. Some reasons? Witness perjury, police/prosecutorial/juror misconduct, defendant's mental incapacity, inadequate defense counsel and, more recently, the certainty of DNA evidence. These instances raise question about the moral certitude of "clearly-guilty" and "fairly-convicted". Can there ever be foolproof, error-free death penalty convictions? It is good we ask these questions now. Since 1976 more than 880 men and women have been executed. In our state more than 630 await execution. We worship a God of justice and a God of love and forgiveness and mercy. How does He keep it all straight?
Update October 2006
Thirty-eight states have constitutions which allow capital punishment. Twelve do not. From time to time there are efforts to allow executions in those twelve, some to expand the application of the death penalty beyond the limits now allowed in some states and some to eliminate capital punishment where now allowed. What follows is a look at recent efforts.
WISCONSIN: The November ballot has an advisory (non-binding) referendum to ask voters whether the death penalty should be restored after an absence of 153 years. This would be for cases involving a person convicted of first-degree intentional homicide if the conviction is supported by DNA evidence.
The Assembly had passed a similar measure earlier; the Senate voted 18-15 for the referendum. The incumbent governor opposes capital punishment; his opponent favors it. Both are Catholic.
A recent poll reflects that 55.6% of voters favor the measure but, when given a choice between execution and life without parole, 45% chose death and 50% preferred imprisonment.
In opposing the measure, the Wisconsin Catholic Conference pointed out that the state has a murder rate below the national average and one far below many states which perform executions frequently.
KANSAS: The Kansas Catholic Conference continues to work to repeal the Kansas death penalty. Background: After the Kansas Supreme Court found one provision of the law unconstitutional, the Supreme Court of the U.S. reversed (5-4) the decision. At issue: Is it unfair to defendants to mandate a death sentence when a jury finds that the aggravating and mitigating circumstances are equal? The Kansas bishops: "In this case the Supreme Court said a tie goes to the state instead of the defendant."
MICHIGAN: There have been no executions, even before Michigan became a state in 1837. Its constitution bans capital punishment and its laws mandate life without parole for first-degree murder. Earlier this year a man committed three violent murders, and the killings moved the district's assemblyman to move to permit executions.
A 2/3 vote in both houses is necessary to change the constitution. The issue awaits consideration by the House Judiciary Committee.
MISSOURI: In June a U.S. District Court found that the state's execution procedure could cause "unconstitutional pain and suffering." (In California and several other states this same issue has been raised.) The court decision has been appealed by the Attorney General.
The bishops of Missouri wrote a pastoral letter urging messages to state and national legislators to push for a halt to executions and an end to capital punishment. ". . . more violence is not a solution to society's problems."
NEVADA: The state recorded its twelfth execution since capital punishment was restored in 1977. The prisoner denied his guilt but waived his right to appeal, saying he preferred death to imprisonment during the lengthy appeals process. (A curious fact: Of the 11 others executed earlier, all but one waived appeal.)
NEW JERSEY: The state has formed a Death Penalty Study Commission. A spokesman for the state's bishops testified that 54% of churchgoers favored life without parole to execution. In other testimony, victims' family members belonging to Murder Victims' Family Members for Reconciliation gave their testimony that they did not seek the death penalty for killers of their families.
TENNESSEE: In June the state executed the second person in the past 46 years. The state's bishops prayed for the victims, their families and for the killer and his family and said, in a statement, " . . . our modern society clearly has means to provide for the safety of its members without resorting to capital punishment."
VIRGINIA: The governor postponed an execution for six months pending a further study of the prisoner's mental retardation or mental illness Without further analysis, he said, he would consider neither execution nor clemency.
Also, the Virginia Catholic Conferences is opposing three bills which expand the circumstances allowing the a death sentence to be imposed.
HOW ABOUT THE REST OF THE WORLD?
PHILIPPINES: President Macapagel-Arroyo signed a law to replace life without parole for capital punishment. At the same time she commuted the death sentences of all 1205 people on death row to LWOP. (Pope Benedict XVI praised her action.)
POLAND: Poland's president urged the European Union to return to capital punishment. (Membership in the EU requires or strongly urges abolition of the death penalty.) The proposal was rejected.
PERU: Peru's bishops opposed a measure to apply the death penalty to individuals who sexually assault and murder minors. Their statement underlined the primacy and inviolability of human life and declared that all killing is an offense against God, the sole owner of life.
ALGERIA: Algeria announced in a radio address a plan to end capital punishment. It will be the first Arab country to do so. Algeria has not had an execution in 13 years. Abolition "is an urgent measure essential for the constitution of a state based on rights," and capital punishment is "totally absurd and has no effect on the reduction of crime," said a spokesman.
CHINA: In April China ratified an extradition treaty with Spain in which it agreed not to execute repatriated criminals. (Last year China executed more than four times as many people as all other countries combined.)
GREAT BRITAIN: Forty years ago the death penalty was abolished. Ever since then there has been a strong sentiment to restore it. Now, polls show, for the first time public support for restoration has dropped to 49%.
KYRGYZSTAN: A death penalty moratorium has been in place since 1998, and legislators seem to be moving toward abolition.
RUSSIA: There has been a moratorium for 10 years. Recently, despite very, very strong pressure for the execution of the only surviving participant in the Beslan school massacre (330 deaths), a judge imposed a sentence of life without parole.
Walt Lundin, Parish Human Concerns Committee, October 2007
Update January 2007
MOLDOVA abolished the death penalty.
RWANDA pledged to pass legislation by the end of 2006 [unable to learn if this occurred] to abolish the death penalty. Rwanda wants to hold war crimes trials for 1994 genocide. Most countries holding those accused will not extradite to a death penalty nation.
The president of the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace made a statement soon after the hanging of Saddam Hussein. "The killing of the guilty is not the way to rebuild justice and reconcile society; rather there is a risk of nourishing the spirit of revenge and inciting fresh violence."
Under domestic and international criticism, CHINA adopted new rules requiring Supreme Court review of all death sentences. Final review had been relegated to provincial courts in 1983. [Some observers estimate that China has accounted for 80% of the world's executions.]
JAPANese courts sentenced 60 people to death in 2006, the largest number in 26 years. Japan has been experiencing an increase in violent crimes. [Ninety people are now on Japan's Death Row.]
ITALY - Just after Hussein's hanging the Italian government petitioned the U.N. to begin a process for an international moratorium on the death penalty. [The Italian constitution bans the death penalty.]
In July 2006 the U.N. Human Rights Commission recommended a U.S. moratorium on the death penalty. ". . . the death penalty may be imposed disproportionately on ethnic minorities as well as on low income groups, a problem which does not seem to be fully acknowledged." The panel also urged the U.S. to limit the number of crimes punishable by the death penalty and to review its suggestion of disproportionate application. [The panel has no authority to enforce its recommendations.]
The U.N.'s new Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, commented on Hussein's hanging. He said that capital punishment is an issue for each country to decide. Later, his spokeswoman said his opinion was a personal one. She acknowledged that the U.N. policy is against executions. [South Korea, Ki-moon's country, has not banned the death penalty.]
MISSOURI halted executions because of a challenge to its lethal injection procedures. [See TE, CA, MD, SD and FL below.]
SOUTH CAROLINA's governor signed a bill which allows the death penalty on those convicted of two or more sex crimes against children under age 11.
TENNESSEE - The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal of a state Supreme Court decision that its method of execution was not "cruel and unusual."
VERMONT - A federal jury imposed the death penalty on a murderer. This was the first death sentence issued since 1954. [The state eliminated the death penalty in 1987.]
CALIFORNIA - Last year U.S. District Court Judge Jeremy Fogel ordered the state to review its execution protocols. Recently the Attorney General informed him that a report would be forthcoming in May. The Attorney General asked for secrecy about the deliberations and anonymity for the consultants used.
NEW JERSEY - A 13-person legislative commission called for abolition of the death penalty. One member dissented. The governor said he supports the recommendation.
MARYLAND's death penalty protocols are under court review. Meanwhile, the newly-elected governor announced plans to ask the legislature to repeal the death penalty.
TEXAS - Over the past 10 years the number of death penalty sentences has dropped 65%, (40 in 1996; 14 in FY 2006) The number of murders was pretty stable - 1476 in 1996; 1405 in 2005.
FLORIDA's Gov. Bush ordered a moratorium on executions and formed an expert panel to review procedures, this after the last execution took more than twice as long and required a second lethal injection.
NORTH DAKOTA - The bishop of Fargo criticized the death penalty sentence imposed by a federal jury on a man guilty of murdering a college student: ". . . it reinforces the false perspective of revenge as justice."
SOUTH DAKOTA - Gov. Grounds stayed a lethal injection execution until July, pending a legislative review of a required 2-drug injection and a planned 3-drug method.
WISCONSIN - [See Death Penalty Updates No. I for background.] Death penalty reinstatement advocates are dubious of the outcome of the pending vote. The make-up of the Senate changed with the November election, and the re-elected governor is likely to veto an affirmative vote.
PUERTO RICO - A federal jury sentenced a killer to life instead of death, despite the urging of the U.S. prosecutor. (Puerto Rico's territorial legislature abolished the death penalty 80 years ago.)
KNIGHTS OF COLUMBUS - The annual convention of the KofC in August resolved ". . . to speak out to our elected representatives about our continued opposition to the death penalty." (KofC opposition dates from 2000.)
Walt Lundin, Parish Human Concerns Committee, July 2007
Update August 2007
NEW JERSEY - The Senate Judiciary Committee (8-2) approved repeal of capital punishment. The measure will go to the Senate in Nov. or Dec., then to the Assembly. The governor has said he'll sign it.
NEW YORK - [New York's highest court ruled in 2004 that major portions of the current execution law were unconstitutional.] The Senate has now passed a bill to restore capital punishment for killers of police and correctional officers; however the Speaker of the Assembly said the measure would not likely be considered there.
(In both states Catholic bishops issued strong statements for repeal and against restoration.)
CLOSE - - - BUT NO CIGAR
MARYLAND - The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee (5-5) killed a measure to end executions. The House of Delegates had indicated strong backing for abolition.
MONTANA - The Senate (27-21) approved abolition; the House Judiciary Committee (9-8) tabled it.
NEBRASKA - The unicameral legislature defeated (25-24) a bill to end executions. (The governor had said he'd veto the measure if it passed.)
NEW MEXICO - A House-passed (41-28) repeal was tabled by the Senate Judiciary Committee (4-5).
NEW HAMPSHIRE - The House (no vote count available) rejected a bill to replace the death penalty with life without parole.
Even these narrow misses have cumulative value One criterion used by the Supreme Court is "evolving standards of decency". This concept was mentioned in its decision to ban executions of juvenile offenders. (The Court noted thathirty states had already banned this already.)
NORTH CAROLINA - The Medical Board adopted a policy that physicians should not facilitate executions beyond being present, as state law requires. (Many state medical boards discourage physician participation.)
INDIANA - The state American Bar Association Assessment Team called for a moratorium. It said only 10 of the ABA's 79 death penalty criteria had been met. Among the deficiencies:
1. No ban on executing mentally ill people.
2. Not all interrogations are recorded.
3. No independent authority appoints defense attorneys. 4. There are not tough qualifications for or monitoring of defense attorneys.
IRELAND - Mr. Justice Scalia (Irish Times, Mar. 7), speaking at University College Dublin said he would resign from the bench if he learned that Catholic doctrine prohibited the death penalty. (A month earlier the Vatican sent a message to the 3rd annual World Congress calling capital punishment "an affront to human dignity."
SOUTH AFRICA - The President, despite a rising crime rate, said reinstatement of the death penalty was not an option.
ZAMBIA - The President said he'll sign no death warrants. He pledged to commute all current executions to life without parole.
FRANCE - Parliament banned executions and made the ban a part of the Constitution.
MOROCCO is the first Arab state to abolish capital punishment. Said a proponent, "The positive aspects of Islam need to be stressed. It does not order people to kill, carry out reprisals or state executions."
Worldwide there were 1,591 executions in 2006, down from 2005's 2,198. Executions were heavily concentrated in China, Iran, Pakistan, Iraq and the United States.
Walt Lundin, Parish Human Concerns Committee, August 2007