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Archbishop O'Malley: Death penalty

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Posted: 5/7/2004

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Recent statements about reinstating the death penalty in Massachusetts are disturbing. I have written and spoken on this topic in the past and would like to share with you some of those remarks in light of this development. Presently, within the commonwealth there is no danger of executing anyone by mistake, because capital punishment up to this point has been banned. This is clearly for the good since recent studies have demonstrated that the danger of error has been all too common in the past in those states that do allow capital punishment. Sadly, innocent people have lost their lives because of our human limitations.

The present proposal here in the state of Massachusetts to create a capital punishment system that seeks to be “as infallible as humanly possible” does not offer any compelling reason to return to a barbaric practice that actually needs to disappear. Our efforts should be to encourage other states to ban capital punishment and not try to breathe new life into an institution that should end.

When human life under any circumstance is not held as sacred in a society, all human life is diminished and threatened. The Church’s pro-life stance is consistent and is based on the theological affirmation that the person is made in the image of God, the philosophical assertion of the dignity of every person and the Church’s social teaching that society and the state exist to serve the person. Because we hold to the sacredness of human life, the taking of even one person’s life is a most serious event. Historically, the teaching of the Church has allowed the taking of human life only in very rare instances, viz., in the case of self-defense and — by extension of this principle — in the case of capital punishment.

It is not surprising that in the 20th century, the most violent century in recorded history, the presumption on the part of moralists against taking human life has been strengthened and the exceptions deemed ever more restricted. Certainly the dramatic situation with legalized abortion has heightened our awareness of the urgent need to defend the sacredness of every human life.

The U.S. Supreme Court in its decision in Georgia vs. Furman (1972) held that the death penalty as then administered did constitute cruel and unusual punishment and so was contrary to the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. In Gregg vs. Georgia in 1976, the same court allowed states to resume using the death penalty. This decision claimed that new procedures would address the objections involved in the previous ruling and so set off the debate once again. Since that time, many people have been surprised that the U.S. bishops’ conference has consistently opposed the death penalty, in spite of the contrary opinion of a majority of the Catholics in the United States. However, Catholic teachings are not based on polls or prevailing sentiments, but upon the magisterium with the two-fold font of Scripture and tradition.

Since the popularity of the death penalty in great part issues from people’s frustration over violent crimes, one of the most popular arguments in favor of the death penalty is its presumed value as a deterrent. The conventional wisdom is that we need capital punishment to discourage people from committing murder. Politicians often appeal to the deterrence factor as a justification of the death penalty.

A survey authored by Richard C. Dieter, Esq., that was conducted in 1995 involving interviews with 386 randomly selected police chiefs and sheriffs resulted in only one percent of the respondents choosing the death penalty as a primary way to reduce violent crime. The death penalty ranked last among six options. The most effective way named by the police chiefs and sheriffs was “reducing drug abuse,” followed by “better economy and more jobs.” Simplifying court rules, longer sentences, more police officers and reducing the number of guns were also considered to be more important ways of reducing violent crimes than expanding the use of the death penalty. Of those interviewed, 67 percent termed inaccurate the statement: “The death penalty significantly reduces the number of homicides.” Commenting on the poll, former New York Police Chief Patrick Murphy wrote: “Like the emperor’s new clothes, the flimsy notion that the death penalty is an effective law enforcement tool is being exposed as mere political puffery.”

A similar survey, by Michael Radelet and Ronald Akers, among the leadership of the country’s largest associations of professional and academic criminologists, such as the American Society of Criminology (2,500 members) and the International Association of Police Professors (membership 2,400), likewise debunk the deterrent benefits of the death penalty. Of the experts interviewed, 80 percent stated that on the basis of literature and research in criminology, the death penalty does not have significant deterrent effects. It would seem that the best deterrence is crime prevention and dealing with causes and situations, such as poverty and drug addiction, that foment crime and violence.

For any punishment to be an effective deterrence, it must be administered fairly and swiftly. Experience has shown how difficult it is to administer capital punishment “fairly and swiftly.” (Cf. the Supreme Court decision Georgia vs. Furman and the moratorium on the death penalty as requested by the National Bar Association.)

In terms of fairness, when someone is accused of a crime, if he is poor or of a minority group he is more likely to be condemned to death than someone who is wealthy and well-educated. Subsequently, the delays and costs involved in appeals and other necessary procedural safeguards make it impossible to execute criminals swiftly. Short of a reign of terror, one is hard pressed to conceive how the death penalty could be administered in such a way that it would become an effective deterrent. It is more feasible to improve court proceedings and bring about swifter justice when the maximum punishment is incarceration without parole. Allowing months and even years to pass between the time of the arrest and the imposition of a punishment certainly undermines the deterrence value of any sentencing. In addition to vitiating any value as a deterrent, the prolonged proceedings of capital punishment subject the families of victims to tortuous years of criminal hearings and appeals, often preventing healing and closure in their lives. Expeditious trials and life sentences without parole for heinous crimes would be more merciful to the families of the victims.

Over the last 20 years the U.S. bishops have grappled with the problem of capital punishment. In 1980, in a statement on capital punishment, they reviewed the four usual arguments justifying the death penalty: retribution, deterrence, reform and protection. The last argument — protection — is the one that the Church sees as the justifying reason for capital punishment. We find the emblematic statement of Thomas Aquinas in his “Summa Theologica”: “If a man is a danger to the community, threatening it with disintegration by some wrongdoing of his, then his execution for the healing and preservation of the common good is to be commended.” Because our modern Western societies have the resources and means to separate criminals and isolate them from society without having recourse to the extreme of capital punishment, the Church does not find any present situation in which the use of capital punishment would be justified. Capital punishment can be moral only when it is necessary for public safety. It is no longer necessary and therefore should be abolished.

Violence should not be our response to violence. Justice is never revenge. Killing murderers does not deter murders, but, rather, promotes an attitude that life is cheap and that when we have the power, it is all right to kill. Much has been said about violence on television, in the movies and in the lyrics of modern music. Our people are being desensitized, not unlike the ancient Romans finding entertainment in watching gladiators kill one another or applauding as Christians were thrown to wild beasts. This is made even more apparent in the case of capital punishment with the call by some to actually televise the executions so that the general public may watch. State-sponsored violence will not promote a new respect for life but only serve to erode reverence for life even more.

The Church’s participation in the debate on capital punishment, as on any public policy, seeks to convince our fellow citizens that this position in favor of life is based on reason and on a natural law that binds all human beings. We appeal to human rights and dignity and call people to embrace policies that will promote our humanity and the common good. We present our convictions with cogent arguments that should appeal to all people of good will in a pluralistic society.

However, in our own teaching to those of the household of the faith, to our Catholic people and other Christians, we turn to the New Testament. There we find the example and words of Jesus as the primary source of Christian life-ethics. Nowhere does Jesus offer violence as a solution to set things straight. The Gospel reveals God’s boundless love for every person, regardless of human merit or worthiness. He does not will the death of a sinner, but rather that the sinner be converted. Jesus often shifts the locus of judgment to a higher court, a court where there is no need for polygraph, where there is absolute knowledge of the evidence, of good deeds and of evil, of things private and things public — a court where there is justice and mercy, both law and grace, wrath and tenderness.

All of this is not to say that we do not need to find appropriate punishments for crime and ensure the safety of our people, but we must strive to free ourselves from hatred and a desire for vengeance in our dealing with criminals. A very striking Christian witness was given by Coretta Scott King, widow of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., when she stated, “As one whose husband and mother-in-law have died victims of murder assassination, I stand firmly and unequivocally opposed to the death penalty for those convicted of capital offenses. An evil deed is not redeemed by an evil deed of retaliation. Justice is never advanced in the taking of a human life. Morality is never upheld by a legalized murder.”

Unfortunately, in the public debate, capital punishment is often seen as a symbolic issue: Do you or do you not support your local police? Do you or do you not care enough about crime to get tough on criminals? However, the reality is that capital punishment does not deal with crime in any useful way. Rather, it deludes the public into a false sense of security about a complex social problem.

The death penalty is really a way of avoiding the problem of crime instead of dealing with it. In studies referred to earlier, almost 87 percent of the criminologists and 57 percent of police chiefs find it quite accurate to say: “Debates about the death penalty distract Congress and state legislatures from focusing on real solutions to crime problems.” A consideration of the monetary costs of an execution illustrates this point. A former Texas attorney general, Jim Mattox, is quoted in the Dallas Morning News as saying that presently it costs about $2 million to execute a prisoner. This is three times what it costs to incarcerate a person for 40 years. Two million dollars, the cost of one execution, translates into salaries for approximately 48 additional police officers. Rather than investing millions of dollars in a dubious deterrent and dehumanizing vengeance, the state would do better to invest its limited resources in programs for crime prevention, drug rehabilitation and maintaining a well-equipped police force.

The United States is one of the last democracies of the West to maintain the death penalty. The Council of Europe reported in 1962 that “the facts clearly show that the death penalty is regarded in Europe as something of an anachronism ...” Capital punishment has been abolished in 28 countries in Europe. In 1976, Canada ended the death penalty, and the United Nations has issued resolutions stating the desirability of abolishing capital punishment. Quite conspicuous by their indifference to these recommendations are nations generally know for their disregard for the human rights of their citizens such as China, Iran and, until recently, Iraq. Indeed, recent reports indicate that in China prisoners are executed as needed, and their organs are harvested and then sold.

Within the United States, one third of the states have already abolished capital punishment. The opposition to the death penalty is widespread and diverse. Catholic, Protestant and Jewish groups, as well as many national organizations, have expressed their opposition based on religious, moral and civic reasons.

We must join our voices with that of our Holy Father in calling for an abolition of the death penalty. We want our country to be characterized by justice, not revenge; by safety, not violence; by life, not death.