By George Anderson, S.J. (December 15, 2011)
Capital punishment may be on the wane in the United States, but restorative justice demands its total abolition.
The current drop in the number of those executed stems from an increased willingness on the part of juries to opt for life without parole rather than a death sentence. This shift reflects the work of groups like the U.S. Catholic conference, which pointed out in its 1999 Good Friday Appeal to End the Death Penalty that reliance on the death penalty is a sign of “disrespect for human life.”
Moreover, in their 2000 statement, “Responsibility, Rehabilitation and the Restoration,” the U. S. bishops spoke of standing with “the prophetic witness” of Pope John Paul II, who declared capital punishment “both cruel and unnecessary.” The catechism of the Catholic Church itself states that nonlethal means are sufficient to defend people’s safety from an aggressor, with such means more in conformity with dignity of the human person. As far back as 1980, the bishops noted, moreover, that the death penalty “extinguished possibilities for reform and rehabilitation.”
Racial inequities riddle capital punishment procedures. Although African Americans represent only 13 percent of the U.S. population, they account for over 40 percent of people on death row. Studies like those of Professor David Baldus concluded that someone accused of killing a white person is more than four times as likely to be sentenced to death as someone accused of murdering an African American.
Inadequate legal representation is another aspect of the unjust procedures surrounding the death penalty. Most of those charged with capital offenses are too poor to afford experienced private attorneys, and must therefore depend on public defenders and court-appointed attorneys, who, underpaid, may have little experience in death-penalty defense work. Prosecutors, on the other hand, have ample resources at their disposal for calling in expert witnesses like psychiatrists. Making matters worse at the postconviction level, Congress voted in 1996 to cut federal funding for some two-dozen centers that provide pro bono legal assistance in capital cases.
The danger of executing the innocent is an ever-present danger. Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra O’Connor has said, in fact, that over the years, some innocent people may indeed have been put to death. More and more, DNA testing has proven that many accused persons could not have committed their alleged capital offenses. Since 1976 when the death penalty was reinstated, dozens of condemned prisoners have been exonerated.
Early this year, Illinois Governor Patrick Quinn abolished its use there, where since 1977, at least 20 individuals had wrongly been condemned to death. Most recently, Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber in November halted all executions, stating that he was convinced that “we can find a better solution that keeps society safe [and] supports the victims of crime and their families.” In his statement, he spoke of refusing to be “part of this compromised and inequitable solution any longer.”
The actions of these two governors show that eventual abolition of the death penalty is an achievable goal. Capital punishment epitomizes a culture of violence that has no place in a democratic society. The late Supreme Court Justice Harry A. Blackmun said in 1994 that he would “no longer tinker with the machinery of death.” Lawmakers in states that retain the death penalty should heed his words, and eliminate the machinery of death entirely as a key step toward restorative justice.
Fr. George Anderson, S.J., is a journalist and wrote for America magazine for 10 years. He ministered at Riker’s Island Detention Facility in New York and DC Jail in Washington for many years.
This article first appeared in CMN’s December 2011 newsletter.