Death Penalty FAQ

What does the Catholic Church teach about the death penalty?

On August 2, 2018, the Catechism of the Catholic Church section 2267 was updated by the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith to reflect the Church’s evolving stance on capital punishment: “The death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person” (Pope Francis 2018). A previous version of 2267 strongly discouraged the use of the death penalty, saying the practice was only permissible if there were no other means to keep society safe. The 2018 revision closed any remaining loopholes of uncertainty around the death penalty and affirmed the more than 20 years of Papal and Church authority publicly speaking out its use.

What does the Bible say about the death penalty?

Some Bible passages are misconstrued in order to justify the death penalty. According to theologian David Matzko McCarthy, “the biblical ‘eye for an eye’ does not command retribution in kind,” but rather “is used to emphasize the need for substantial and serious compensation to the victim.”

Consider Christ’s explanation: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’. But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also” (Matt 5:38-39 NRSV.) Biblical scholar NT Wright explains, “Hitting back only keeps evil in circulation.” (105)

I’ve heard people reference the “modern era of the death penalty”, what does that mean?

In 1972, the Supreme Court of the United States declared the death penalty unconstitutional based on the way it was imposed. States were able to get around this ruling by revising state statutes. In 1976, the Supreme Court responded to these charges by declaring that the death penalty could be constitutional under some circumstances. Despite the Court specifying that the death penalty was unconstitutional if applied to mentally and intellectually disabled individuals or children, states still regularly condemn both to death.

When the death penalty is abolished in a state, what sentence replaces it?

Life without parole (LWOP) is the standard replacement for the death penalty. It differs from other sentences which may offer the possibility of parole after a certain number of years. LWOP is officially used in Washington, DC and 49 states. While LWOP is often seen as the humane alternative to the death penalty,  it is often met with substantial criticism. The practice arguably goes against Pope Francis’s counsel that death penalty alternatives should “offer the possibility of redemption.” LWOP is also known as “life without mercy”, “life without the possibility of parole”, or “a determinate life sentence.”

What are conditions like on death row?

Death row is almost exclusively solitary confinement.  Legal experts widely consider solitary confinement to be unconstitutional and a form of torture.  Some inmates are only allowed 45 minutes outside their cells each day. The conditions are so tortuous that some inmates stop filing appeals in an attempt to speed up their executions dates, preferring death itself to death row. Inmates stay on death row for decades, never knowing for sure when they will die. The isolation and miserable conditions on death row often lead to delusion and suicidal ideation.

How does executing people impact correctional personnel?

Correctional personnel often experience trauma due to their involvement in executions. This trauma is felt by correctional officers, chaplains, and others who work in facilities which inflict the death penalty.“The unacknowledged stress experienced by guards on death rows and execution teams risks dangerous mental health consequences for them and those around them.

Don’t families of murder victims deserve justice and to see the person who hurt their loved one punished?

Many family members of murder victims are passionate about abolishing the death penalty. Some of these individuals initially sought vengeance though the death penalty , but learned that perpetuating violence was inconducive to their healing process. “Many family members of murder victims […] want no part in capitol punishment […] they see the possibility of a life-giving response to murder. That life-giving response animates their opposition to the death penalty” (David Matzko McCarthy 2016).

Vicki Schieber, whose daughter Shannon was killed in 1998 in Philadelphia, says: “The death penalty wasn’t going to honor Shannon’s life and it wasn’t going to bring her back.”

Is the death penalty a deterrent to crime?

There is no evidence to suggest that the death penalty deters crime. In facts, 88% of criminologists believe that the death penalty is not a deterrent. When asked to list effective ways to deter crime, police chiefs ranked the death penalty last. Additionally, states with the death penalty generally experience higher crime rates than other states. Even if the death penalty did dissuade individuals who would otherwise commit homicide,  alternative sentences such as life without parole may be equally effective.

How many states have the death penalty?

The death penalty is legal in 26 states. To date, 24 states have abolished the death penalty, the two most recent being Virginia in May 2021. Many states that still have the death penalty have not carried out an execution in several years. Four states –California, Oregon, and Pennsylvania — are under governor-imposed execution bans.

Which state has the largest death row?

With over 730 prisoners as of August 2019, California’s death row is not only the largest the United States, but in the entire Western Hemisphere. Florida and Texas rank second and third, with death row populations of around 349 and 223 respectively.

Which state has executed the most people?

Texas holds the record with 555 executions since 1976 as of August 2019.Texas has made liberal use of the death penalty for years, but state policies are changing rapidly. In 2019, Texas passed bills banning the death penalty for those actively experiencing psychosis at the time of the offense, allowing capitol murder defendants to be screened pretrial for intellectual disabilities, and clarifying instructions given to jurors in capitol trials. The case of  Scott Panetti, a death row inmate suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, has served as a wake up call for many Texans.

What is the most common method of execution?

The most common method is is lethal injection, followed by electrocution and gas chamber, with hanging and firing squad trailing far behind. Despite lethal injection being the preferred method in many states, pharmaceutical companies are generally reluctant to provide drugs for lethal injections. When procuring execution drugs proves challenging, states have essentially resorted to experimental methods, inventing drug cocktails that result in agonizing deaths. Several states have attempted to import or use drugs illegally. Even legal, supposedly humane drugs have resulted in painful, gruesome deaths. 

What are the biggest factors that determine whether or not someone receives a death sentence?

Theoretically, the decision to sentence a person to death is made by considering mitigating vs. aggravating factors. However, in practice there are other, more reliable indicators of whether a person will be sentenced to execution. These include the race of the victim, competency of legal representation, geographical location, and the defendant’s race, socioeconomic class, and mental convictions and intellectual abilities. “People with intellectual disabilities are at a higher risk of wrongful convictions and death sentences.” Black individuals accused of crime  are more likely to be sentenced to death than a white person.

Is it true the death penalty is more expensive than any other type of sentence?

Yes. Taxpayers pay $700,000 more on average each time someone is sentenced to death than they would if that person had been sentenced to life without parole. Most of this cost comes not from imprisonment, but from the trial that preceded it. In cases where capitol punishment is on the table,  “pretrial preparations, jury selection and appeals are all more expensive.” Additionally, it is 300% more expensive to house people in solitary confinement that to house them with the general population. People on death row are usually kept in solitary confinement, despite being equally or less violent than other incarcerated persons. Because they are given very limited time outside of their cells, security costs are higher. 

Are innocent people ever executed?

There is no way to know how many wrongfully-convicted people have been executed; innocence programs focus on those who can still be saved. However, the number of death row exonerees suggests that innocent people are regularly executed. Since 1973,186 people have been exonerated from death row.