The revolutionary choice of the governor of California who signed the moratorium on capital executions
By: Mario Marazziti– L’Osservatore Romano – March 15th, 2019
Gavin Newsom, the new Governor of California, with a gesture of political courage, has put a stop, perhaps definitive, to executions in the Golden State. On March 13, 2019, signing an official moratorium, he declared the miserable “failure" of a justice that still includes death.
His was neither a foregone conclusion nor an obligatory choice. It affirms a new standard of political commitment, reaffirming the ethical responsibility to lead, even with choices that are not always popular. Politics as leadership not as follower-ship on the wave of polls and changing moods in a time of growing populist impulses.
Even opponents of the death penalty in California, who promoted two abolition referendums in 2012 and 2016 (reaching 48 and 47 percent and losing narrowly) insisted more on its practical aspects than on its absolute rejection. "The death penalty - Newsom said - goes against our fundamental understanding of human rights. As governor, I will not oversee the execution of any individual. The death penalty is not only ineffective and irreversible. It is also immoral."
Of the 1493 executions carried out in the United States, 164 convicts were declared innocent postmortem, About 30 of them in California. One every 8. However, the risk of executing innocents is not the only reason for Newsom’s bold act. There is also the clear social and racial discrimination that in California and throughout the United States accompanies the death penalty if you are black, mentally disabled or without the means for adequate legal defense.
But a signal comes from California. At the beginning of his mandate, the new Governor chooses to be judged and criticized for what until recently was a taboo also for his Democratic predecessor, one of the greatest political figures in Californian history, elected four times to lead the Golden State: Governor Jerry Brown. Many people and organizations had appealed to Brown for a moratorium and a commutation of sentences in California, but he hesitated and did not grant them, even if he no longer ran political risks.
The story has changed. Newsom also puts the ethical discourse at the heart of the question, and while doing so he boldly joins the governors of Colorado, Oregon and Pennsylvania, who already declared to have enforced a moratorium on executions. Today, 34 out of 100 inmates sentenced to death reside in States which will carry out no execution. In Wyoming, considered to be a strongly conservative State, it was the Republicans who presented a bill against the death penalty. Utah could do the same, as well as the so called ''Mountain States''. Meanwhile, compared to twenty years ago Texas' death row is half of what it was before, and yearly capital punishments in all the USA have overall decreased, since 1999, from 295 to 42. The incumbency of a turning point could just be around the corner.
The motivations of California's moratorium echo the absolute refusal expressed by the Catholic Church Catechism's 2267 rescript: ''The death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person'' and (the Church) ''works with determination for its abolition worldwide''. Thus, there is also a response to the words Pope Francis used to address the US Congress. It is worth to retrace the path that led with pastoral courage Pope Francis, with the text of 1 August 2018, to strengthen without exceptions the fundamental defense of human life and dignity, in any circumstance: a commitment that comes from far away.
For those who love the most fundamentalist readings of the holy texts (isolating them), it is worth remembering how inside the First Testament, foreshadowing an evolution of the conscience of the world, there is the passage from disproportionate and endless revenge (''seventy times seven'') to a proportionate one (''an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth''): we are in front of a clear progress as regards the sense of respect of human life. With an additional highlight: that the key text of a retributive justice is even more a text that talks about equity: the wrongdoing of the poor or the rich and their dignity have the same value, in a world that did not recognize it as such. And, moreover, in accordance with the meaning of life intended as one that does not end, it is possible to see how in the Book of Job life is already seen as being in the hands of God rather than those of man.
The first Christian generations were distrusted by the roman army for their absolute refusal of inflicting death, but it is known that, since the 4th century, even in the Catholic tradition resistances against a general idea that regards capital punishment as normal started diminishing. According to St. Augustine, the death penalty was part of the military obligations of a wartime state, and St. Thomas thought it was a part of the legitimate means of defending society from criminal actions. With few exceptions, this is a position that remained unaltered for a long time.
But this has changed significantly since the 1960s. Paul VI removed the death penalty from the codes of the Holy See, and asked Francisco Franco to commute the death sentences of five Basque terrorists. Pope John Paul II repeatedly addressed the international community, calling for an end to this "cruel and unnecessary" practice, and acted, in his name, through the nunciatures in several states, as is well known, to stop planned executions, including his personal intervention in St. Louis. The first version of the Catechism in 1992, however, while affirming the preference for bloodless punishments, allowed its use "in cases of extreme gravity". This very point was revised five years later, leading to an "almost-absolute" refusal, because cases in which there are no other means of defense for society are "very rare or practically non-existent."
A practical refusal, but still not an absolute one, even if Pope John Paul II wanted not only the elimination of capital punishment from Vatican laws, but also that of life sentence, on 12 February 2001, a step that Italy, for example, has not yet done. And several times he spoke of "banning" the death penalty, or "never again", as he did at the Madonna of Guadalupe, on January 23, 1999.
Pope Benedict XVI further strengthened the message. In the post-synodal apostolic exhortation Africae Munus, on 19 November 2011, n.83 he said forcefully: “I draw the attention of society’s leaders to the need to make every effort to eliminate the death penalty and to reform the penal system in a way that ensures respect for the prisoners’ human dignity”. “To eliminate the death penalty”: the message was confirmed when on 30 November 2011. Benedict XVI, in front of 6000 people, welcomed the various delegations that took part to the “No Justice without Life” Sant’Egidio’s International Conference, attended by 25 ministers of Justice coming from both abolitionist countries and nations that maintained the death penalty: “I express my hope that your decisions may favor the political and legislative initiatives being promoted in a growing number of countries to eliminate the death penalty."
Nowadays, there is “the defense of life and human dignity without exception” of Pope Francis--- in the Catechism. This requires all Catholics to commit themselves to a world without the death penalty. And it offers to all political decision-makers, not only those who are Christian, an alliance and a higher standard in the building of justice and a safe society, de-legitimizing a culture of death at its root.
Is this a depriving families of victims a compensation and a right, as astated by those who call for its use against drug traffickers and terrorists? There is no healing from the pain that comes from the addition of another death, which on the contrary creates new victims: the family members of those who are intentionally killed by the state. And there is no stronger way to replete a distorted terrorist radicalism or the unscrupulous drug cartels, which distribute and feed on death, than to delegitimize, in all circumstances, a culture of death. "We will never be like you." It can help the world heal.
[This is an official English translation. Please click here for the article in its original Italian.]