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November 16, 2005
Column #1,264
Catholics Urge An End to the Death Penalty                    
     America's Catholic bishops have called for an end to the death penalty. They asserted, "The pain and loss of one death cannot be wiped away by another death."

     "We seek to help build a culture of life in which our nation will no longer try to teach that killing is wrong by killing those who kill. This cycle of violence diminishes all of us."

     The bishops are reaffirming a stand first taken 25 years ago. They give four reasons why the death penalty is "unnecessary and unjustified:"

     1. "The sanction of death undermines respect for human life and dignity.

     2.  "We have other ways to punish criminals and protect society," such as a life sentence without possibility of parole.

     3.  The death penalty is "deeply flawed and can be irreversibly wrong, is prone to errors, and is biased by factors such as race, the quality of legal representation, and where the crime was committed. And also because it may deprive the convict of an opportunity to repent and receive God's grace."

     4. "State-sanctioned killing in our names (the public) diminishes all of us."

     They argue, "We renew our common conviction that it is time for our nation to abandon the illusion that we can protect life by taking life."

     There is powerful evidence of that "illusion." States with the death penalty have
HIGHER murder rates than those with no death penalty. The murder rate of states which execute criminals is 5.7 murders per 100,000 population compared to a 4.0 murder rate of a dozen states with no death penalty.

     No state executes more people than Texas, where 23 were lethally injected last year and 353 people since 1976. However, its murder rate of 6.1 per 100,000 is four times that of Maine with only 1.4 murders for the same population.

     Clearly, the death penalty is NOT a deterrent to crime. Where would you feel safer living - Texas or Maine? 

     The bishops also note that "at least 119 people" on death row were exonerated since the 1970s, frequently as a result of new DNA evidence proving their innocence. Illinois alone released a dozen falsely convicted men, about the same number executed in recent years. That so shocked then Gov. George Ryan that he declared a moratorium on executions and commuted the sentences of all 167 then on death row to life without parole.

     Wrongful convictions have cast a pall over this grim business. Prosecutors and juries are already pulling back. There's been a remarkable reduction of executions from 98 in 1999 to 59 last year, a 40% drop in five years. More than 300 people were put on death row every year in the late 1990's. Last year only 144 were sent to death row, a drop of more than 50 percent.

     Yet there are now 3,452 people awaiting their death despite the execution of nearly 1,000 over three decades.

     The Supreme Court has also ruled that mentally retarded persons may not be executed nor offenders who were under the age of 18 when their crimes were committed. The ruling on juveniles freed 72 inmates from death row in 2005.

     Growing doubts about the fairness, effectiveness and impact of capital punishment can be seen in a significant drop of public support for capital punishment. In 1994 80 percent of Americans favored the death penalty, but the most recent Gallup Poll put the figure at 64 percent.

     Among Catholics, support fell from more than 70 percent to 48, in part due to the stout opposition of Pope John Paul II. Speaking in St. Louis in 1999, he urged "followers of Christ" to be "unconditionally pro-life, who will proclaim, celebrate and serve the Gospel of Life in every situation. A sign of hope is the increasing recognition that the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil....I renew the appeal I made...for a consensus to end the death penalty, which is cruel and unnecessary."

     After his near assassination, John Paul met with his assassin and forgave him. Cardinal William Keeler sensed "a sea change" among Baltimore Knights of Columbus after the Pope spoke in St. Louis. "Not a single word was said" in support of the death penalty.

     The Old Testament permits "life for life;" but the bishops note that there are strong messages of mercy in Scripture, rejecting vengeance. When Cain killed Abel, God sent him into exile but spared his life, and protected it by putting "a mark on Cain lest anyone should kill him at sight."

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