Religion

ABA Panel Explores History, Morality of Death Penalty

"Has the death penalty evolved into an anachronism?" asked a panel at the August 2, 2018 American Bar Association Annual Meeting in Chicago. Moderator Ronald Tabak, chair of the ABA Death Penalty Committee, and panelists Cardinal Blase J. Cupich of the Archdiocese of Chicago; Karen Gottlieb, co-director of the Florida Center for Capital Representation; Meredith Martin Rountree, senior lecturer at the Northwestern Pritzker School of Law; and Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center sought to answer that question through a discussion of the last forty years of American death-penalty history and the evolution of the Catholic Church's moral teachings on the subject. The panelists' consensus: the death sentences imposed upon many of the death-row prisoners executed in the past would be unconstitutional today, and most of the prisoners now being executed would not be sentenced to death if they were tried today. 

The panel serendipitously took place on the same day that Pope Francis announced that the Catholic Church had formally revised its Catechism to deem the death penalty "inadmissible." Cardinal Cupich described the evolution of the Catholic Church's teachings on capital punishment, with an emerging focus on the concept of the dignity of human life. "Our assertion that the value of a human life does not depend upon an individual’s quality of life or age or moral worth must apply in all cases," he said. "For if we protect the sanctity of life for the least worthy among us, we surely witness to the need to protect the lives of those who are the most innocent, and most vulnerable." Karen Gottlieb highlighted how accidents of timing can result in unconstitutional executions, using Florida as an example of how numerous defendants with valid constitutional claims have been executed before courts issue rulings that would have barred their execution and how recent court rulings will permit the execution of more than 150 death-row prisoners who the state court acknowledges were sentenced under unconstitutional procedures. Meredith Martin Rountree discussed how American death-penalty law has evolved to exempt youthful offenders and individuals with intellectual disability and provided examples of current death-penalty practices—including the execution of offenders aged 18-21 and of people with severe mental illness—that could likely be banned in the future. Robert Dunham explained the "sea change in America’s attitudes about capital punishment" over the past twenty-five years and the reasons behind the accompanying broad nationwide decline in death-penalty usage over that period. He provided examples of more than 250 people who have been executed despite constitutional violations that would have invalidated their death sentences today and the estimated hundreds of others who were unconstitutionally sentenced to death but executed nevertheless because of procedural technicalities that prevented federal courts from enforcing constitutional protections in those cases.

A transcript of the proceedings, with updates from the panelists, was released by the ABA's Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice in late September 2018 and recently posted on the DPIC website.

Cincinnati's Aggressive DA and a Vatican Priest (His High School Classmate) Spar About the Death Penalty

Pope Francis' recent declaration committing the Catholic Church to opposing capital punishment in all circumstances has produced an unusual public war of words about the practices of Catholic public officials in one of the country's most aggressive death-penalty counties. Hamilton County, Ohio, has produced more death sentences and executions than any other county in Ohio, and is one of the 2% of U.S. counties reponsible for a majority of death sentences and executions in the United States. Its County Prosecutor, Joe Deters (pictured, left) is Catholic but, while pursuing a death sentence in the resentencing of Anthony Kirkland, made dismissive comments about Pope Francis' declaration that the death penalty is "inadmissible." "My dear friends who are priests don't understand what we're dealing with," Deters said. "There is evil in this world and there comes a point where society needs to defend itself." Those comments provoked a rebuke from Rev. Paul Mueller (pictured, right, with Pope Francis), vice director and superior of the Jesuit community at the Vatican Observatory, and a high school classmate of Deters. In a letter to the prosecutor, Father Mueller wrote, "I am disappointed, embarrassed, and scandalized that you, not only a Catholic but also a fellow alumnus of St. Xavier High School, have used the platform of your public office to oppose and confuse the moral teaching of the Church in so open a fashion." Deters reiterated his stance in comments to WLWT television on August 21, saying, Pope Francis is "in an ivory tower, God bless him. ... I'm just telling you they don't know what we're dealing with." St. Xavier High School, which both Deters and Mueller attended, weighed in on the issue, as the school's president, Tim Reilly, wrote, "St. Xavier is a Catholic school, and we intentionally and specifically follow the teachings of the Catholic Church. The Church teaches that people are obliged to follow a well-formed conscience. One of the key components of a well-formed conscience is a serious consideration of and reflection upon Catholic moral and social teaching." Kirkland was resentenced to death on August 28. At his sentencing, Judge Patrick Dinkelacker, also a Catholic, tangentially referred to the religious debate about capital punishment, saying, "As a person who morally believes in the sanctity of life, to judge another to determine if the imposition of the death penalty is appropriate is not a duty I take lightly. ... I took an oath to follow the law and I will do that. To do otherwise, is morally, legally, philosophically and theologically wrong."

Pope Francis Formally Changes Catholic Church Stance on Death Penalty, Calling It “Inadmissible”

Pope Francis (pictured) has formally changed the official Catholic Church teaching on the death penalty, calling capital punishment “an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person” and deeming it “inadmissible" in all cases. The Vatican's August 2, 2018 announcement that it had revised its Catechism—the Church's official compilation of teachings on a wide range of issues—to unambiguously oppose capital punishment also committed the Church to work “with determination” to abolish the death penalty worldwide. Prior to the revision, the Catechism used softer language on the death penalty, allowing it “if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor,” while noting that “the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity ‘are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.’” In a letter to Bishops accompanying the change, Pope Francis wrote, “This conclusion is reached taking into account the new understanding of penal sanctions applied by the modern State, which should be oriented above all to the rehabilitation and social reintegration of the criminal. Finally, given that modern society possesses more efficient detention systems, the death penalty becomes unnecessary as protection for the life of innocent people.” His letter places the new stance in the context of the Church's broader teachings on the dignity of human life, and previous statements by Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis on the need to end capital punishment. Vatican observers said there is no mistaking the political intent of the new revision. The letter to the bishops said the new doctrine sought to “give energy” to efforts working “for the elimination of the death penalty where it is still in effect.” Vatican expert and author John Thavis called Pope Francis's action “the next logical step” in the evolution of formal Catholic opposition to the death penalty. “I think this will be a big deal for the future of the death penalty in the world,” Thavis said. “People who work with prisoners on death row will be thrilled, and I think this will become a banner social justice issue for the church.” The new catechism also poses a direct challenge to Catholic politicians like Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, who has sought to bring capital punishment back in his nation, and U.S. governors such as Greg Abbott and Pete Ricketts of Texas and Nebraska, who have made support for the death penalty a cornerstone of their policies. “There is no doubt the pope wants politicians to pay attention to this,” said John Gehring, the Catholic program director at the advocacy group Faith in Public Life. “He is not just speaking internally. The pope wants to elevate this as a definitive pro-life issue.”

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The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: "Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that."

On Martin Luther King Day, DPIC looks at the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King's views on the death penalty. Dr. King's philosophy of non-violence had no room for capital punishment. In one of his most famous sermons, "Loving Your Enemies," Dr. King preached: "Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that." In 1952, Jeremiah Reeves, a 16-year-old African-American Montgomery, Alabama high school student was arrested for allegedly raping a white woman with whom he was having an affair. The teen was interrogated for two days, deprived of sleep, strapped into an electric chair, and told the only way to escape the death penalty was to confess. He did so, then recanted. The trial judge barred the defense from telling the all-white jury the circumstances of the "confession," and Reeves was sentenced to death. Six years later, Alabama executed him. On Easter Sunday 1958, nine days after the execution, Dr. King preached to a crowd of 2,000 on the steps of the state capitol about the "tragic and unsavory injustice." Dr. King said: "A young man, Jeremiah Reeves, who was little more than a child when he was first arrested, died in the electric chair for the charge of rape. Whether or not he was guilty of this crime is a question that none of us can answer. But the issue before us now is not the innocence or guilt of Jeremiah Reeves. Even if he were guilty, it is the severity and inequality of the penalty that constitutes the injustice. Full grown white men committing comparable crimes against Negro girls are rare ever punished, and are never given the death penalty or even a life sentence." Dr. King continued: "But not only are we here to repent for the sin committed against Jeremiah Reeves, but we are also here to repent for the constant miscarriage of justice that we confront everyday in our courts. The death of Jeremiah Reeves is only the precipitating factor for our protest, not the causal factor. The causal factor lies deep down in the dark and dreary past of our oppression. The death of Jeremiah Reeves is but one incident, yes a tragic incident, in the long and desolate night of our court injustice. ... Truth may be cruficied and justice buried, but one day they will rise again. We must live and face death if necessary with that hope." According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 455 people were executed for rape in the United States between 1930 and the Supreme Court's decision declaring the nation's death penalty statutes unconstitutional in 1972. 405 (89.1%) were black. The use of the death penalty for rape remained almost exclusively a Southern phenomenon: 443 of the executions for rape (97.4%) occurred in former Confederate states. Noting the different punishment of blacks and whites for allegations of interracial rape, Dr. King later wrote in his memoir, Stride Toward Freedom, it was "[f]or good reason the Negroes of the South had learned to fear and mistrust the white man's justice." In a November 1957 interview Ebony asked Dr. King: "Do you think God approves the death penalty for crimes like rape and murder?" He responded, "I do not think that God approves the death penalty for any crime, rape and murder included.... Capital punishment is against the better judgment of modern criminology, and, above all, against the highest expression of love in the nature of God." 

Murder Victims’ Family Members Speak of Moving Forward, Without the Death Penalty 

Family members of murder victims share no single, uniform response to the death penalty, but two recent publications illustrate that a growing number of these families are now advocating against capital punishment. In From Death Into Life, a feature article in the January 8, 2018 print edition of the Jesuit magazine America, Lisa Murtha profiles the stories of how several prominent victim-advocates against the death penalty came to hold those views. And in a recently released compilation of essays, Not in Our Name, nine family members of murder victims share their stories of coping, grieving, and reconciliation in the face of losing a loved one to murder, and tell how their experiences transformed their views about capital punishment. “While each has endured the extreme pain of losing a loved one to murder, they all are staunchly opposed to what they say is more violence in the form of a state-sanctioned execution and a death penalty,” said Ron Steiner, leader of Oregonians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, which released the essays in November. The death penalty is often characterized as providing justice and closure for family members of the victims. But, Murtha writes, "for many, the death penalty provides neither the closure nor the healing that legal and political systems oftentimes promise. Instead, a growing number of victims’ families are saying it inhibits that healing." Murtha reports on the different reasons offered by five different victims’ families who spoke out against the death penalty in 2016. "One learned how profoundly the murderer had changed in prison, another just wanted the appeals to stop and another discovered that the men originally convicted of the crime were actually innocent," she writes. Murtha also recounts the emotional journeys of Bob Curley, Marietta Jaeger Lane, and Bill Pelke, who are now vocal opponents of the death penalty. After his 10-year-old son Jeffrey was murdered, Curley launched a years-long crusade to reinstate capital punishment in Massachusetts, believing the death penalty might prevent something like this from happening [again].” He came to oppose the death penalty after seeing that the man he believed was less culpable for the death of his son received a harsher sentence and became convinced that "the system is just not fair" and could not be trusted to reach the right result in capital cases. Lane, a lifelong practicing Catholic, said she initially wanted to kill the man who abducted and murdered her 7-year old daughter, but she said, "I surrendered [and] did the only thing I could do, which was [give] God permission to change my heart.” Pelke's 78-year-old grandmother was robbed and murdered by group of teenage girls, and 15-year-old Paula Cooper was sentenced to death. Pelke was convinced his grandmother "would have had love and compassion for Paula Cooper and her family and that she wanted me to have that same sort of love and compassion. I learned the most important lesson of my life .... I didn’t have to see somebody else die in order to bring healing from Nana’s death.”

Conservative Voices Continue to Call for End of Death Penalty

From October 2016 to October 2017, support for capital punishment among those identifying themselves as Republicans fell by ten percetage points. Two op-eds published towards the end of the year illustrate the growing conservative opposition to the death penalty. Writing in The Seattle Times on December 27, Republican State Senator Mark Miloscia (pictured, l.) called for bipartisan efforts to repeal Washington's death-penalty statute. In a December 13 commentary in the Washington Times, conservative political strategist Richard Viguerie (pictured, r.) describes what he calls the "stunning" surge in Republican sponsorship of bills to end capital punishment. Setting forth moral and practical reasons for his support of Washington Senate Bill 5354, Miloscia writes that "[i]t is time to pass a strong, bipartisan repeal of the death penalty." Miloscia cites his Catholic pro-life beliefs as the primary reason for his opposition to capital punishment and highlights Pope Francis' calls for an end to the death penalty. He writes, "Given our modern prison system and ability to neutralize individuals as threats without killing them, it is never imperative to execute someone." But beyond religious beliefs alone, Miloscia sees "many practical reasons why conservatives of all faiths are rethinking the death penalty." Among them, he cites the high cost of capital punishment and the "ever-present risk of killing an innocent person," which he says are "even more unjustifiable" given the absence of any valid evidence that executions affect murder rates. Further, he writes, "many murder victims’ families oppose capital punishment because it’s little more than a long, re-traumatizing process that doesn’t give them the justice that they deserve." Miloscia sees a major shift underway in Republican thinking on the issue, paving a path for bipartisan repeal: "Republicans are turning against the death penalty, which means that opposition to capital punishment is no longer a partisan stance. As the death penalty slowly loses its supporting constituency, the punishment’s future becomes doubtful." Conservative leader Richard Viguerie also sees a dramatic change in how conservatives view the death penalty. Viguerie cites a 2017 report by Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, which found a surge in Republican sponsorship of death-penalty abolition bills that Viguerie says "has been gaining momentum." As part of this "massive shift," he writes, one-third of all sponsors of death-penalty repeal bills in 2016 were Republicans. Viguerie writes, "conservatives are recognizing that capital punishment is a broken government program that runs counter to conservatism’s foundational tenets of valuing life, fiscal responsibility and limited government." He, too, points to religion, and Catholicism in particular, as a reason for conservative opposition, but says that the Tea Party movement—with its support of limited government—and the election of younger legislators who are statistically more likely to oppose the death penalty, has contributed to the change. He foresees a continuing decline in conservative support for the death penalty: "As state legislatures undergo their makeovers, the public turns against the death penalty, and political leaders voice their capital punishment concerns, we should expect to see even more from Republican officials. Republicans will likely continue to sponsor repeal bills with increasing frequency and reverse the flawed criminal justice policies once advocated by their ideological predecessors of the 1980s and 1990s."

Pope Francis Says Death Penalty "Abases Human Dignity," is "Contrary to the Gospel"

Signaling a strengthening of the Catholic Church's official opposition to capital punishment, Pope Francis (pictured) marked the 25th anniversary of the Catholic Church's promulgation of amendments to its Catechism by declaring the death penalty "contrary to the Gospel" and "an inhumane measure that, regardless of how it is carried out, abases human dignity.” During Vatican ceremonies on October 11 commemorating the 1992 amendments, Pope Francis said that the death penalty is "inadmissible" under any circumstances and that the subject needed “a more adequate and coherent treatment” than it currently receives. The Catechism—the instructive text for Catholics around the world—currently permits "recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor," but given modern crime prevention and incarceration practices, its says "the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity 'are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.'" Pope Francis called capital punishment "an attack on the inviolability and the dignity of the person" and said that the approach to the issue by the Holy See has in the past been "more legalistic than Christian." The pontiff said that Church doctrine is a "dynamic" process that "develops [and] grows" over time, and it is therefore necessary to reaffirm in the Catechism "that no matter how serious the crime that has been committed, the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and the dignity of the person." In October 2014, Pope Francis referred to the present Catechism in calling for the abolition of the death penalty, saying "It is impossible to imagine that states today cannot make use of another means than capital punishment to defend peoples' lives from an unjust aggressor." He repeated that call during an historic address before a joint session of the United States Congress in September 2015, and urged Catholic leaders around the world to take action to halt all executions during the Church's "Holy Year of Mercy" in 2016. Archbishop Emeritus Joseph Fiorenza—a former president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops—said the pope's remarks have “put to rest” any doubt as to whether the death penalty is permitted under Catholic doctrine. “This is Pope Francis’ magisterial teaching on this issue and as the faithful we have the responsibility to accept what the pope says,” said Fiorenza. Dianne Rust-Tierney, the executive director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, said that the pope’s “moral clarity and leadership” are promising to proponents of abolition. “We’ve got to show people that there is a better way, that this is a fundamentally immoral practice,” she said. The pope’s revision “closes the loophole” that the Catechism had left open in the minds of some, according to Karen Clifton, executive director of the Catholic Mobilizing Network. “[H]e makes it very clear,” said Clifton, that Catholics “need to meet people where they are and move them toward mercy and away from vengeance.” 

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US Votes Against UN Resolution Condemning Death Penalty for Religious Speech, Sexual Orientation

The United States has voted against an historic resolution passed by the United Nations Human Rights Council condemning the criminalization of and use of the death penalty for apostasy, blasphemy, adultery, and consensual same-sex relations and calling on nations in which the death penalty is legal to ensure that it is not imposed “arbitrarily or in a discriminatory manner.” The resolution also called for an end to the discriminatory use of the death penalty "against persons belonging to racial and ethnic minorities ... and its use against individuals with mental or intellectual disabilities,” those under age 18, and pregnant women. In Geneva, Switzerland, the Human Rights Council on September 29 adopted the resolution by a vote of 27-13, with the U.S. joining Botswana, Burundi, Egypt, Ethiopia, Bangladesh, China, India, Iraq, Japan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates in opposition. No other Western democracy opposed the resolution. Renato Sabbadini, Executive Director of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA), called the resolution's passage a “monumental moment” signifying recognition by the international community that certain “horrific laws” must end. “It is unconscionable to think that there are hundreds of millions of people living in States where somebody may be executed simply because of whom they love,” he said in a statement.  Ty Cobb, director of Human Rights Campaign Global, the global branch of the U.S.'s largest LGBT rights organization, condemned the U.S. vote against the resolution as "beyond disgraceful." In a statement, he said U.S. representatives had "failed the LGBTQ community by not standing up against the barbaric use of the death penalty to punish individuals in same-sex relationships.” A State Department spokesperson responded to criticism of the U.S.'s vote saying “The United States unequivocally condemns the application of the death penalty for homosexuality, blasphemy, adultery and apostasy." Heather Nauert said that the U.S. was "disappointed" to vote against the resolution, but did so, “[a]s in years past, ... because of broader concerns with the resolution’s approach to condemning the death penalty in all circumstances.” In 2014, the Obama administration abstained from voting on a death penalty resolution, issuing a statement urging “all governments that employ the death penalty to do so in conformity with their international human rights obligations.” The United States ranked seventh in the world in confirmed executions in 2016, according to Amnesty International, behind China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Pakistan, and Egypt.

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