Judge Carolyn King DPIC's Lethal Injection Page

Federal Judge Carolyn Dineen King Speaks on the Death Penalty at Red Mass
October 4, 2006 marked the annual liturgy held for members of the legal profession called the Red Mass. This year's keynote speaker in Corpus Christi, Texas, was Judge Carolyn Dineen King of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. She chose to speak about the death penalty from both a legal and moral point of view, while clearly stating that her religious views are not a part of her judicial rulings .

From a legal perspective, she stated:
[P]rofoundly troubling is the risk that an innocent man will be executed. I must say that from my experience with capital cases, there is usually a great deal of evidence that the defendant is, in fact, guilty. But the lengthy investigation of the Houston crime lab, which exposed evidence of serious problems such as falsified test results, including DNA test results, and the tailoring of reports to fit police theories, certainly suggests that even scientific evidence, to which we normally attach considerable confidence, can be flawed. Only God's justice is perfect justice. The assessment of the death penalty, however well designed the system for doing so, remains a human endeavor with a consequent risk of error that may not be remediable.
From a moral perspective, she told listeners :
Catholics, the people of life, have an opportunity to advocate to our legislators changes in our laws that will align them more closely with the moral law. For the solution to the problems that we face with the death penalty is a political one (not a judicial one), and each of us, as a Catholic citizen and voter, is called upon to promote it.
. . .
The Catholic bishops have recently issued a call to the Catholic community, inviting every Catholic to join in the Catholic Campaign to End the Use of the Death Penalty, not as a partisan campaign but as a moral commitment.
. . .
The Church's campaign has been long in coming, centuries long, but at last it is here and all of should actively and prayerfully support it.
To read her entire speech go: HERE
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From The United Nations

Message from Mary Robinson: United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, to the Press Conference Organized by the Death Penalty Information Center
New York City, USA
Tuesday, 12 October 1999

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I regret that I am not able to be with you today to share this important event. I am confident that today’s discussion will be fruitful and contribute to the continuing international effort aimed at limiting, and one day, eliminating the use of the death penalty throughout the world.

More than half of the nations of the world have abolished the death penalty in law or in practice, and I welcome the fact that more and more countries are joining this trend, by either restricting the number of offences punishable by death or abolishing the death penalty altogether. At the same time, I deeply regret that in the last years a number of states have increased the use of the death penalty or resumed executions after a period of de facto moratorium. While working towards the ultimate goal — a universal ban on capital punishment — we must also ensure that the existing limitations and restrictions on the use of the death penalty are fully respected by those who still retain this practice.

I have on several occasions expressed my particular opposition to the use of the death penalty against juvenile offenders. The Convention on the Rights of the Child clearly stipulates that capital punishment shall not be imposed for offences committed by persons below eighteen years of age. The Convention has been ratified by almost every State, but not by the United States. The overwhelming and growing international consensus that the death penalty should not apply to juvenile offenders, stems from the recognition that young persons lack maturity and judgement and, therefore, cannot be expected to be fully responsible for their actions. More importantly, it reflects the firm belief that young persons are more susceptible to change, and thus have a greater potential for rehabilitation than adults.

While the death penalty is yet to be banned under international law, the trend towards this goal is obvious. The adoption in 1989 of the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights aiming at the abolition of the death penalty was a clear recognition by the international community of the need to eliminate the use of capital punishment, totally and globally. The Protocol has already been ratified by 95 countries. On the regional level both the European and the American conventions on human rights have special protocols for the abolition of the death penalty. The desirability of the total abolition of the capital punishment has also been reaffirmed on repeated occasions by various United Nation bodies and organs. Already in 1971 the General Assembly called on States to progressively restrict the use of the death penalty with a view to its abolition. Last spring during its 55th session, the Commission on Human Rights passed for the third consecutive year a resolution calling for restrictions on the use of the death penalty. The Commission urged all States that still maintain the death penalty to establish a moratorium on executions, with a view to completely abolishing the death penalty The resolution also called on retentionist States to comply fully with their obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child with regard to the death penalty.

Over the last year, I have on several occasions made representations to the Government of the United States in regard to persons who were facing imminent execution, and whose death sentences I felt ran counter to internationally agreed human rights standards and principles

My mandate to work for the universal enjoyment of human rights makes me feel particularly responsible to fully and actively support national and international initiatives aimed at a total and universal abolition of capital punishment.

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United Nations High Commissioner For Human Rights Resolution Supporting Worldwide Moratorium on Executions April 1999   [Preliminary unedited version]   Question of the death penalty   Commission on Human Rights resolution 1999/61  

The Commission on Human Rights,

Recalling article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which affirms the right of everyone to life, article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and articles 6 and 37 (a) of the Convention on the Rights of the Child,

Recalling also General Assembly resolutions 2857 (XXVI) of 20 December 1971 and 32/61 of 8 December 1977 on capital punishment, as well as resolution 44/128 of 15 December 1989, in which the Assembly adopted and opened for signature, ratification and accession the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, aiming at the abolition of the death penalty,

Recalling further Economic and Social Council resolutions 1574 (L) of 20 May 1971, 1745 (LIV) of 16 May 1973, 1930 (LVIII) of 6 May 1975, 1984/50 of 25 May 1984, 1985/33 of 29 May 1985, 1989/64 of 24 May 1989, 1990/29 of 24 May 1990, 1990/51 of 24 July 1990 and 1996/15 of 23 July 1996,

Recalling its resolution 1998/8 of 3 April 1998 in which it expressed its conviction that abolition of the death penalty contributes to the enhancement of human dignity and to the progressive development of human rights,

Welcoming the exclusion of capital punishment from the penalties that the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, the International Tribunal for Rwanda and the International Criminal Court are authorized to impose,

Commending those countries which have recently abolished the death penalty,

Welcoming the fact that many countries, while still keeping the death penalty in their penal legislation, are applying a moratorium on executions,

Referring to the report of the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions (E/CN.4/1999/39 and Add.1), with respect to the Safeguards guaranteeing protection of the rights of those facing the death penalty, set out in the annex to Economic and Social Council resolution 1984/50 of 25 May 1984,

Deeply concerned that several countries impose the death penalty in disregard of the limitations provided for in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child,

Concerned also that several countries, in imposing the death penalty, do not take into account the Safeguards guaranteeing protection of the rights of those facing the death penalty,

1. Welcomes the report of the Secretary-General containing information on changes in law and practice concerning the death penalty worldwide (E/CN.4/1999/52 and Corr.1 and Add.1) and further positive developments reflected in that report;

2. Calls upon all States parties to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights that have not yet done so to consider acceding to or ratifying the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, aiming at the abolition of the death penalty;

3. Urges all States that still maintain the death penalty:

(a) To comply fully with their obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, notably not to impose the death penalty for any but the most serious crimes and only pursuant to a final judgement rendered by an independent and impartial competent court, not to impose it for crimes committed by persons below 18 years of age, to exclude pregnant women from capital punishment and to ensure the right to a fair trial and the right to seek pardon or commutation of sentence;

(b) To ensure that the notion of "most serious crimes" does not go beyond intentional crimes with lethal or extremely grave consequences and that the death penalty is not imposed for non-violent financial crimes or for non-violent religious practice or expression of conscience;

(c) Not to enter any new reservations under article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which may be contrary to the object and the purpose of the Covenant and to withdraw any such existing reservations, given that article 6 of the Covenant enshrines the minimum rules for the protection of the right to life and the generally accepted standards in this area;

(d) To observe the Safeguards guaranteeing protection of the rights of those facing the death penalty, set out in the annex to Economic and Social Council resolution 1984/50, and to comply fully with their international obligations, in particular with those under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations;

(e) Not to impose the death penalty on a person suffering from any form of mental disorder or to execute any such person;

(f) Not to execute any person as long as any related legal procedure, at international or at national level, is pending;

4. Calls upon all States that still maintain the death penalty:

(a) Progressively to restrict the number of offences for which the death penalty may be imposed;

(b) To establish a moratorium on executions, with a view to completely abolishing the death penalty;

(c) To make available to the public information with regard to the imposition of the death penalty;

5. Requests States that have received a request for extradition on a capital charge to reserve explicitly the right to refuse extradition in the absence of effective assurances from relevant authorities of the requesting State that capital punishment will not be carried out;

6. Requests the Secretary-General to submit his sixth quinquennial report on capital punishment and implementation of the Safeguards guaranteeing protection of the rights of those facing the death penalty, due in 2000 in accordance with Economic and Social Council resolution 1995/57 of 28 July 1995, to the Commission at its fifty-sixth session;

7. Decides to continue consideration of the matter at its fifty-sixth session under the same agenda item.

58th meeting 28 April 1999 [Adopted by a roll-call vote of 30 votes to 11, with 12 abstentions. See chap. XVII.]

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International Leadership Conference on Human Rights and the Death Penalty

Tokyo, Japan
December 6-7, 2005

Next we would like to welcome, Mr. Richard Dieter, Executive Director of the Death Penalty Information Center.

I would like to thank the European Commission, the American Bar Association and the Japan Federation of Bar Associations for inviting me to speak about the death penalty in the United States. I first want to say that our Japanese hosts have been especially gracious--I immediately felt welcomed here, and I want to thank you for that.

Today we are addressing the cultural aspects of the death penalty, and the United States is certainly a complex culture, made up of many different strands. It is difficult to define exactly what motivates the death penalty in our society, or why this punishment for crime is given a special importance by many people. What I would like to talk about today are some of the facts that illustrate a dramatic change in the death penalty (and perhaps even in our culture) that has been occurring over the past few years.

To understand this change, it is helpful to review the recent history of the death penalty. Ten years ago, in the mid-1990s, the death penalty in the United States was finally "succeeding" at what it had been formulated to do. The death penalty had been stopped by the United States Supreme Court in 1972 because it was being arbitrarily applied. Many states, wishing to preserve the death penalty, then re-wrote their laws to meet the Court's requirements. The new laws were supposed to be carefully channeled so that only the worst offenders would be eligible for the death penalty, thereby eliminating its arbitrary quality. The death penalty resumed in 1976, though executions did not escalate quickly. There was one execution in 1977. The process was slow, there were many appeals, and some state laws were overturned.

In the 1990s, the United States began to experience a death penalty similar to that of the 1930s when nearly 200 people a year were executed. The number of executions went steadily up, reaching almost 100 executions in 1999. The number of people on death row kept rising as more and more people were sentenced to death. New states, such as Kansas and New York, added the death penalty to their statutes. In 1994, the federal government, which affects all 50 states but which had not been a significant participant in the death penalty, expanded its capital punishment statute so that 60 offenses were eligible for the death penalty, instead of just one offense previously.

Much of the public wanted the death penalty applied more often and more quickly. Moreover, we had just experienced a terrible act of terrorism in 1995 by one of our own citizens in the Oklahoma City bombing. In the wake of that, Congress passed the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 to speed up the death penalty, and the number of executions continued to rise.

The death penalty was supported by 80% of the American public in the 1990s. But surprisingly, a dramatic period of change began around the time of the new millennium. This would seem to be a very unlikely time for the death penalty to change in the U.S., given the cultural events taking place. In 2000, the U.S. elected a president, George Bush, who as governor of Texas presided over the most executions of any modern governor, 152 executions. He was not elected because of those executions or because of his death penalty position, but the election certainly symbolized that the U.S. was a country that had no problem with the death penalty.

We also experienced another act of terrorism in 2001--the attacks in New York and Washington, DC. These actions created a tremendous anger and resulted in many proposals to expand the death penalty. But despite these events, and despite the rise in the executions in the 1990s, the increase in the size of death row, the high level of public support for the death penalty and its affirmation through the electoral process, the death penalty has been in a sharp decline since 2000. Executions are down about 40%. Last year there were 59 executions compared to almost 100 in the 1999. The number of death sentences--and I think this is the most important measure of the death penalty because new sentences mean more executions and a larger death row--are down by over 60% since 1999. There were 300 death sentences a year throughout the 1990s. Last year there were 125 death sentences. That may sound like a lot, but it is far less than it had been.

This year, we are projecting that the number of sentences will remain low, the lowest they have been in 30 years since the death penalty was reinstated in the United States. Not all of the change is positive and in one direction. But the change is significant, and I think it is attributable to two causes: first, and Mr. Greco of the ABA pointed this out earlier, as the number of executions rose, lawyers from bar associations and law firms, journalism students, and concerned individuals from around the country started looking at these cases more closely, especially as executions neared. What they found in case after case was that the defendant had been wrongly convicted.

Thirteen people in Illinois, alone, were wrongly convicted and sentenced to death, many of them having come close to execution. One of them, Anthony Porter, had his case investigated by journalism students. They happened to review this case because their class met at a time when he had received a stay of execution based on his mental capacity, not because of his possible innocence. This was not an instance of the criminal justice system working well. This case illustrated how independent influences from outside the justice system could expose the problems in the death penalty. The students discovered that Porter could not have committed the crime that put him on death row. They found the actual perpetrator who confessed to the crime. Porter was freed, and the public was shocked at how a near tragedy was averted.

In the late 1990s, the number of exonerations from death row continued to grow, and the issue of innocence received confirmation from another outside source. The advent of DNA testing, which emerged in the 1990s and became more sophisticated and prevalent in the late 1990s, confirmed that people, whom the courts and juries ensured us were guilty and deserving of death, were actually innocent.

DNA testing cast a new light on our criminal justice system. Even though the majority of the cases where inmates were freed from death row did not involve DNA testing, this scientific affirmation exposed deeper problems throughout the system. If DNA testing proved that in some cases the wrong person had been convicted and sentenced to death, then one had to be concerned about the many other cases in which no DNA evidence was available.

The second important contribution to the decline in the use of the death penalty that emerged in the 1990s was the introduction of the sentence of life without the possibility of parole. That has been a gradual process in the United States, and may not seem like progress from the perspective of those concerned about the high rate of incarceration in the U.S. But for the death penalty, it represents a critical alternative.

Jurors in death penalty cases are faced with the difficult task of possibly sentencing someone death, knowing that in 5 or 10 years new evidence might reveal that the wrong person was convicted. In the earlier years of the death penalty, the alternative to a death sentence was a life sentence in which the defendant might someday be released. A life-without-parole sentence has given jurors a middle ground between death and the possibility of release.

The number of death sentences has declined dramatically and the number of people serving life-without-parole sentences has increased. These two developments, innocence and life-without-parole, are changing the face of the death penalty in the United States.

As I mentioned earlier, however, all the change is not in one direction. The federal death penalty is expanding and there are efforts to broaden it even further. The federal death penalty is being aggressively pursued in the 12 states that do not have capital punishment. The number of people on the federal death row has gone up while the number of people on the states' death rows has declined.

Another disturbing development is happening in California. There are 640 people on death row in California. There have been 11 executions over the past 30 years. That is a system that is on the verge of spilling over its damn. In our system, you cannot stop executions indefinitely. Appeals do run out--there are no "endless appeals." Three executions are scheduled in California over the next few weeks. There could be many more, and that could reverse some of the trends I have been describing.

Finally, there are still many lawmakers who believe strongly in the death penalty and are still trying to accelerate executions. There is proposed legislation entitled the Streamlined Procedures Act, which would drastically curtail death penalty appeals. It currently takes an average of 10 years from sentencing to execution in the United States. Some legislators want to shorten this to 5 years. Of course, the danger with such a system is that some of the 122 innocent people who had been freed from death row would have been executed before the evidence emerged to free them. Those cases took an average of 9 years from sentencing until when the inmates were freed to develop the necessary evidence of innocence. If the executions had occurred after 5 years, many of them would be dead.

We will hear from one of these individuals, Kirk Bloodsworth, shortly. His case was the first case where DNA evidence freed a death row inmate in the United States. That case took many years to develop. If we cut the appeals process down from 10 years to 5 years, we run the risk of executing the typical innocent person instead of freeing him.

So there are clearly trends that counterbalance the decline in the use of the death penalty in the U.S. Nevertheless, I believe that the drop in death sentences is the stronger trend because it has occurred not just this year, but consistently over the past 5 years. Moreover, there are other indications that the death penalty may be on the wane: New York recently rejected an effort to restore its death penalty after it was overturned in the courts. New York was the last state to adopt the death penalty in 1995, and now it has abandoned capital punishment. Texas, which leads the country in executions, just this year adopted the sentence of life without parole. I think we will start to see a decline in death sentences in Texas. Illinois has a moratorium on executions. New Jersey has a moratorium on executions. Many states are considering reforms of their death penalty system. I think the prospects for the future are positive, but there are many competing trends. Hopefully, the international movement away from capital punishment will buttress the turnaround on the death penalty that has been slowly emerging in the United States. Thank you.


Ronald Tabak from the United States: My question is for Mr. Dieter. The two speakers that spoke after you, one of them claimed that abolitionists in the United States are afraid to debate the subject, and the person after that, Mr. Hodgkinson, spoke about the danger of losing in legislatures what you have gained in litigation. I'd like you to comment on those statements in light of what happened in New York after the court decision there and what has happened regarding the mentally retarded and juveniles in the United States following enactment of legislation in various states. Thank you.


All right. Thank you for that question. Of course, the United States strongly embraces democracy and so it is hard to have lasting change unless the people endorse it. There may be decisions from our Supreme Court and laws from our legislatures, but ultimately, if the people are not behind them, such changes are not going to stand, and that is certainly true regarding the death penalty. The death penalty was stopped in 1972 by the Supreme Court, but that moratorium did not last because most people wanted the death penalty. So, at least from the perspective of the United States, I think that what Ron Tabak is hinting at is essential.

There has to be debate among the people if death penalty changes are to last. With respect to outlawing the death penalty for juveniles and the mentally retarded, there first had to be local legislative discussion in many states. If the Supreme Court acted alone, I doubt that the incremental steps that we have been making in limiting the death penalty would be secure. It is not enough simply to have a pronouncement from a judicial body.

Fortunately, I think this local debate about death penalty issues is happening. Lawyers are not the only ones involved in these discussions; there are activists and church groups. The Catholic Church, for example, has been very involved in this issue, and other religious groups are echoing the same sentiments. Many are saying that the death penalty is a culture-of-life issue, and so conservative people are changing their minds on the death penalty, too.

Formerly, liberals were against the death penalty and conservatives were for it. That is rapidly changing. There is openness to dealing with the death penalty on a bipartisan level. For example, I think the country as a whole is accepting of the Supreme Court's decision to eliminate the mentally retarded from the death penalty. That decision is not going to be taken back. I think they are accepting of the decision to exempt juveniles from the death penalty, because of the preparation of groups that paved the way. One example of taking an issue beyond theory and the law is the work of the photographer Toshi Kazama, who is here today and who has personalized the issue of juveniles through his pictures.

I hope that addresses some of the points you raised.


I would like to add a brief comment about life-without-parole sentences, which Marc Mauer will be speaking more about later. The use of these sentences has grown independent of the death penalty. This sentence has emerged from the correctional system—it is invoked for repeat offenders under what we call our "three strikes law." We have life without parole separate from the crisis with the death penalty.

Now that the death penalty is on the defensive in the U.S., life without parole has emerged as the only acceptable alternative to most of the American public. I believe that if the death penalty were struck down, we would also see a reduction in life-without-parole sentences. Because life without parole would then be the most extreme sentence, it would be used for a narrower group of cases. Right now, 1% of the people who commit murder receive the death penalty – a large share of the remaining 99% is receiving life-without-parole sentences. If the death penalty was ended, I think we would still see some defendants, perhaps the "worst" offenders, receiving life without parole. But the majority would receive life with possible consideration of parole. That is perhaps an optimistic view, but I could see it happening.

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Tipping the Scales: Supreme Court Fails to Recognize Danger of Executing the Innocent

The Anniston Star
Section: Opinion
July 2, 2006
Author: Richard C. Dieter
Special to The Star

In deciding a narrow issue about an obscure part of Kansas' death penalty law, the Supreme Court last week revealed a chasm of differing opinions regarding the fundamental reliability of capital punishment in this country. Although the opposing views were widely divergent and sharply expressed, the court did us all a service by identifying the key problem that may decide the future of the death penalty in this country in coming years.

The issue before the court was simply whether Kansas juries should be required to impose the death penalty when they believe that the aggravating and mitigating factors in a case are exactly equal. In a close vote, the court held that it is permissible to allow a tie to go in favor of the state's request for death. The decision, however, is likely to be remembered for a much different debate within it.

Justice David Souter, writing for the four justices in the minority, voiced a strong concern about the dangers of executing innocent defendants. We should not be imposing death sentences in close cases, he noted, because we now have voluminous evidence that many people have been wrongly convicted in death penalty cases. Since "death is different" from every other punishment, we should err on the side of caution.

Justice Antonin Scalia, agreeing with the majority regarding Kansas' law, but writing only for himself, took strong exception to the four justices' concerns about innocence. For one thing, he said, he knew of no recent case where an executed person had been shown to be innocent. If there were such a case, he noted, it would have been "shouted from the rooftops." Moreover, he said, even in cases where inmates had been freed from death row, the problem of innocence was greatly overstated.

Both assertions by Scalia deserve a response. With respect to executing the innocent, Scalia seems not to be fully informed. Just days before his opinion was published, and for the fourth time in the past two years, such a case was indeed being shouted from the rooftops. The story about the probable innocence of Carlos DeLuna, who was executed in Texas in 1989, appeared on "ABC World News," "Nightline" and the front pages of the Chicago Tribune. Major stories and series about two other Texas cases of probable innocence, those of Ruben Cantu and Cameron Willingham, and one case from Missouri, that of Larry Griffin, have also appeared repeatedly in other major papers and wire reports.

Scalia is correct that none of the many DNA exonerations over the past decade have involved someone who was already executed. Unfortunately, DNA evidence is often allowed to deteriorate over time. Moreover, some states have refused to allow access to such evidence after an execution has occurred. So there is not yet incontrovertible proof of such a fatal mistake. But given the thoroughness of the four investigations mentioned above, the probability that such an execution has occurred is high.

Scalia's second assertion is that even cases involving people who have been officially cleared of all the charges that sent them to death row are not a cause for concern. He particularly mentions the cases on the Death Penalty Information Center's innocence list as examples of sounding an unnecessary alarm.

DPIC's list of 123 cases is not the product of subjective judgments about innocence. Rather, it is an objective record of people who have been sentenced to death, whose convictions were overturned, and who were then cleared of all related charges and freed by the justice system. For Scalia, it is improper to call these defendants "innocent." He cites a few cases in which the original prosecutor, or a court reviewing a civil claim for wrongful conviction, expressed a belief that the defendant might still be guilty.

The implications of denying such people the status of innocence are far reaching. The principle that you are innocent until proven guilty is a bedrock principle of our criminal justice system, and it has been a fundamental tenet of every respected judicial system for centuries, going back to biblical times. If a person's status of innocence can be taken away merely because a prosecutor suspects the person of a crime but never proves it in a fair trial, then the state assumes dangerous powers at the expense of the people. No one should have to prove his innocence.

However one may label the people who have been freed, their cases should indeed raise alarms across the country. In all 123 cases, the justice system unanimously convicted the individual and then expressed such certainty in its decision that it sentenced the person to death. This same justice system then reviewed the cases and concluded that each person could not even be convicted of the slightest offense, and they were set free. For every eight individuals who have been executed since 1973, one person has been exonerated and freed from death row. That ratio reflects a terrible record and is ample cause for the court's concern.

Justice Scalia makes one more claim that has been heard often from proponents of the death penalty: that exonerations from death row prove that the system works. In some cases, that is, thankfully, true. But in many other cases, it was only the fortuitous advent of scientific DNA testing that freed the individual, or the dogged work of journalism students, or the pro bono work of a large law firm - services available only to a handful of the thousands of individuals on death row - that saved these lives.

Justice Scalia was certainly right on one point. He said the death penalty has become an "incoherent" system. The faulty construction of much of that system is largely the court's responsibility. But with all its complications, this system too often fails to get the most fundamental job done right: being certain of guilt before anyone is deprived of life. The issue of innocence is very serious and deserves our utmost attention.

Richard Dieter is executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C.

Leilah Rampa/The Anniston Star

Copyright, 2006, The Anniston Star, Consolidated Publishing Co. All Rights Reserved.
Record Number: /ans/raw/07-02-2006/opinion/2006/as-insight-0702-0-6f30s2936.htm

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Catechism and Captial Punishment  

The Vatican issued the definitive Latin language version of its Universal Catechism on September 9, 1997. The primary change in the catechism focuses on legitimate defense and the death penalty . The new version reads: "The traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude . . . recourse to the death penalty when it is the only practical way to efficiently defend the lives of human beings from the unjust aggressor." It continues, "Today, in fact, because the means states have to repress crime efficiently and render [criminals] inoffensive . . the cases where it is absolutely necessary to suppress the guilty are today very rare, if not practically non-existent."

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Statement by Catholic Bishops of Texas on Capital Punishment

October 20, 1997

As spiritual leaders in the community we Catholic Bishops of Texas are acutely aware of the violence in our state. Despite a growing reliance on longer sentences, more prisons, and more executions, our state's crime rate has escalated.

Since the reinstatement of the death penalty in the United States in 1976, the Catholic Bishops of the United States have repeatedly condemned its use as a violation of the sanctity of human life. Capital punishment, along with abortion and euthanasia, is inconsis- tent with the belief of millions of Texans that all life is sacred.

It is important that we address this issue at this time. Since 1976 Texas has executed more than 100 men, some of whom were mentally retarded or mentally ill. We currently have more than 400 men and women on death row.

We sympathize with the profound pain of the victims of brutal crimes; nevertheless, we believe that the compassionate example of Christ calls us to respect the God-given image found even in hardened criminals.

We must now take bolder steps to change the attitude of the American people regarding capital punishment as a means of dealing with a complex issue. It is unfortunate that a large majority of Americans, including Catholics, support capital punishment as a means of dealing with crime, even in light of strong evidence of its ineffectiveness, its racially-biased application, and its staggering costs, both materially and emotionally.

Capital punishment has not proved to be a deterrent to crime. States which have the death penalty do not have lower rates of violent crime than states without the death penalty. All other western democracies have abolished capital punishment and have lower rates of violent crime.

The imposition of the death penalty has resulted in racial bias. In fact, the race of the victim has been proven to be the determining factor in deciding whether to prosecute capital cases. Of those executed, nearly 90% were convicted of killing whites, although people of color are more than half of all homicide victims in the United States. More than 60% of the persons on death rows in California and Texas are either Black, Latino, Asian, or Native American.

In the State of Texas, it costs $2.3 million on an average to prosecute and execute each capital case as compared to $400,000 for life imprisonment.

Tragically, innocent people are sometimes put to death by the state. It has been proven in 350 capital convictions over the past 20 years that the convicted person had not committed the crime. Of these cases, 25 people were executed before their innocence was discovered.

Capital punishment does nothing for the families of victims of violent crime other than prolonging their suffering through many wasted years of criminal proceedings. Rather than fueling their cry for vengeance, the state could better serve them by helping them come to terms with their grief. We applaud the work of support
groups of victims' families who have joined together to work toward reconciliation and rehabilitation of the people who caused tragic loss in their families.

While human logic alone seems to support the abolition of the death penalty, as moral leaders we call for alternatives because of its moral incongruity in today's world. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, "If...non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people's safety from the aggressor, authority will
limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity with the dignity of the human person."

Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm--without definitively taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself--the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.

In our modern society, we have means of keeping an offender from harming others. Although in previous times people of faith have employed capital punishment, today we have the ability to realize better the principles of mercy, forgiveness and unconditional love for alI people, as evoked in the Hebrew Scriptures by the Prophet Ezekiel: "As I live, says the Lord GOD, I swear I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked man, but rather in the wicked man's conversion, that he may live. Turn, turn from your evil ways!"

We believe that capital punishment contributes to a climate of violence in our state. This cycle of violence can be diminished by life imprisonment without parole, when necessary. The words of Ezekiel are a powerful reminder that repentance not revenge, conversion not death are better guides for public policy on the death penalty than the current policy of violence for violence, death for death.

As religious leaders, we are deeply concerned that the State of Texas is usurping the sovereign dominion of God over human life by employing capital punishment for heinous crimes. We implore all citizens to call on our elected officials to reject the violence of the death penalty and replace it with non-lethal means of punishment
which are sufficient to protect society from violent offenders of human life and public order.

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From The Texas Conference of Churches Resolution Opposing the Death Penalty: Adopted unanimously by the General Assembly of the Texas Conference of Churches
February 24, 1998

WHEREAS the Texas Conference of Churches, in 1973 and 1977, and many of the churches and judicatories belonging to the Texas Conference of Churches have made clear statements in opposition to and calling for the abolition of the death penalty; and

WHEREAS the Bible does authorize every government to "bear the sword" (Rom. 13:4) and the governments and nations of this world are also called upon to care for "the least of these brothers and sisters" of Christ (Matt. 25:40) thus imposing upon each government and nation the obligation to respond to human situations and crises with justice and mercy; and

WHEREAS Jesus clearly rejected any ideas of "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth," (Matt 5:28-39), and the God of Israel insisted that "Vengeance is mine, I will repay," (Deut. 32:35; and

WHEREAS in our modern society we have means of keeping an offender from harming others. Although in previous times people of faith have employed capital punishment, today we have the ability to realize better the principles of mercy, forgiveness and unconditional love for all people as evoked in the Hebrew Scriptures by the Prophet Ezekiel: "As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live; turn back from your evil ways." (Ez. 33:11)* and

WHEREAS the evidence is overwhelming that racism, classism and economics are governing factors in administering the death penalty; and that greater numbers of people of color are executed than is reflected in the general population; that mentally incapacitated people and far too many poor and uneducated people have been executed - thus demonstrating the injustice of the current practice of exercising the death penalty; and

WHEREAS we believe that the compassionate example of Christ calls us to respect the God-given image found even in hardened criminals, and we stand in solidarity with the profound pain of the victims of brutal crime,* therefore be it

RESOLVED that the Texas Conference of Churches in Assembly in San Antonio, February 24, 1998, calls on the State of Texas to put an end to the practice of exercising the death penalty and reaffirms its previous resolutions in 1973 and 1977 in opposition to the death penalty; and be it further

RESOLVED that all judicatories, churches, members and caring citizens acknowledge our complicity in the continuing use of and support of the death penalty. When we are silent in the face of injustice, cruelty or oppression, our silence becomes our assent; and be it further

RESOLVED that we call upon all judicatories, churches, members and caring citizens to work in every way possible to oppose the death penalty and to work to create a humane, just and decent society; and be it further

RESOLVED that copies of this resolution be given publicity within the churches of the Texas Conference of Churches, sent to the Governor of Texas, the Lieutenant-Governor, the Attorney General, to the members of the Texas Legislature, to candidates for these offices and to the Chair of the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles.

*These paragraphs are quotations from he Statement of the Catholic Bishops on Capital Punishment, October, 1997.

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Power Over Life and Death - The Power to Save a Life

Opinion; San Francisco Chronicle, January 15, 2005

The governor, under California law, has the power to perform an act of mercy by commuting a sentence of death to life in prison without possibility of parole. We urge him to exercise this power by granting clemency to Donald Beardslee, who is scheduled to be killed by the state of California at 12:01 a.m. on Jan. 19.

We base our appeal not only on specific points of law, but on our broader belief in the dignity of all human life. The violent crimes for which Beardslee has been convicted are atrocious. They are undoubtedly the source of excruciating pain for the victims' family and friends. But the answer to this pain is not more violence.

In the U.S. Catholic Bishops' 1994 statement, "Confronting a Culture of Violence," the signers observed that, "Increasingly, our society looks to violent measures to deal with some our most difficult social problems, [including] crime. But violence is not the solution; it is the most clear sign of our failures."

Similarly, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church said in 1959, "the use of the death penalty tends to brutalize the society that condones it. " Likewise, the United Methodist Church places value on restorative justice rather than that of retribution; the Episcopal Church has stated its opposition to the death penalty since 1957.

We cannot teach that killing is wrong by killing; nor can we stop it. There are many studies showing that crime is not deterred by capital punishment, thus executions are more about revenge than resolution. We object not only to what the death penalty does to the offender, but what it does to us: It undermines our respect for life.

The governor has before him the petition for clemency submitted on behalf of Beardslee. We urge him to read it carefully. It contains not only the tragic circumstances of two people who lost their lives, but also the tragic story of how Beardslee's fate became intertwined with theirs.

The governor will learn that the jury in Beardslee's case was unaware of the extent to which his actions were controlled by lifelong brain damage, a condition compounded by two additional head injuries -- one in a car crash in 1961, and a second caused when a falling tree struck him in the head in 1968. The jury that sentenced him to death never saw the reports, nor heard conclusions drawn by the various physicians who examined Beardslee, that speak to his mental illness and brain dysfunction. The governor will learn that although the jury requested information from the trial court about the punishments imposed on Beardslee's co-defendants, the court refused to provide information showing that the 3 co-defendants who initiated and directed the crimes were either not charged, successfully plea bargained for a lesser sentence, or received a life sentence.

Beardslee's role in the crimes, compared to those of the co-participants and considering his limited mental function, does not warrant the ultimate punishment. But barring the governor's clemency, the injustice of these disparities will result in the state taking Beardslee's life.

The governor will learn that Beardslee, far from seeking to avoid detection, confessed his involvement completely and walked the investigating officers through every step of the crime. After turning in the other participants, Beardslee also testified against them -- obviously with no benefit to himself.

Finally, the governor will learn that the jury's decision to sentence Beardslee to death was based upon the mistaken belief that he would pose a danger to other inmates and guards if sentenced to life without possibility of parole. Since his incarceration, Beardslee has been a model inmate. Comments by California Department of Corrections staff describe his cooperative, helpful nature, extremely positive attitude, hard work and dedication toward self-improvement. In his time at San Quentin Prison, Beardslee has maintained an exemplary record without a single rules violation in more than 20 years of incarceration.

Throughout history, great leaders have been remembered as much for their compassion as their conquests. Abraham Lincoln is honored for his sorrowful wisdom and deep sensitivity as much as his fortitude in the time of our nation's greatest peril. John F. Kennedy fought the Cold War not only with military might, but also with the Peace Corps. Ronald Reagan, considered by many to have put the final nail in the coffin of Soviet Communism, is also remembered as the last California governor to grant clemency in a death penalty case -- in 1967 to Calvin Thomas, who suffered from brain damage similar to Beardslee's.

We recognize that one of the governor's primary responsibilities is to protect the citizens of California from violent crime. Commuting Beardslee's sentence to life without possibility of parole is not a sign of weakness, but a strong and unmistakable statement that our society chooses to protect itself without stooping to the crime for which Beardslee was convicted -- premeditated murder. We urge him to exercise his right of granting clemency to save Beardslee's life. The right to take his life remains with God.

Bishop Richard J. Garcia, Bishop Jerry A. Lamb, Bishop Beverly J. Shamana, Bishop David G. Mullen, Rev. David Thompson

(The Rev. Richard J. Garcia is the Roman Catholic Auxiliary Bishop for the Diocese of Sacramento; Bishop Jerry A. Lamb is the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Northern California; Bishop Beverly J. Shamana is the Bishop of the San Francisco Area of the United Methodist Church; Bishop David G. Mullen is the Bishop of the Sierra Pacific Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, and The Rev. David Thompson is the pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Sacramento)

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National Conference to Focus on Death Penalty Issues

The National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty will hold its national conference at the Fair Lakes Hyatt Hotel in Fairfax, Virginia, October 26-29, 2006.  The NCADP consists of a wide spectrum of groups and individuals opposed to the death penalty.  Among the speakers at this year's event are Theodore Shaw, President of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, Hugo A. Bedau, author and Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at Tufts University, and numerous individuals who were exonerated and freed from death row.  The NCADP will honor individuals who have made outstanding contributions in the death penalty field at an awards dinner on Saturday.

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