PUBLIC OPINION: American Values Survey Shows Even Split on Death Penalty, with More Catholics Opposed

According to the 2012 American Values Survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute, Americans are now evenly divided on whether the death penalty or life without parole is the appropriate punishment for murder, while Catholics more strongly favor life sentences. The September survey found that 47% of respondents favored life without parole, while 46% opted for the death penalty.  The poll showed that life without parole was favored by Democrats (57%), African-Americans (64%), Hispanic-Americans (56%), and millennials (age 18 to 29) (55%). Support for the death penalty was stronger among Republicans (59%), Tea Party members (61%), and white Americans (53%).  Catholic respondents favored life without parole by a greater margin (52% to 41%) than the general population. Moreover, Catholics who attended church at least once a week were even more opposed to the death penalty (57% to 37% favoring life without parole) than those who attended less frequently.

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MENTAL ILLNESS: Evangelical Leaders Call for Mercy for Condemned Inmate

On September 26, Florida Governor Rick Scott (pictured) agreed to temporarily stay the pending execution of John Errol Ferguson in order to allow time for a panel of psychiatrists to determine whether Ferguson is mentally competent. The day before, evangelical leaders, including Dr. Joel C. Hunter, Senior Pastor of the 15,000-member Northland Church in Central Florida, sent a letter to the governor urging that Ferguson be allowed to live. They wrote, “The State’s psychiatrists have consistently found, over 40 years, that Mr. Ferguson suffers from severe schizophrenia and mental impairment. Now a senior citizen, he still suffers from delusions and hallucinations....The jurors at Mr. Ferguson’s sentencing hearings did not hear evidence of his extreme and long-term mental illness, the horrific abuse he experienced as a child, or the traumatic brain injury he suffered as a result of a gunshot wound to his head as a young man, which further contributed to his mental illness. Any one of these factors might have persuaded his juries to spare his life and sentence him to life in prison, but his attorneys failed to present any mitigating evidence to the jurors.”  The letter concluded, "Our system must be humane and hold life sacred, while taking every step possible to support and facilitate the healing of victims."

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NEW VOICES: Philadelphia Archbishop Denounces Death Penalty and Urges Clemency for Terrance Williams

In his weekly column, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia voiced the Catholic Church's ongoing opposition to the death penalty in the U.S. and called for clemency for Pennsylvania death row inmate Terrance Williams. "We don’t need to kill people to protect society or punish the guilty. And we should never be eager to take anyone’s life," the Archbishop said. He addressed the needs of murder victims' families, saying "Turning away from capital punishment does not diminish our support for the families of murder victims. They bear a terrible burden of grief, and they rightly demand justice."  He concluded, "When we take a murderer’s life we only add to the violence in an already violent culture, and we demean our own dignity in the process." He particularly urged clemency for Williams, who is scheduled to be executed in October.  Chaput noted that Williams' attorneys have said he "was repeatedly sexually abused as a youth, including five years of abuse at the hands of the man he murdered, and this helped motivate his violence....Terrance Williams deserves punishment. No one disputes that. But he doesn’t need to die to satisfy justice. We should think very carefully in the coming days about the kind of justice we want to witness to our young people."

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PUBLIC OPINION: Public Finds Death Penalty Less Morally Acceptable in New Gallup Survey

GallupMoral2Gallup recently released its Values and Beliefs survey regarding American moral views on a variety of social issues.  The results revealed a significant decline in the percentage of the public that finds the death penalty "morally acceptable."  This year, only 58% of respondents said the death penalty is morally acceptable, down from 65% last year. (Click on graph to enlarge.)  This marks the lowest approval rating for capital punishment since this survey was first administered 12 years ago. Among Democrats, only 42% found the death penalty morally acceptable.  Generally, support for the death penalty falls below 50% when the public is offered alternative punishments.  In 2010, Gallup asked which is the better punishment for murder: the death penalty or life in prison without parole?  Less than half (49%) chose the death penalty, while 46% chose life without parole.

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NEW VOICES: Texas's Baptist Standard Advocates Ending Death Penalty

An editorial in the Baptist Standard, published in Texas, recently called for repealing the death penalty in the next legislative session. Among the reasons cited by the paper for ending capital punishment were principles of religious faith, the risk of executing innocent defendants, its ineffectiveness in deterring crime, the high costs of prosecution, and its unfairness in affecting the poor and people of color. The editorial quoted the recent report from the National Research Council criticizing the "fundamental flaws in the research" about deterrence and discouraging reliance on such studies to support the death penalty. The paper concluded, “[T]he possibility—and almost certain likelihood—the state periodically executes innocent people should propel capital punishment beyond the pale of possibility. . . . Since we know the courts can make grievous mistakes, how can we say we value life and perpetuate a program that sometimes kills innocent people?”  Read full editorial below.

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BOOKS: "The Inferno: A Southern Morality Tale"

A new book, "The Inferno: A Southern Morality Tale," by Joseph Ingle, chronicles the compelling story of Philip Workman, who was executed in Tennessee in 2007. The author, a minister of the United Church of Christ who has spent decades working with those on death row, served as Mr. Workman's pastor and tells the story from his own viewpoint, as well as those of others familiar with the case. Sister Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking, called The Inferno "the most detailed, intimate and complete look at a death row prisoner that I have encountered."  Workman's case gained attention because of serious doubts about his guilt. His conviction was based largely on the testimony of a single eyewitness, who later admitted he was not present at the scene of the crime. Sr. Prejean said, "This is a remarkable book . . . that will leave your soul transformed." The book will be released April 2 and is available for pre-order through

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RELIGIOUS VIEWS: "Diminishing All of Us: The Death Penalty In Louisiana"

A recent study published by the Jesuit Social Research Institute of Loyola University pointed to numerous problems with Louisiana’s death penalty.  In particular, the study found:
- Per capita, Louisiana has one of the highest wrongful-conviction rates in the country. More people have been exonerated in Louisiana in the last ten years than executed.
- Within Louisiana’s most aggressive death penalty districts, white victims are disproportionately targeted for the death penalty by district attorneys.
- The death penalty is applied in only 1% of murder cases; of the other 99% of cases, many go unsolved.
- The death penalty in Louisiana has not been reserved for “the worst of the worst” defendants. Louisiana’s death row is overrepresented by individuals with childhood trauma, intellectual disabilities, and mental illnesses.
- Reforms are needed to better assist families of murder victims, including allocating more resources to address unsolved murders and improving access to counseling and mental health services.

The study also reviewed Catholic social teaching on capital punishment.  Read a short summary of the report here.

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