NEW VOICES: Pope Francis Calls for Abolition of Death Penalty

Pope Francis called for an end to capital punishment in an address on October 23 to the International Association on Penal Law. "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," the Catholic leader said. He cited the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which says that the death penalty can be used only if it is the "only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor," and that modern alternatives for protecting society mean that "cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity are very rare, if not practically nonexistent." Pope Francis said, "All Christians and people of good will are thus called today to struggle not only for abolition of the death penalty, whether it be legal or illegal and in all its forms, but also to improve prison conditions, out of respect for the human dignity of persons deprived of their liberty." In discussing a variety of criminal justice issues, he critiqued the tendency to focus solely on punishment, rather than addressing broader social issues.

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INTERNATIONAL: Philippines to Host International Conference with Focus on Capital Punishment

An international human rights conference with an emphasis on Asian cultural and religious heritage and a special focus on the death penalty will be held in Manila on October 27-28, 2014. Representatives from the Philippines, India, Japan, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Mongolia, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, and the European Union are expected. The conference is being organized by the Department of Justice of the Philippines and the Community of Sant'Egidio, an international Catholic lay association. The event, the first of its kind in Asia, is titled "No justice without life" and is part of Sant'Egidio's "Cities for Life" campaign. President Benino Aquino of the Philippines will offer remarks to open the conference.

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NEW VOICES: Al Sharpton Debates the Death Penalty at Yale

Baptist minister and civil rights leader Rev. Al Sharpton spoke in opposition to the death penalty in a recent debate at the Yale Political Union. Sharpton noted the dispropotion of blacks who are to sentenced to death compared to whites. He also raised concerns about the risk of executing the innocent, pointing out that many inmates have been exonerated from death row. He said the lower murder rates in states that do not have the death penalty indicate the death penalty does not deter murder. “We are not preventing anything, and we are not providing justice,” he concluded. “We cannot answer murder with murder.” Student representatives from a variety of political groups offered arguments both in favor of and opposed to the death penalty.

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NEW VOICES: Conservatives Speak About the Death Penalty

A growing number of conservatives have stated their opposition to the death penalty. Among them is National Review columnist and American Enterprise Institute fellow Ramesh Ponnuru, who cited his Catholic faith as a reason for the change in his stance. He said he had to overcome his initial emotional response to heinous crimes because, “Our emotional or intuitive reactions are not a sure guide to right and wrong in matters of moral import." He added that the death penalty's declining prominence as a hot-button issue might give conservatives more room to reconsider the position: “Once an issue drops in political salience,” he said, “quieter reflection can take place and people can change their minds.” Ponnuru's views are similar to those expressed earlier by prominent conservative leader Richard Viguerie, who said he has opposed the death penalty for 35 years because of his faith.

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NEW VOICES: Partner of Murdered New Hampshire Police Officer Now Opposes Death Penalty

New Hampshire, which is considering a bill to repeal the death penalty, only has one inmate on death row--Michael Addison, who was convicted of killing a police officer. Now that officer's former partner, John Breckenridge (pictured), has had a change of heart about the death penalty and is calling for an end to capital punishment. Initially, Breckenridge supported a death sentence for Addison, and even spoke in favor of the death penalty before the state's death penalty commission. However, he said his religious faith and conversations with Sister Helen Prejean led him to change his mind: "Given the Catholic view on the sanctity of life and our modern prison system and the means we have to protect society, it became clear to me that as a Catholic I could not justify the very pre-meditated act of executing someone who – for all the evil of his crime and all the permanent hurt he caused others – still lives ... in the possibility of spiritual redemption. That’s where my journey brought me. Do I want to visit Michael Addison or invite him into my home? I do not. Do I occasionally pray for him and his family? I do." Read the op-ed below.

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King's Daughter Says Death Penalty Perpetuates Cycle of Violence

Bernice King, the youngest daughter of Martin Luther King, Jr., encouraged New Hampshire to repeal the death penalty, saying that even though she lost her father and grandmother to murder, "I can’t accept the judgment that killers need to be killed, a practice that merely perpetuates the cycle of violence." She called the death penalty "unworthy of a civilized society," and warned that "retribution cannot light the way to the genuine healing that we need in the wake of heinous acts of violence." She also pointed to the number of people freed from death row after being exonerated as "evidence that mistakes can and do get made in a justice system run by fallible human beings." She invoked her father's message of nonviolence, quoting from his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, “'Nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral questions of our time: the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to oppression and violence.'" Read her op-ed below.

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PUBLIC OPINION: Support for Death Penalty Low Among Christians, Particularly Younger Members

A new poll by the Barna Group found that only 40% of practicing Christians supported the death penalty, and support was even lower among younger Christians. According to the poll released on January 17, only 23% of practicing Christian "millennials" (i.e., those born between 1980 and 2000) agreed with the statement: "The government should have the option to execute the worst criminals." Without regard to their regular practice of their faith, only 42% of Christian baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) and only 32% of millennials agreed with the use of the death penalty. Roxanne Stone, the vice president of publishing at Barna, said, "This parallels a growing trend in the pro-life conversation among Christians to include torture and the death penalty as well as abortion. For many younger Christians, the death penalty is not a political dividing point but a human rights issue." 

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