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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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NEW VOICES: More Than 100 Rabbis Issue Statement Calling for End to the "Cruel Practice" of Capital Punishment

A group of more than 100 rabbis from multiple Jewish denominations have issued a statement expressing their opposition to the use of the death penalty in the United States. The statement, posted by Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz (pictured) in Forward.com’s Scribe—a curated contributor network of Jewish thought—called for an end to the “cruel practice” of capital punishment and “for the beginning of a new paradigm of fair, equitable restorative justice.” The rabbis said that “[a]s Jews and citizens, we believe that governments must protect the dignity and rights of every human being. By using the death penalty, our country fails to live up to this basic requirement.” The rabbis invoked classical Jewish thought that, “[w]hile not categorically opposed to capital punishment, … saw the death penalty as so extreme a measure that they all but removed it from their system of justice.” The Sages, they wrote, “had a very high bar for reliable evidence, were eager to find ways to acquit, and were deeply concerned about the dignity of [the] condemned. In contrast, our American system today lacks the highest safeguards to protect the lives of the innocent and uses capital punishment all too readily.” The rabbis criticized the unreliability, unfairness, and costliness of the death penalty as administered across the U.S., exacerbated by a defendant’s poverty or “lack of access to legal resources.” “The consequences of this system,” they wrote, “are not only fundamentally unjust but also produce racially disparate outcomes.” They also expressed concerned about the system sending innocent people to death row: “too often,” they said, “the wrong person is convicted …. We do not naively believe that everyone on death row is completely innocent of any crime. Yet, it is time to see the death penalty for what it is: not as justice gone awry, but a symptom of injustice as status quo.”


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Louisiana Legislature Considers Bipartisan Measure to Abolish Death Penalty

Three Louisiana legislators, all of them former law enforcement officials, have proposed legislation to abolish the state's death penalty. Sen. Dan Claitor (R-Baton Rouge, pictured), a former New Orleans prosecutor who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, is the primary author of Senate Bill 142, which would eliminate the death penalty for offenses committed on or after August 1, 2017. The bill's counterpart in the House of Representatives, House Bill 101, is sponsored by Rep. Terry Landry (D-Lafayette), a former state police superintendent, with support from Rep. Steven Pylant (R-Winnsboro), a former sheriff. Both bills would replace the death penalty with a sentence of life without parole. In urging repeal, Sen. Claitor said he was "well aware of the need to create an environment that is hostile to violent crime and criminals. Yet," he said, "the death penalty has failed as deterrence to such horrendous criminal activity. Moreover, the death penalty is rarely utilized in Louisiana, and, when it is, the costs of appeals in these cases are extraordinarily burdensome to our law-abiding taxpayers.” Landry, who led the Louisiana State Police portion of the investigation that led to the murder conviction and death sentencing of Derrick Todd Lee, also expressed concerns about the cost and public safety value of the death penalty. "I've evolved to where I am today," he said. "I think it may be a process that is past its time." Louisiana's last execution was in 2010, but the Department of Corrections estimates that housing death row inmates costs $1.52 million per year, and the Louisiana Public Defender Board spends about 28% of its annual budget on capital cases, totaling about $9.5 million last fiscal year. That cost has also contributed to Louisiana's chronic underfunding of public defender services for non-capital cases across the state. The Catholic Church's opposition to the death penalty is also a factor in the heavily Catholic state. Sen. Claitor said his Catholic faith brought about a change of heart on the issue, and Sen. Fred Mills (R-Parks), said a statement of support for repeal, expected to be released by the Louisiana Catholic bishops, "would weigh heavy on me and on the vast majority of my constituents."


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Bishops Ask Georgia Prosecutor to Respect Wishes of Murdered Priest, Drop Death Penalty

Prosecutors in Augusta, Georgia are seeking the death penalty against a man accused of murdering the Rev. Rene Robert (pictured), despite their knowledge that the Franciscan priest had requested that the death penalty not be used "under any circumstances" if he were killed. On January 31, Catholic Bishops from Georgia and Florida traveled to Augusta to meet with Hank Sims, the acting district attorney for the Augusta Judicial Circuit, asking him to respect Reverend Robert's wishes and to withdraw capital charges against Steven Murray. They also delivered a petition signed by more than 7,400 people from Rev. Robert's diocese in St. Augustine, Florida, asking that the Reverend's wishes be honored. In his work as a Catholic priest, Rev. Robert had devoted his life to serving people convicted of crimes and those struggling with addiction and mental health problems. He had worked with Murray through his ministry. Twenty years before he was killed, Rev. Robert signed a "Declaration of Life" that stated: "I hereby declare that should I die as a result of a violent crime, I request that the person or persons found guilty of homicide for my killing not be subject to or put in jeopardy of the death penalty under any circumstances, no matter how heinous their crime, or how much I have suffered." His declaration also requested that the Declaration of Life be admitted as evidence at trial if the prosecution sought the death penalty for his murder, and asked that the Governor “take whatever action is necessary” to prevent any person convicted of his murder from being executed. “During my life," he wrote, "I want to feel confident that under no circumstances whatsoever will my death result in the capital punishment of another human being.” At a press conference before the meeting, St. Augustine Diocese's Bishop Felipe Estevez expressed the bishops' opposition to capital punishment. "Imposing a death sentence as a consequence of killing wrongly perpetuates a cycle of violence in our community," he said. "The death penalty only contributes to an ever-growing disrespect for the sacredness of human life. … Societies remain safe when violent criminals are in prison for life without parole." The views of Rev. Robert and the bishops reflect the Catholic Church's longstanding opposition to the death penalty, which Pope Francis reiterated in an address to Congress in 2015.


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Alabama Faith Leaders Hold Panel on Death Penalty, Spotlight 'Rocky' Myers' Case of Possible Innocence

Inspired by the case of Robin "Rocky" Myers (pictured), an intellectually disabled and possibly innocent Alabama death row prisoner whom an elected state judge sentenced to death despite a 9-3 jury recommendation for life, a panel of faith leaders gathered in Montgomery, Alabama to discuss religious views on the death penalty and the intersection of faith and justice. Before the discussion began, the faith leaders and the audience viewed a screening of a new documentary on Myers' case describing why his lawyers believe he is innocent. The documentary explained that no forensic evidence links Myers to the crime and that the prosecution witness who identified him has since recanted his testimony. Myers' case also highlights other problems in the death penalty system. A neuropsychologist who evaluated Myers diagnosed him with intellectual disability, a condition that would make him ineligible for execution, but courts have not granted him relief. His disability hindered Myers' opportunities to have his appeals heard. His attorney abandoned him without notice, and Myers, who cannot read, did not know his appeal deadlines had expired until a fellow inmate read him a notification letter from the state. Finally, Myers' jury voted 9-3 that he should be sentenced to life, but—in a practice no state other than Alabama still allows— the trial judge overrode the jury's recommendation and sentenced Myers to death. After the film presented Myers' story, leaders from a variety of faith traditions led a discussion about justice and capital punishment. The multi-faith panel included representatives of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam and featured Rabbi Elliot Stevens, Sister Gilda Marie Bell, a Catholic nun of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, and Aya Zaied, a youth leader for the East Montgomery Islamic Society. Zaied summarized Islamic views on the issue, saying, "If you claim Islam, … then justice is your responsibility. We try to teach that to our children really young so they understand if (someone is) hurting, then I’m hurting. We’re all in this together."


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MLK Day 2017: The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the Death Penalty

On Martin Luther King Day, DPIC looks at the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King's views on capital punishment. In a November 1957 article in Ebony, Dr. King was asked "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."  Several months later, Alabama executed Jeremiah Reeves, a young black man who was 16 years old when he was charged with raping a white woman. Tried before an all-white jury, Reeves was convicted and sentenced to death. In April 1958, Dr. King stood on the state capitol steps during a prayer pilgrimage protesting what he called "a 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. It was the severity of Jeremiah Reeves penalty that aroused the Negro community, not the question of his guilt or innocence." Later, in his sermon "Loving Your Enemies," Dr. King preached a philosophy that had no room for capital retribution: "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. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction."


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