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.

(Transcript, 2018 ABA Annual Meeting, Has The Death Penalty Evolved Into An Anachronism?, American Bar Association, August 2, 2018.) See Religion and Arbitrariness.