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Issue Date:  January 11, 2008

Death penalty opposition grows

Jonathan Hoffman, convicted in a shooting death in North Carolina in 1995, earned a new trial in 2004 and then had all charges against him dropped in December 2007 when prosecutors ruled they didn’t have enough evidence against him. That decision was made, in part, when the prosecution’s former star witness recanted his testimony and admitted that he had lied to retaliate against the defendant.

Hoffman is the latest of 126 death row inmates since 1973 who have been released from death row because new evidence, or a lack of it, was discovered.

That number alone, representing a wide range of cases showing an array of deficiencies, ineptitude and incompetence in the justice system when it comes to dealing with capital offenses, ought to be enough to inspire a major federal initiative to end the death penalty.

No one is expecting any such action soon. But forces, including the persistent realization of how wrong our justice system can be when it condemns someone to death, are beginning to significantly alter the conversation.

New Jersey, for instance, became the first state in decades to abolish the death penalty when Gov. Jon S. Corzine signed a bill Dec. 17, declaring an end to what he termed “state-endorsed killing.”

Of the 36 remaining states that have the death penalty, a number have suspended executions until the U.S. Supreme Court rules on whether the normal procedure for lethal injections violates the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

In another development, the Vatican intervened to aid those seeking a resolution at the United Nations (see story) in favor of a global moratorium on the death penalty. The resolution was sponsored by 10 nations, eight of which are Catholic majority states where bishops and Catholic associations have been in the forefront of the battle against the death penalty.

While the resolution passed in the General Assembly with 104 nations voting for it, one sad and telling element of the story is that the United States was among the 54 nations that opposed the nonbinding resolution, joining the likes of China and Iran, where state-sanctioned killing still occurs.

While the U.N. resolution will have little practical consequence in countries that still permit capital punishment, it nonetheless provided a valuable measure of the state of the question globally and of the significance the church places on ridding the world of the practice.

At one point in the process, Egypt tried to scuttle the resolution by introducing an antiabortion amendment, something the Vatican, of course, would love to see approved by the General Assembly. The Vatican made clear, however, that it would not want such an amendment to block the death penalty measure, an action that many claim saved the resolution. It also moved the church closer to the world’s abolitionist camp on the question.

In sorting out the issues in such a way, the Vatican displayed the kind of political savvy and sophistication that our own religious leaders might benefit from using in navigating the sometimes choppy waters of U.S. electoral politics.

Much of the rest of the developed world, including the Vatican, which once had its own executioner, has come to the conclusion that capital punishment is barbaric and unnecessary. No widespread fear of convicted murderers haunts the land. As a society, we have become expert in sealing off such threats from the rest of the culture.

Certainly the American bishops could turn up the heat on politicians regarding the death penalty. Unlike abortion, where the decision rests with an individual, the death penalty, like war, is carried out by the state acting in our name. As in war, the state administering the death penalty spends our money and resources to kill in the name of the people.

Some say, of course, that justice demands death for killing. Others say the death penalty is a deterrent to further crime.

Of the latter, the claim is simply false, repudiated repeatedly by decades of statistics from states and countries that both permit and ban the death penalty.

As for justice, one can certainly understand the rage of victims’ families and friends, the wish for compensation in kind -- killing for killing -- but laws of all sorts keep us from lashing out and seeking what we think is justified vengeance when we are wronged.

There is little satisfaction, in the end, from matching killing with killing, said Sr. Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking and one of the era’s most compelling advocates for abolishing the death penalty. “It is an illusory thing, like drinking salt water when you are thirsty,” Prejean once said in an interview, “as though by watching another person die you could ever be healed.”

Law and the justice system should mediate between an understandable if raw wish for revenge and the good of the larger society. The justice system should not be an accomplice in unbridled retribution.

National Catholic Reporter, January 11, 2008

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