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In the crosshairs of conscience: John Kitzhaber's death penalty reckoning

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To cope with his dread, John Kitzhaber opened his leather-bound journal and began to write.
It was a little past 9 on the morning of Nov. 22, 2011. Gary Haugen had dropped his appeals. A Marion County judge had signed the murderer's death warrant, leaving Kitzhaber, a former emergency room doctor, to decide Haugen's fate. The 49-year-old would soon die by lethal injection if the governor didn't intervene.
Kitzhaber was exhausted, having been unable to sleep the night before, but he needed to call the families of Haugen's victims.
"I know my decision will delay the closure they need and deserve," he wrote.
The son of University of Oregon English professors, Kitzhaber began writing each day in his journal in the early 1970s. The practice helped him organize his thoughts and, on that particular morning, gather his courage.
Kitzhaber first dialed the widow of David Polin, an inmate Haugen beat and stabbed to death in 2003 while already serving a life sentence fo…

Nebraska: Death Penalty Supporters Distorting Catholic Church Position

Pope Francis
Pope Francis
LINCOLN, NE – Dan Parsons, former special assistant to the Nebraska Attorney General, and communications director for Retain a Just Nebraska, the ballot committee advocating against bringing back the death penalty, said today the pro-death penalty campaign is distorting the Catholic Church's position.

Bob Evnen, co-founder of Nebraskans for the Death Penalty, told an audience at Northeast Community College in Norfolk earlier this year, that the Catholic Church is not opposed to the death penalty.

In a story aired statewide today on Nebraska Public Radio, as part of a NET News project “Classroom Conversations: Nebraska’s Death Penalty Vote”, Evnen had the following exchange with Parsons:

Parsons noted “the Catholic church is against the death penalty (and) you rarely see Catholic bishops take a strong stand on a moral issue like this other than maybe abortion.”

Evnen disagreed with Parsons assessment. “I don't think that the Catholic church is opposed to the death penalty.”

Evnen noted what while he, like Parsons, is not Catholic either, he has read of archbishops declaring the death penalty is “fundamental to the observance of the sixth commandment, which is thou shalt not murder.”

Parsons noted that all three Nebraska Bishops have signed a statement encouraging support for ending the death penalty in Nebraska as well as the last three Popes.

The Catholic bishops of Nebraska invite all people of goodwill to join them in their continued opposition to the death penalty.

Justice requires punishment, but it does not require that those who have committed serious crimes be put to death. The death penalty does not provide rehabilitation to convicted criminals. There is no clear evidence that executions deter crime. Racial minorities and the poor are disproportionately sentenced to death, often as a consequence of racial bias or inadequate defense due to an inability to pay for better representation. Other means are available to punish criminals and to protect society that are more respectful of human life.

For the Catholic community, this issue – like all life issues – involves more than public policy. It involves our faith and the central principle that human life is sacred. Reflection on the God-given dignity of every human person should guide all our decisions about life, including refraining from the use of the death penalty. This is the message Nebraska’s three bishops will take to the state’s 375,000 Catholics in the coming year to encourage support for upholding the prohibition of the death penalty.

Most Rev. George J. Lucas, Archbishop of Omaha
Most Rev. James D. Conley, Bishop of Lincoln
Most Rev. Joseph G. Hanefeldt, Bishop Grand Island

Earlier this year, Pope Francis reiterated his commitment to ending the death penalty.

"The commandment ‘You shall not kill,’ has absolute value and applies to both the innocent and the guilty.”

Pope Francis noted that while historically the Catholic Church allowed for the death penalty in extreme cases when it was necessary to protect society, the teaching has been evolving since St. John Paul II. With modern prisons and law enforcement, the last three Pontiffs have supported efforts to end the death penalty.

Appealing to the importance of Christian grace and redemption, Pope Francis stated,

“In effect, modern societies have the possibility to efficiently repress crime without taking away definitely the possibility to redeem oneself from those who committed.”

The Pope’s view is in sync with statements the Nebraska Catholic Bishops have made about Nebraska’s death penalty. Last spring, before the Unicameral voted overwhelmingly to end Nebraska's death penalty, the Nebraska Bishops issued a statement that read in part:

“The death penalty is not necessary in Nebraska. The purposes of a criminal justice system are rehabilitation, deterrence, public safety, and the restoration of justice. The death penalty does not provide rehabilitation to convicted criminals. There is no clear evidence that executions deter crime. Public safety can be assured through other means. And justice requires punishment, but it does not require that those who have committed capital crimes be put to death.”

Source: Retain a Just Nebraska, September 12, 2016. Retain a Just Nebraska is a public education campaign to urge the retention of LB 268, the Nebraska Legislature’s vote to end the death penalty. Supporters include fiscal conservatives, law enforcement officials, faith leaders, murder victims’ families, and Nebraskans from all walks of life. It is a statewide coalition conducting public education on the smart alternative of life in prison without parole, which protects society without the many problems of our death penalty system.

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