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Will the U.S. Finally End the Death Penalty?

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In the past, abolition efforts have faced a backlash—but Gavin Newsom’s moratorium may be different.
The American death penalty is extraordinarily fragile, with death sentences and executions on the decline. Public support for the death penalty has diminished. The practice is increasingly marginalized around the world. California, with its disproportionately large share of American death-row inmates, announces an end to the death penalty. The year? 1972. That’s when the California Supreme Court declared the death penalty inconsistent with the state’s constitutional prohibition of cruel or unusual punishments—only to have the death penalty restored a year later through popular initiative and legislation.
On Wednesday, again, California walked back its commitment to the death penalty. Though not full-fledged abolition, Governor Gavin Newsom declared a moratorium on capital punishment lasting as long as his tenure in office, insisting that the California death penalty has been an “abject…

Thou Shalt Not Kill

Pope Francis
Pope Francis declares capital punishment unambiguously wrong. No exceptions.

Pope Francis’s condemnation of capital punishment is simple and unambiguous: It is inadmissible. No exceptions for especially heinous crimes; no loopholes allowing execution when other lives might be in jeopardy, as in past Catholic teachings. No, declared the pope; state-sanctioned killing is always an unjustifiable attack on the dignity of human life, it’s always wrong.

That it is. It is an arbitrary and hugely expensive barbarism whose victims in the United States are often black, poor or mentally disturbed — and sometimes innocent. Over the past 45 years, when 1,479 people were executed in this country, 162 people sentenced to death have been exonerated. All the arguments for executing criminals have been debunked: It is useless as a deterrent and it does not save lives by getting rid of murderers. Many countries, including nearly all Western democracies with the shameful exception of the United States, have rejected it.

Since his election to the papacy five years ago, Francis has introduced a less formal, more pragmatic and progressive approach to his ministry, taking strong stands on issues like climate change and consumerism. His approach has often drawn criticism from Catholic conservatives, and the new teaching on the death penalty is bound to generate a heated debate — indeed it already has — on what it means for Catholic judges and politicians in the United States.

The church’s new position on the death penalty carries no formal punishment for defying it, but in eliminating any ambiguity it does compel Catholic officials at least to find concrete reasons to not abide by it. Four Supreme Court justices are Catholic, as is Brett Kavanaugh, President Trump’s nominee for the court; among governors, Pete Ricketts of Nebraska, a Catholic and staunch supporter of the death penalty, has already declared that he will not block an execution scheduled for  this month.

There will also be conservative Catholics who reject the pope’s reasoning for changing his church’s teaching on capital punishment after centuries in which it was tolerated. A letter to  bishops accompanying the revised teaching explained at length that it was a development of the teachings of the last two popes, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, reflecting changes in awareness that had taken place in recent times.

Yet the importance of the pope’s definitive rejection of capital punishment is not solely for Catholics, or for Christians, as the Vatican made clear in saying that the church would work “for its abolition worldwide.”

Capital punishment has been long abandoned across Europe and indefinitely suspended in Russia, and even in the United States its use has been declining for years. There were 23 executions in 2017, compared to 98 in 1999, and 14 so far this year. And though 31 states still allow the death penalty, only 10 have carried out executions since 2014.

The man awaiting execution in Nebraska is a prime example of the absurdity of capital punishment. Carey Dean Moore, now 60, has been on death row for 38 years and few Nebraskans remember what he was condemned for. How taking his life would serve justice is a mystery even to many state legislators, who voted to repeal the death penalty in 2015, only to have Governor Ricketts lead a campaign to restore it.

President Trump would most likely be on Mr. Ricketts’ side, not the pope’s.  The president has expressed  support for the death penalty several times, as in this tweet after a man killed eight people with a truck in New York City last October: “NYC terrorist was happy as he asked to hang ISIS flag in his hospital room. He killed 8 people, badly injured 12. SHOULD GET DEATH PENALTY!”

In fact, very few of those who have been executed or are on death row committed anything as monstrous as that terror attack by Sayfullo Saipov, who is awaiting trial. Yet even the most serious crimes, in Pope Francis’s view, do not deprive the perpetrator of the “dignity of the person,” and modern prisons are fully capable of protecting citizens from him or her.

For those who have long opposed capital punishment as cruel and pointless, as has this page, the only lingering question is why the Catholic Church or any religious denomination that still condones executions would take so long to recognize that they are simply inadmissible. The same can be asked of Americans, whose Constitution so clearly prohibits cruel and unusual punishment.

Source: The New York Times, The Editorial Board, August 3, 2018


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"One is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed,
but by the punishments that the good have inflicted." -- Oscar Wilde

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