Often enough on this page we have spoken of finding hope in the long haul. It is a phrase, or at least a sentiment, familiar to anyone working for social change. Change comes slowly, in tiny increments, but happen it will if the case can be made and people see sense in it.
Nothing exemplifies the slow march to change more than the way social attitudes are beginning to switch on the matter of the death penalty.
As the story on Page 5 points out, the tide that rose in 1976 when the Supreme Court lifted the ban on capital punishment may be starting to turn. So far 1,063 people have been executed. During the same period, 123 inmates have been exonerated.
The death penalty is racist, irreversible and far too often wrong.
If the tide is turning, don’t expect a quick reversal. First, it’s only a handful of states and they’re states that rarely execute anyone. In those states — New Jersey, New Mexico, Maryland, Montana, Colorado and Nebraska — the efforts run from committees recommending abolition of the death penalty to bills passed by one branch of the legislature or by legislative committees. Still, the signs of change are encouraging.
The changing mood on the death penalty appears to be the result of a variety of forces that might loosely fall into two categories: hard evidence and relentless advocacy.
One of the first breakthroughs came in 1994 when Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, who had supported the death penalty throughout his career on the bench, came to the conclusion that he could no longer support death penalty laws.
“Rather than continue to coddle the court’s delusion that the desired level of fairness has been achieved and the need for regulations eviscerated,” he said, “I feel morally and intellectually obligated simply to concede that the death penalty experiment has failed.”
Reflecting on Blackmun’s change of heart, then-Archbishop (now Cardinal) J. Francis Stafford wrote in NCR, “Ours has become a society imprisoned within a climate of violence. To approve the taking of life by the state sanctions further violence. The temptation is to seek revenge under the guise of justice. But revenge is not ours to seek.”
The door to the death chamber was thrown open and the experience of people on death row revealed by Sr. Helen Prejean in her 1993 book Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States. In the book she examines not only what happens to those condemned to die but also the deeply disturbing effects it can have on ordinary people caught up in the machinery of carrying out sentences.
The push against the death penalty received another boost when the Catholic church revised its official catechism to reflect stronger reservations about the death penalty. The catechism leaves little room for the use of capital punishment outside of narrowly defined extreme circumstances where a convicted murderer could not be satisfactorily confined by the state.
Something instinctive, certainly consonant with Christian tradition and, in a broader sense, with human experience, seems to keep eroding society’s trust in the death penalty.
As Stafford expressed it in 1994, “There’s no convincing evidence that capital punishment deters those crimes it intends to punish. Support for the death penalty means that we believe it is impossible to transform the heart of the sinner, so the sinner must be blotted out with the sin. In effect, it means we’ve lost confidence in the power of conversion.”
It was not only the possibility of conversion that disappeared with an executed prisoner. Too often the possibility existed that innocence itself was killed.
In 2000, a nationwide study of how the system worked since 1976 revealed “a capital punishment system that is collapsing under the weight of its own mistakes.” The study concluded that nearly every state with the death penalty had such serious mistakes in capital convictions that more than half their death sentences were overturned. When cases with errors were retried, 82 percent resulted in a sentence less than death. Seven percent of cases that were retried ended with verdicts of innocence.
Use of new DNA evidence further increased the rate of reversal of cases, making the point emphatically that mistakes in the system were hardly a rare occurrence.
Even with all the evidence and the work, progress is slow. Those who work for justice, particularly among those most easily ignored, know that fidelity to the cause is as important at times as results. So the work will go on. But the conclusion is clear: The state needs to get out of the killing business.
National Catholic Reporter, March 16, 2007
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