Death penalty opposition intensifies

Laura Peredo, president of Ravens Respect Life at Benedictine College of Atchinson, Kan., speaks at a news conference in the rotunda of the Kansas Capitol in Topeka March 17. Peredo was one of a group of Kansas conservative leaders calling for repeal of their state's death penalty. (CNS/Courtesy of Kansas Coalition Against the Death Penalty)

Catholics, fellow Christians, Pope Francis and even pharmacists intensified opposition to the death penalty as Easter approached and the U.S. Supreme Court moved closer to reviewing the legality of lethal injections in late April.

In a March 31 statement directed at politicians and others in criminal justice sectors, nearly 400 Catholic and evangelical leaders said the occasion of Holy Week prompted them to "speak out with renewed urgency against the death penalty."

"Torture and execution is always a profound evil, made even more abhorrent when sanctioned by the government in the name of justice when other means of protecting society are available. ... We urge governors, prosecutors, judges and anyone entrusted with power to do all that they can to end a practice that diminishes our humanity and contributes to a culture of violence and retribution without restoration," the letter said.

Among the document's signers were three retired Catholic bishops, presidents of eight Catholic universities, the president of the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States, and the heads of numerous social justice organizations. Others included retired U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See Miguel Díaz, St. Joseph Sr. Helen Prejean, Social Service Sr. Simone Campbell, and the Rev. Jim Wallis.

Together, the signers asked Christian public officials to join them in prayer "to meditate on the wounds of injustice that sicken our society."

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"In many ways, capital punishment is the rotten fruit of a culture that is sown with the seeds of poverty, inequality, racism and indifference to life," they said.

In separate statements, Nebraska's bishops also called for ending capital punishment and reforming their state's criminal justice system, while a Kansas prelate joined the state's faith leaders in voicing their opposition.

Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Kan., and 430 other religious leaders signed a Feb. 11 letter to Kansas legislators calling for the end of capital punishment. Their opposition, he told The Topeka Capital-Journal, stemmed not from failing to appreciate the horror of the crime, "but because we refuse to imitate violent criminals."

The March 17 joint statement from the Nebraska bishops said that while the Catholic church allows capital punishment under specific conditions, "we do not believe that those conditions exist in Nebraska at this time." They said that the "purposes of a criminal justice system are rehabilitation, deterrence, public safety and the restoration of justice."

"We must all be careful to temper our natural outrage against violent crime with a recognition of the dignity of all people, even the guilty," the bishops said.

In Utah, Salt Lake City Bishop John Wester denounced the state's decision to reinstate execution by firing squad for those convicted of capital crimes, saying, "It seems as if our government leaders have substituted state legislation for the law of God. ... By taking a life, in whatever form the death penalty is carried out, the state is usurping the role of God."

The law, signed March 23, permits firing squads if the state cannot, 30 days prior to an execution, obtain the drugs for lethal injections -- increasingly difficult due to European restrictions and pharmaceutical reluctance.

Other states have also examined alternatives to lethal injection, with Wyoming working to permit firing squads and Oklahoma considering the use of nitrogen gas. In California, where capital punishment has been on hold since 2006, Gov. Jerry Brown has requested $3.2 million to open 100 additional cells on the nation's largest death row (more than 700 inmates) at San Quentin State Prison, which nears running out of room.

At its annual meeting held in San Diego, the American Pharmacists Association voted March 30 to adopt a policy that "discourages pharmacist participation in executions on the basis that such activities are fundamentally contrary to the role of pharmacists as providers of health care."

Thomas Menighan, executive vice president and CEO of the association of 62,000 members, said that the new policy aligns pharmacists with other major health care associations, such as the American Board of Anesthesiology, the American Nurses Association and the American Medical Association, which has discouraged doctor participation in executions since 1980. In 1992, the Code of Medical Ethics forbade such involvement outside of prescribing sedation or signing the death certificate.

The Supreme Court is expected to hear arguments April 29 in the Glossip v. Gross case involving Oklahoma lethal injection protocols. The court last heard a similar case in 2008. The ruling is expected before late June. On March 30, the court heard oral arguments in the case of Kevan Brumfield of Louisiana, who is asking it to reconsider his death sentence due to mental disabilities.

In a similar case, the court rejected arguments to spare the life of Cecil Clayton, Missouri's oldest death row inmate at age 74, because part of his frontal lobe was removed in a 1972 accident. Clayton, convicted of murdering sheriff's deputy Chris Castetter in 1996, was executed March 17.

In issuing their statement during Holy Week, the Christian leaders noted they took their cue from Pope Francis, who was to lead Christians on Good Friday in reflecting on the connections between Jesus' death on the cross and modern-day use of the death penalty. As part of the "Way of the Cross" service in the Colosseum, Francis and other participants were to pause at the 11th station -- Jesus nailed to the cross -- to meditate on how Christ's crucifixion resonates with today's capital punishment practices.

"We gaze at you, Jesus, as you are nailed to the cross. And our conscience is troubled," the prepared reflection read. "We anxiously ask: When will the death penalty, still practiced in many states, be abolished? When will every form of torture and the violent killing of innocent persons come to an end? Your Gospel is the surest defense of the human person, of every human being."

In recent months, Francis has ramped up his opposition to the death penalty. Two weeks before Good Friday, he called the death penalty "unacceptable" in a letter to representatives of the International Commission Against the Death Penalty. He reinforced the church's teaching that defends life from conception to natural death and supports full human dignity.

"Justice is never reached by killing a human being," Francis said.

Capital punishment, he continued, "entails cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment, as is the anguish before the moment of execution and the terrible suspense between the issuing of the sentence and the execution of the penalty, a form of 'torture' which, in the name of correct procedure, tends to last many years and which oftentimes leads to illness and insanity on death row."

In October, Francis called for ending not just the death penalty but life imprisonment. The Vatican removed life imprisonment from its penal codes in September 2013 and has barred capital punishment in its state since 1969.

[Brian Roewe (broewe@ncronline.org) is an NCR staff writer. Soli Salgado (ssalgado@ncronline.org) is an NCR Bertelsen intern.]

This story appeared in the April 10-23, 2015 print issue under the headline: Death penalty opposition intensifies .

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