On U.S. soil will Pope Francis (please) speak out against the death penalty?

This story appears in the Francis in the United States feature series. View the full series.

by Dani Clark

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On Aug. 25, Nicaraguan Bernardo Tercero sat alone in a small booth on death row in Livingston, Texas, talking through a phone receiver with loved ones on the other side of the glass, not knowing whether he would be killed the next day.

Later that afternoon, the execution was off like a switch. Defense attorneys had won a last-minute reprieve from the Texas courts by contending a key witness had given false testimony at Tercero’s trial for the 1997 murder of Robert Berger. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega claimed Tercero’s rights had been violated and pleaded for clemency.

Putting people to death is a fraught business, and Tercero’s case is no exception. But as executions in Texas continue apace — 10 so far this year — exonerations, botched executions and prosecutorial misconduct have gained widespread attention in the media. Numerous states have repealed the death penalty or established de facto moratoriums in recent years. And death sentences in Texas are actually markedly down (zero so far this year compared with 11 in 2014) — a phenomenon associated with the growing awareness of wrongful convictions.

Indeed, the movement to end the death penalty in the U.S. may be reaching critical mass. The debate is certainly on fire. In August, Nebraskans for the Death Penalty gathered enough signatures to block a legislative repeal of the death penalty, until it can be put to voters via referendum in 2016. And in California, a federal appeals court will review a finding that the death penalty there is arbitrarily applied, potentially commuting the sentences of over 740 prisoners.

Into this state of play steps Pope Francis with his Sept. 22-27 visit to the U.S. In pronouncements, the pope has taken an unequivocal stance against capital punishment, reiterating the church’s opposition by focusing not only on biblical principles, but on the sociology of penal systems and the philosophy of justice. In October 2014, he called Christians and “people of good will” to struggle against the death penalty, “but also to improve prison conditions, out of respect for the human dignity of persons deprived of their liberty.”

“Today the death penalty is inadmissible, no matter how serious the crime of the condemned,” Pope Francis wrote in a March letter to the International Commission against the Death Penalty. “For a State of Law, the death penalty represents a failure, because it obliges it to kill in the name of justice,” he continued.

Will Pope Francis speak out against the death penalty when he’s here? And if so, could it be a turning point? His scheduled visit to the Curran-Fromhold Correctional facility in Philadelphia on Sept. 27 has some wondering — and hoping.

“We need Pope Francis to make a statement against the death penalty on our soil,” said Karen Clifton, director of the Washington, D.C.-based Catholic Mobilizing Network to End the Use of the Death Penalty, which works with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to advocate against the death penalty. “People in this country are not aware of where we fit into this practice, compared to the rest of the world. If Francis spoke out on this issue it would have an extraordinary impact. People — not just Catholics — will listen to him because he is seen as a world figure.”

That the United States is an outlier when it comes to the death penalty worldwide is highlighted in Mario Marazziti’s Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Death Penalty, a compact history of the death penalty and the global abolition movement, and an intimate portrait of injustices in the American system.

"The death penalty keeps America on the other side. Not of the ocean, but of a democracy that is capable of respecting life and human dignity no matter what,” said Marazziti, a prominent member of Italian parliament and spokesperson for the Community of Sant’Egidio — the Catholic NGO and faith community which brokered peace accords in various African civil wars, and spearheaded the effort to get millions of signatures for the U.N. moratorium on the use of the death penalty.

The number of countries which have the death penalty, in law or practice, has been steadily decreasing since the post-World War II era. “What happens in the rest of the world matters for the United States,” Marazziti said.

In his statements, the pope has made clear that for a society to be humane, justice is justice only if it is restorative, that is, without retaliation or revenge.

"Those who support the death penalty on a religious basis make the same terrible mistake of the fundamentalist Islamists that read the Koran under the bloody black flags of the Caliphate,” said Marazziti, who worked side by side with Nelson Mandela to end the genocide in Burundi. "Retribution is a primitive stage of justice.”

Clifton of Catholics Mobilizing Network has come to a similar conclusion: “So what is the death penalty about? It’s vengeance. Vengeance is the only thing holding up the abolishment of the death penalty in this country.”

“As a country we need to self-examine and understand what our true motives for the death penalty are. Francis can help us do that,” Clifton said.

[Dani Clark is a writer and editor at an international development organization in Washington, D.C., and a member of the Community of Sant'Egidio.] 

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