The Common Good
January 2013

It's Time to End the Death Penalty

by Jim Wallis | January 2013

Attitudes toward capital punishment are changing, including among conservatives.

I AM AGAINST the death penalty in principle. The deliberate killing of prisoners does not demonstrate our society's respect for life, which we are trying to teach—especially to those who violate it. We simply should not kill to show we are against killing. It's also easy to make a, yes, fatal mistake, as alarming DNA testing has demonstrated, revealing some death row inmates to be innocent. In addition, the death penalty is clearly biased against poorer people, who cannot afford adequate legal representation, and is outrageously disproportionate along racial lines. The facts are that few white-collar killers sit on death row, and fewer are ever executed. And there is no evidence that capital punishment deters murder; the data just doesn't show that.

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At a retreat I attended a couple of years ago, conservative activist Richard Viguerie approached me and said, "Jim, let's do something together to really shake up politics." Viguerie had become a friend, so I asked him what that might be. "I am a Catholic," Viguerie said. "I am against the death penalty, and I think it's time for conservatives and liberals who agree on that to begin to work together." I was fascinated at the thought of unlikely partners helping to accomplish that together. So we have had several dinner meetings over the last two years with both conservative and liberal leaders—mostly people of faith—to discuss the issue.

Here are some basic facts. There have been 1,312 executions since 1976, when the death penalty was reinstated following a 10-year moratorium. There were 43 prisoners killed in 2011, and 35 so far in 2012. As of April 2012, there were 3,170 people on death row. Forty-two percent are black, 43 percent are white, and 12 percent are Latino. Thirty-three states have the death penalty; 17 have abolished it and several have abolition legislation pending. Since 1973, 141 people have been exonerated and set free from death sentences because of new evidence—people who shouldn't have even been prisoners and were almost killed by the state due to false or faulty evidence. Eighteen of them were released because of DNA evidence. Who knows how many people have been executed unjustly?

CATHOLIC CARDINAL Joseph Bernardin of Chicago, who died in 1996, spoke persuasively and elegantly about "the consistent ethic of life" as a "seamless garment" that protects human life and dignity wherever or however it is threatened. Cardinal Bernardin spoke with compassion, courage, clarity, and conviction. In a 1985 speech, he said: "We desperately need an attitude or atmosphere in society which will sustain a consistent defense and promotion of life. Where human life is considered 'cheap' and easily 'wasted,' eventually nothing is held as sacred and all lives are in jeopardy." Bernardin continued, "The purpose of proposing a consistent ethic of life is to argue that success on any one of the issues threatening life requires a concern for the broader attitude in society about respect for life. Attitude is the place to root an ethic of life."

Both the Left and the Right are selective when it comes to the question of whose lives they want to protect. Bernardin's consistency is so refreshing—especially amid the narrow discussions that dominate our church and state discourse today.

Attitudes toward the death penalty are clearly changing, including among conservatives where past support has been strongest. Some root their growing unease in the number of cases where new evidence suggests that faulty judicial decisions were made. Others see the economically disproportionate and unjust character of the judicial processes that determine guilt or innocence. And the racial disparities are a social scandal. Even political philosophy is being used against the death penalty. One of my favorite lines from one of our conservative/liberal dinners came from a famous anti-government leader who said, "Do you want decisions as important as life and death to be made by the same people who run the post office?"

When Jesus tells us in Matthew 25 to visit the prisoners, I don't believe he thought they were all innocent. Yet prisoners are among those Jesus calls "the least of these" whom we are to treat as we treat him. Perhaps it's because more prisoners come from the bottom of societies than the top. Perhaps it's because a God of grace wants to remind us that there are second chances for all of us who have made big mistakes. Perhaps it's because if we don't respect the lives and dignity of even our society's worst offenders, human life will never be safely protected anywhere.

It is time to end the death penalty, and the first step is a moratorium in every state, so we can have the moral conversation we so desperately need for the soul of our nation.

Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners.

Image: Protesters at an anti-death penalty rally, Robert J. Daveant / Shutterstock.com

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