Giving up on the Death Penalty

Last October, the American Law Institute, the group that established standards for the death penalty in America, voted to withdraw its support of the practice it helped to define. This decision, according to New York Times columnist Adam Liptak, "represents a tectonic shift in legal theory." In his most recent column, he descirbes it as the single most significant development surrounding the death penalty in the past year.

Liptak writes:

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The institute’s recent decision to abandon the field was a compromise. Some members had asked the institute to take a stand against the death penalty as such. That effort failed.

Instead, the institute voted in October to disavow the structure it had created “in light of the current intractable institutional and structural obstacles to ensuring a minimally adequate system for administering capital punishment.”

That last sentence contains some pretty dense lawyer talk, but it can be untangled. What the institute was saying is that the capital justice system in the United States is irretrievably broken.

A study commissioned by the institute said that decades of experience have proved that the system cannot reconcile the twin goals of individualized decisions about who should be executed and systemic fairness. It added that capital punishment is plagued by racial disparities; is enormously expensive even as many defense lawyers are underpaid and some are incompetent; risks executing innocent people; and is undermined by the politics that come with judicial elections.

Roger S. Clark, who teaches at Rutgers School of Law in Camden, N.J., and was one of the leaders of the movement to have the institute condemn the death penalty outright, said he was satisfied with the compromise. “Capital punishment is going to be around for a while,” Professor Clark said. “What this does is pull the plug on the whole intellectual underpinnings for it.”

The decision does not mean an immediate end to the death penalty, but it may indicate some interesting legal and ethical developments are in store for 2010.

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Beth Cioffoletti
7 years 10 months ago
Thank you God and thank you Adam Liptak.  It's amazing how long it can take to dismantle this monster, but at least it's on its way out.
 
Not only is the capital justice system irretrievably broken, but the entire U.S. justice system is corrupt.  Adam Liptak understands this as well, or better, than most legal writers.  He makes it his business to get to know, personally, those who are trapped in the American legal system and does what he can to bring these unbelievable stories of injustice to the light of day.
 
I wish that there a hundred more writers like him.
 
 
 
John Smythe
7 years 10 months ago
It really does not matter one iota in the least if the death penalty is outlawed or not.  The simple fact of the matter is that atrocities against Social Justice are being committed and will still continue to be committed. 
 
Until they are truly addressed putting a mere "band-aid" upon a festering terminal illness will solve nothing - in fact, it would only hurt things more by the simple false pretention of something being done and the lie that things are being made better.  Since lying is a sin, period, it would truly be tantamount to committing a sin by banning capital punishment alone.
 
Capital punishment is not a sin and never has been.  Nor will it be. 
 
This is clearly stated in the Catechism:
 
Capital Punishment
 
2266 The State's effort to contain the spread of behaviors injurious to human rights and the fundamental rules of civil coexistence corresponds to the requirement of watching over the common good. Legitimate public authority has the right and duty to inflict penalties commensurate with the gravity of the crime. The primary scope of the penalty is to redress the disorder caused by the offense. When his punishment is voluntarily accepted by the offender, it takes on the value of expiation. Moreover, punishment, in addition to preserving public order and the safety of persons, has a medicinal scope: as far as possible it should contribute to the correction of the offender.[67]
 
2267 The traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude, presupposing full ascertainment of the identity and responsibility of the offender, recourse to the death penalty.
Austen Ivereigh
7 years 10 months ago

Dr Smythe, I'm sorry that you think readers of this site so naive that they will be convinced by your deliberate exclusion of the rest of #2267 of the Catechism. Here it is in full (2nd edition, available at the US bishops' website):

Assuming that the guilty party's identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor. If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people's safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity with the dignity of the human person. Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm—without definitively taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself—the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity "are very rare, if not practically non-existent" [Pope John Paul II, Evangelium vitae].

In other words, the death penalty is, at least in theory, justified in situations of civil breakdown (failed states, revolutions, and so on) but never in stable states with functioning judiciaries. In these cases - and we are speaking here, almost uniquely among western democratic nations, of the US - the death penalty is a positive evil. Hardly surprising, then, that the Catholic Church in the US has a vigorous campaign to end it.

Your statement "Capital punishment is not a sin and never has been. Nor will it be" is almost exactly the opposite of the truth. The Catechism is clear that when there are non-lethal means of detaining and punishing people, the use of capital punishment is wrong. It is, in fact, a very grave sin, a scandal, an offense against civilization and the Christian understanding of the person, and a moral perversity which corrupts the soul of America.

Michael Liddy
7 years 10 months ago
End the death penalty - it's evil and unjust. Let's stop killing each other all together. That being said, everyone who fights hard to change capital punishment policy should be working just as hard to change abortion policy. Let us not forget the thousands that have been killed by the death penalty over the years; at the same time, let us not forget the 50 million of our brothers and sisters that have been killed by abortion in the United States since Roe v. Wade.
Beth Cioffoletti
7 years 10 months ago
You are right, Michael Liddy, the Death Penalty and Abortion are two sides of the same coin, both of the same cloth - the very same issue: the sacredness of human life.
In our diocese, whenever there is a state sponsored murder (which, unfortunately happens 2 or 3 times a year in this state), members of Respect Life and Pax Christi stand together before the Cathedral to publicly oppose the killing being done in our name.  The bishop joins us when he is in town.  It is truly a powerful statement and witness.
james belna
7 years 10 months ago
Mr Ivereigh: Let us suppose that we take your advice and eliminate the death penalty in the US - which is to say that the maximium possible punishment would be life imprisonment, no matter how many innocent people a criminal chooses to kill. In the case of a convicted murderer who is already serving a life term, what punishment - apart from the purely symbolic gesture of imposing multiple life sentences - would you impose when he commits a second (or third or fourth) murder while in prison? What ''non-lethal'' measures would effectively defend human life against an aggressor who can no longer be deterred by the prospect of further incarceration?
John Smythe
7 years 10 months ago
Austin,
 
It seems you were the one being niave.  You took my post completely out of context (one would hope out of nievity, or it would have to have been deliberate ...).
 
Capital punishment is not what is wrong with the US Justice system.  It is the system itself.  Until that is changed, eliminating capital punishment makes no difference and is truly a band-aid and therefore a sin. 
 
Please...  If it were a grave sin as you say (let us be honest and use the real term of 'mortal sin' and not the modernist media-speak term of "grave" which takes away from the real meaning of the mortal sin), then the Catechism would not say it is permissible.  Therefore, it is not a "grave" sin.
 
A scandal?  One would think using double-speak and publically trying to state something is Catholich when it is clearly not is a real scandal.
 

St. Thomas was/is quite clear on what a scandal is, "scandal is a word or action evil in itself, which occasions another's spiritual ruin".
 
Since the Church's Law (God's Law) allows capital punishment, it is not evil therefore it is not a scandal.
 
However, telling people that the Catholic religion is just one among many religions in the world is scandal, Austin.
 
An offence against civilization?  Whose civilization?  Man's or God's?  It would be like whose law do you follow, man's or God's?  To allow capital punishment (or punishment of ANY kind from a state that state would have to be a Just State (that's in the Catechism too, take your time and read it) - the USA, which allows legalised murder in the form of abortion and birth control is FAR from any sort of Just State)
 
"Almost" opposite the "truth"?  Dear sir, please tell us capital punishment, used within the laws and teachings of the Church, as put forth in the Catechism for example, has, ir or will be sinful?
 
As for the "Christian understanding of the person" that is a very ambiguous term that one could claim to mean anything at anytime by anyone.  Let us stick to the facts and the Truth.  We are Catholics.  As such we have an obligation to follow Catholic teaching (as do ALL people as the Catholic teaching is the true teaching of God).
 
Now, I will let you answer Mr. Belna's question.
Austen Ivereigh
7 years 10 months ago
Dr Smythe, I agree that we need to follow Catholic teaching, which is why I quoted the Catechism, which is unambiguous in its opposition to the death penalty as it exists in  certain states of the US. Your argument seems to be that because the Catechism appears to tolerate the use of the dealth penalty in situations of civil breakdown or failed states, it cannot be seriously sinful in Texas or California. But consider how the killing of unborn life is tolerated in Catholic teaching when it is the foreseen consequence of, say, an operation to remove a cancerous womb; yet abortion is a serious sin. No one in their right mind says that because the first is not a sin, the second cannot be. 
Scandal is, as you say, an example given to others which risks leading them into sin or error. Capital punishment in the US is a scandal because it exists in a country which purports to be Christian, and the degrading effect on Christian consciences is all too evident in attempts like yours to marry the Gospel with this barbaric practice. Scandal is precisely the word to use in this context. As Cardinal McCarrick said in 2005, "We cannot teach that killing is wrong by killing. We cannot defend life by taking life."
The Christian understanding of the human person is not an ambigous term at all. It is endlessly defined in Vatican documents. Because God is the author of life, human beings cannot be commodified or instrumentalized - made the means to an end of some policy or ambition. In other words, it is wrong to kill someone in the hope that this will prevent other people killing each other - which is effectively the argument of the death penalty.
As for answering Jim Belna's point, I'm not sure where the difficulty lies. Does he believe that not having the death penalty makes it more likely that this prisoner will kill again? But Texas and Calfornia have some of the highest murder rates in the US - the death penalty is not a deterrent. Or is his difficulty that there is no practical means of punishing someone who serving the rest of his life in prison? But there are many ways of doing so, and prisons do so all the time - solitary confinement, denial of privileges and so on. His final question is one about deterrence. He asks: 'What ''non-lethal'' measures would effectively defend human life against an aggressor who can no longer be deterred by the prospect of further incarceration?'
Beyond physical constraints, the answer is: not a lot. I accept that the judicial killing of a murderer takes away the risk of him murdering again, but putting people to death to prevent the possibility of them murdering is not something any civilized society - let alone a Christian society - could tolerate.
james belna
7 years 10 months ago
Mr Ivereigh: As you have conceded, there is little if anything that can be done to further punish a criminal who is already serving a life term in prison. If it comforts you to imagine that every life prisoner can be prevented from killing through the use of solitary confinement and denial of privileges, be my guest. I live in the real world. California alone has more than 30,000 lifers. In the absence of the death penalty, such criminals could kill WITHOUT CONSEQUENCE anyone they want to - prison guards, fellow inmates, visiting priests - or direct the killing of victims outside of prison. I cannot accept the premise that the Christian religion demands that a society guarantee to life-term criminals the right to kill as many innocent people as they want to, for any reason and in as sadistic a manner as they choose, without facing even the theoretical possibility of any punishment at all, much less placing their own lives at risk. It is inconsistent with human dignity to tell a prison guard that we have intentionally designed a system of justice under which he can be brutally murdered and there is absolutely nothing we will do to punish his killer.
Eric Stoltz
7 years 10 months ago
Jim Belna,
 
It is at least refreshing that you state you reject Christian teaching on the sanctity of life. Would that more people would be so honest rather than seeking to clothe what they want to believe in the trappings of the Gospel.
 
That being said, I wonder why you choose to voice such an opinion on a Catholic blog that seeks to evaluate current events in the light of the Gospel. "Living in the real world" does not mean that Christian teaching is irrelevant to the issues faced by society.
Austen Ivereigh
7 years 10 months ago
Mr Belna, You say: "California alone has more than 30,000 lifers. In the absence of the death penalty, such criminals could kill WITHOUT CONSEQUENCE anyone they want to - prison guards, fellow inmates, visiting priests - or direct the killing of victims outside of prison." But they don't, do they? Nor do they in the UK, where I live, where there is no death penalty. Your objection is a non-objection. The problem is a non-problem. The death penalty is entirely irrelevant to the question of whether people in prison can kill other people. If they succeed in doing so, that is not because the death penalty exists or doesn't exist; it is because the means of restraining them have failed. There is no issue.
Beth Cioffoletti
7 years 10 months ago
Our God is not a punishing God.
 
In a Christian world, the prison is not a place of punishment, but rather a place a penance, a place where those who have sinned against their brothers and sisters can heal, make reparations, and seek the forgiveness they need to be able to return again to the family of humankind.
 
In a Christian world, the prison is not a place of vengeance or settling of scores, an eye for an eye, a life for a life. 
 
In a Christian world, a person could only be held in prison for life if he cannot be returned to society without continuing to hurt others or himself.  Life in prison is an act of mercy for such people.
 
In our world, we kill without mercy.  Hundreds of thousands of young people are condemned to prison for life, with no chance for redemption.  Many of these “lifers” have minor infractions, and long for the chance to prove themselves worthy again to live amongst us.  We turn our backs.
Beth Cioffoletti
7 years 10 months ago
Our God is not a punishing God.
 
In a Christian world, the prison is not a place of punishment, but rather a place a penance, a place where those who have sinned against their brothers and sisters can heal, make reparations, and seek the forgiveness they need to be able to return again to the family of humankind.
 
In a Christian world, the prison is not a place of vengeance or settling of scores, an eye for an eye, a life for a life. 
 
In a Christian world, a person could only be held in prison for life if he cannot be returned to society without continuing to hurt others or himself.  Life in prison is an act of mercy for such people.
 
In our world, we kill without mercy.  Hundreds of thousands of young people are condemned to prison for life, with no chance for redemption.  Many of these “lifers” have minor infractions, and long for the chance to prove themselves worthy again to live amongst us.  We turn our backs.

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