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The EditorsOctober 26, 2009

Public support for capital punishment in the United States has declined in recent years for several reasons, one of which is botched executions. The most recent occurrence was in September in an Ohio prison, where Romell Broom was to be put to death by lethal injection.

Technicians spent two hours attempting to reach a vein on Mr. Broom’s arms and legs before they finally gave up and sent him back to his cell on death row. It was the third botched execution in the state over the past four years. Yet instead of declaring a moratorium on the practice, Gov. Ted Strickland simply postponed the execution of Mr. Broom and two other condemned men in order to allow officials to revise the protocols for lethal injections.

Even in states where executions are carried out as planned, the often grisly circumstances lead some people to wonder why the United States supports the death penalty, one of the few developed countries that still does so.

During the current recession, revenue-starved states are looking closely at the cost of capital punishment. According to the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C., death penalty cases typically require huge expenditures, partly because of re-trials to correct prior errors. California’s Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice, for example, has estimated that the state is spending $138 million a year on the death penalty. For the 670 people on its death row, the state spends $90,000 per inmate per year in addition to the $34,000 annual cost of incarcerating a prisoner serving a life sentence. Death row inmates wait four years on average before being assigned an attorney for their first appeal, which amounts to an added expenditure of $360,000 per inmate even before the appeal is under way. Lawmakers, forced by the budget crisis to make cuts in basic services like schools, law enforcement, health care and libraries, must rethink such outlays for capital punishment.

Meanwhile, the number of executions has dropped. The 37 executions in 2008 mark a 14-year low, underscoring a downward trend that reflects a change in public opinion. Although a Gallup poll last year found that a majority still supports capital punishment, support declined from 69 percent in 2007 to 64 percent in 2008—a significant contrast with 1994, when 80 percent of Americans supported it. Support drops whenever the alternative is proposed of a life sentence without the possibility of parole. Most polls show that support for such life sentences is about the same as support for the death penalty.

Belatedly proven innocence has become an increasingly important factor in the shift of public opinion. Since 1973, when executions became legal again after a seven-year moratorium, the number of exonerations has risen to 138—eight of them in this year alone. Most of those exonerated were members of racial minorities; 42 percent of prisoners on death rows around the country are black. Race is a factor in the imposition of the death penalty: studies over the past two decades have shown that people convicted of killing whites were three times more likely to be sentenced to death than those convicted of killing blacks.

Even justices of the U.S. Supreme Court have expressed opposition to capital punishment. Former Justice Harry Blackmun, who in the 1970s voted to allow the death penalty, said just before his retirement in 1994, “I will no longer tinker with the machinery of death.” In 2008 Justice John Paul Stevens called the death penalty “the pointless and needless extinction of life.” And in a speech in 2001 former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor observed that “the system may well be allowing some innocent defendants to be executed.” Consider the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed in 2004 having set a fire that killed his family; afterward, however, experts found no evidence of arson at his home. In 2002 the Supreme Court ruled on the basis of “evolving standards of decency” that the execution of juveniles violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. On the same basis it ruled against executing those with mental retardation. These proactive steps limit the use of the death penalty.

The Catholic Church in the United States has long been opposed to capital punishment. As early as 1980, the U.S. bishops voted to declare their opposition. Pope John Paul II emphasized the universal church’s opposition in his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae. And in a speech at Emory University in Atlanta on Oct. 7, Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory noted that one longstanding argument—that capital punishment serves a deterrent purpose—has been largely discredited by recent studies. It is time for the nation to conclude once and for all that in our civilized society there is no place for capital punishment.

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14 years 6 months ago
After the first million public executions, the public becomes anesthetized and just ignores the continued mass slaughter.
Oh, you say there are only 100 a year or so?  Might a public that is hypnotized by sports, sex and televison miss those events?
Minnesota has not had executions for over 100 years and I would never vote for them.  But I can think of other issues, perhaps like a million abortions a year, that might deserve my attentiion before I start clamorinig for the end to executions in Texas (for example).
Leonard Villa
14 years 6 months ago
There is no doubt that bishops and individuals have expressed opposition to the death penalty.  It is plain error to state that John Paul in his encyclical emphasized the universal Church's opposition to the death penalty when the Catechism of the Catholic Church promulgated by Pope John Paul II provides for the death penalty albeit in very restricted circumstances as provided by Evangelium Vitae. #2267 of the Catechism states: Assuming that the guilty party's identity and responsibilityhave 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.  (emphasis added) The Catechism goes on to say: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."
The people to determine whether the execution of a criminal is absolutely necessary or the only means to defend the community are not clerics but those exercising legitimate authority.  The statement that other means are available and most times if not all times you can defend the common good in other ways is a prudential judgment made in the Catechism which perhaps was true at the time of the promulgation of the Catechism but which could change and about which reasonable people could differ.Nevertheless that assessment is given to those charged with protecting the common good.
I believe it is false to state that as a matter of Church teaching the use of the death penalty is immoral when the Catechism states otherwise. While you note the trouble with Romell Broom's veins and the botched execution, you should have also noted that the reason Romell Broom was on death row was that he brutally murdered and raped a 14 year old girl.
14 years 6 months ago
I would go along with every effort to reduce the application of capital punishment in our society today. Assuming that the main reason for advocating the death penalty is the protection of the innocent from unjust aggressors, in theory now a day the State, has the means to protect its citizens from such aggressors without recourse to the death penalty, therefore there should be no need of Capital punishment.
 Now this is the theory. Unfortunately however the reality is oftentimes different. It is not uncommon today (even in the more developed countries) for cold-blooded murderers to be seeing going around in society after a period of detention, and this in spite of the various restrictions of the "no parole" clause when "life" is given. The reason of course is that the same authority mandating the "no parole" clause in certain cases and in certain times can, and sometime does, in different times modify, or even annull that clause. With the ultraliberal mentality affecting many of today's leaders, legislators and judges, this can happen and does happen. Hence the Catholic Church itself, while warning against Capital Punishemnt, admits that there may be cases when the State may be forced to apply the death penalty in certain cases. Cfr the Cathechism of the Catholic Church ## 2266 and 2267.
 The closest that the highest authority of the Catholic Church came to condemning capital punishment is the statement of Pope John Paul II as quoted in the Catechism of the Catholic Church "...the case in  which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity 'are very rare if not practically non-existent'." Given (but not fully established) the validity of the premises, even so this is not an absolute condemnation of Capital punishment in our society today.
David Cruz-Uribe
14 years 6 months ago
This editorial does a thorough job of outlining the public policy reasons for opposing the death penalty, but it fails to mention the heart of Catholic opposition to the death penalty:  capital punishment is an egregious assault on human life and the dignity of the human person.  This is the foundation on which Pope John Paul II based his argument in Evangelium Vitae, and he reiterated this point in St. Louis in 1999 when he called on American Catholics to be "unconditionally prolife" and oppose the death penalty. 
Your omission of this more fundamental argument reflects a sad division in the Catholic Church, one which has impeded my own work at as anti-death penalty activist.   Many of Cthe atholics active against the death penalty want to talk about it as a social justice issue, and seem loathe to address it in prolife terms.  Catholics in the prolife movement are receptive to talking about capital punishment as a prolife issue, but do not to actively engage it, particularly if this would mean allying themselves with "liberals" or worse, non-Catholics who are pro-choice. 
This division is visible on the USCCB website:  capital punishment is listed under "Life Issues" and this link takes you to a page with a handful of articles, but no information (except an easily overlooked link at the bottom of the page) on how to work to abolish the death penalty.  The death penalty is listed under "Social Justice Issues" and this link takes you to information on the abolition campaign.  But here there is no material on the death penalty as a life issue; just a link ambiguously labeled "USCCB Pro-Life Activities" that takes you to the page mentioned above.
The Catholic Church can and should be a powerful voice in the abolition movement.  But we will not become one until we can heal this internal rift and see that the death penalty is both a social justice and a pro-life issue, and engage all parts of the Church.
David V. Cruz-Uribe, SFO
Religious Outreach Director
Connecticut Network to Abolish the Death Penalty
14 years 6 months ago
Fact checking is very important in this debate. I hope this will help you be more thorough for you next article.
"The Death Penalty: More Protection for Innocents"

"Deterrence and the Death Penalty: A Reply to Radelet and Lacock"


"Death Penalty, Deterrence & Murder Rates: Let's be clear"




"Cost Savings: The Death Penalty"


"Death Penalty Polls: Support Remains Very High - 80%"




"Death Penalty Support: Modern Catholic Scholars"


"Pope John Paul II: Prudential Judgement and the death penalty"


14 years 6 months ago
To my way of thinking the only justification for the death penalty would be that quoted above, that it uniquely defends life against a human aggressor. If it is proven that the threat of capital punishment, even as an increasingly rare event, is a deterrent to murder, then it can be justified as a deterrent, for even though we don't know the potential victim who was not murdered except as a statistic, the life saved is no less real.  Capital punishment has no moral standing as a punishment or retribution, but as the church allows abortion to save a mother's life, so too it would seem justification to save the unknown victim.
Barring such reasonable evidence, there is no justification.
14 years 6 months ago
Robert Davis
14 years 6 months ago
There has been no massive move away from capital punishment at the state level, though only two states, Florida and Texas, account for most executions.
The deterrence argument for capital punishment is pretty weak. The retribution argument, always deep in our puritan heritage, continues to persuade. Is it time to shift the ground towards the economic argument?
The economic argument states that, whatever small gains may occur from deterrence, the costs of killing a few murderers whom we could, with carefully drafted legislation, keep behind bars for life are too great in a period of fiscal austerity.
When the general public sees that it costs a million dollars or so to execute a guilty murderer, opinion will shift.
Bob Davis
Nairobi, Kenya
Christopher Mulcahy
14 years 6 months ago


We are in a long period of peaceful prosperity in this country.  We all walk the streets freely.  No bomb threats trouble us during our trip to the county courthouse.  No bodies or body parts hang from nearby tree limbs. 


Is this the right time for us to make a final determination about capital punishment?  Are we confident evil men will not rise up domestically, or penetrate our defenses from abroad?  What is the proper punishment for a man caught putting poison in our water supply?  Importing ebola?  Or spreading radiation in Boise?  Shipping kidnapped schoolgirls to brothels abroad?  Or assassinating our leaders?


Do the readers of America magazine feel confident that they can proscribe capital punishment today,  with complete confidence that they can also properly discharge their responsibility as citizens to defend their country tomorrow? 


It is good to be nice.  It is also good to be wise. 

Michael Appleton
14 years 6 months ago
Whenever the issue of capital punishment is raised, it is inevitable that those who favor its imposition will claim that the costs are exaggerated due to seemingly inexhaustible appeals, that condemned criminals have invariably committed horrendous crimes and deserve to die and that it is necessary deterrent for the protection of society. And frequently, as in this thread, someone will offer the grautitous and wholly unsubstantiated accusation that opponents of the death penalty completely ignore the evils of abortion. The first three arguments are specious. The last is insulting.
With regard to costs, what shall we say a person's life is worth? Why not abolish appeals entirely and legislate a requirement that execution be carried out within 30 or 60 days following sentencing? I have no doubt that many people would favor such a solution, and they would be wrong. We permit appeals because mistakes are made in every trial and because we know that innocent people are convicted. Indeed, we know from the work of the Innocence Project that many more innocent people are convicted than was commonly thought. Regardless of one's views of the morality of capital punishment, killing people on the cheap is hardly a worthy objective.
The argument that the death penalty is reserved for only the most heinous crimes begs the question entirely. As the editorial properly points out, the death penalty is not uniformly imposed for specified crimes. Its imposition is determined by many factors, including social and racial attitudes. Its imposition is also determined by economic factors; we know that a person charged with murder is much more likely to avoid the death penalty if he or she has the means to afford private counsel. 
The effectiveness of the death penalty as a deterrent is constantly debated, but the debate misses the point. What moral principle permits me to take your life in order to discourage your neighbor from committing the same wrong? And how is society any safer through my execution of a convicted criminal? Permanent removal from society through life imprisonment without parole accomplishes the same goal.
Finally, imposition of the death penalty eliminates the possibility of redemption for the convicted. It is a usurpation of the role of divine judge, a right not possessed by any man.
If we are honest with ourselves, we will admit that we condemn men to death for purposes of revenge and retribution, an expression of society's outrage. It is an act of hatred and nothing more.
Christopher Mulcahy
14 years 6 months ago

In answer to Mr. Appleton, it is true that the costs of the death penalty are exaggerated due to seemingly inexhaustible appeals.  Further, condemned criminals have invariably committed horrendous crimes.  The death penalty is required to protect society.  


The death penalty should be used only in clear, convincing cases where the evidence meets the highest standards.  Execution should be carried out within 30 or 60 days following sentencing.  The word “innocent” is inappropriate because our system does not determine innocence or guilt, only “proven” or “unproven.”  While it is true there are cases of “unproven” crime where the accused was convicted and assigned a death sentence, there has never been in the modern era—not one time—a case of an unproven (“innocent”, if you will) accused actually executed.  That is to say, there is no case of the death penalty where subsequent evidence satisfied all parties that justice miscarried.  Of course, it is not necessary that any institution of man be required to meet a standard of perfection.  It is to be expected that at some time and some place an innocent might be caught up in false accusation that fails to be identified as such.  Perfection belongs in another world and we must accept the realities.


Capital punishment should be imposed.  This does not mean that “killing people on the cheap” should be our policy.  It does not mean that the condemned should occupy a cell for years while working out in the gym.  It means capital punishment should be imposed.


Americans are free people and we revel in our range of freedoms. Americans are social and economic people, so of course social and economic factors are involved in the justice system.  The reason we have recourse to the death penalty is that moral principles require us to honor those freedoms and protect our society.  Moral principles positively require the death penalty in certain circumstances if, in fact, we respect life as Christians should.  Numerous studies demonstrate that hundreds, if not thousands, of Americans are alive today because of the powerful deterrent effect of the death penalty.  This is particularly true in Texas, for example, where there is in fact a death penalty that is in fact imposed on the condemned. 


If we are honest with ourselves, we will admit that we condemn men to death for several worthy purposes, including deterrence, revenge and retribution, an expression of society’s outrage.  It is not hatred.  It is in fact an act of love for our fellow man, for whom clear lines drawn by law define what is and what is not acceptable in Christian society.  It serves to protect us all—physically, culturally, and spiritually.

Mark Kolakowski
14 years 6 months ago

"The Catholic Church in, the United States has long been opposed to capital punishment. As early as 1980, the U.S. bishops voted to declare their opposition." Might one ask what the bishops' position was during the previous 200 years of American history?

Indeed, the Church's long, unfortunate history of (when it had its hands on the levers of secular power) executing religious dissenters and supporting wars of religion must be adequately addressed if its current anti-capital punishment stance is to have any credibility. After all, if the Church erred then, how can one be sure that its new stance is correct?

Also, the authors should take care to avoid opportunistic argumentation that can be turned against them on many other issues. For example, the consensus of other developed nations, of the same three Supreme Court Justices quoted as moral arbiters in the editorial, and of various cost/benefit studies is that abortion should be legal. Indeed, Justice Blackmun was a leading supporter of the decision in Roe v. Wade.

Likewise, one can use the same methodology (consensus of other developed nations, cherry-picked opinions of leading U.S. jurists, select cost/benefit studies) to build cases for death with dignity/assisted suicide (pick your terminology) statutes, same-sex marriage, adoption of children by same-sex or unmarried couples, embryonic stem cell research and other societal currents condemned by the official Church and, one presumes, also by the editors of America.

If you normally argue that neither public opinion (even world opinion) nor cost issues are indicative of morality or of what the Church, long a defiantly anti-democratic institution, should advocate, then it is intellectually dishonest to roll out this line of argumentation in the odd case where it just happens to align with the Church's current position. Opportunistic, inconsistent argumentation inevitably undermines credibility.

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