The California Catholic bishops announced their support on July 14 for Proposition 62, a voter initiative on the November ballot that would repeal the death penalty.
The bishops timed their statement to coincide with the launch of the "Yes on 62" campaign that took place at a Los Angeles news conference. Speakers there included former death penalty advocates, victims' families, law enforcement officials, faith leaders and wrongfully convicted former death-row prisoners.
"During this Jubilee Year of Mercy, we, the Catholic bishops of California, support Proposition 62 which would end the use of the death penalty in California," the bishops said in their statement.
Proposition 62—called "The Justice That Works Initiative" by its authors—would replace the death penalty with a sentence of life without the possibility of parole and would require convicted murderers to work and pay restitution to their victims' families. The bishops also announced their opposition to Proposition 66, also on the November ballot, which would expedite executions in California.
"All life is sacred—innocent or flawed—just as Jesus Christ taught us and demonstrated repeatedly throughout his ministry. ... Each of us holds an inherent worth derived from being created in God's own image. Each of us has a duty to love this divine image imprinted on every person," the statement said.
If approved by voters, California would become the 20th state to ban the death penalty. The initiative faces a divided electorate. In 2012, California voters defeated Proposition 34, a ballot measure to repeal the death penalty, 52-48 percent.
With 747 people on death row, California has the largest population of death-row inmates in the nation. It would save $150 million a year by halting the practice, according to the "Yes on 62" website. However, no one has been executed in California since 2006 because of court battles over the use of lethal injection and the decades-long wait from sentencing to execution. The existing law was approved by voters in 1978.
The bishops said their opposition to the death penalty also is rooted in "our unshakeable resolve to accompany and support all victims of crime" for whom the suffering over the loss of a loved one by a criminal act rarely ends with the execution of the convicted.
"Their enduring anguish is not addressed by the state-sanctioned perpetuation of the culture of death," they said. "As we pray with them and mourn with them, we must also stress that the current use of the death penalty does not promote healing. It only brings more violence to a world that has too much violence already."
Beth Webb, the sister of a woman gunned down by her ex-husband in a Seal Beach hair salon with eight others in 2011, said as much. She was one of nine speakers at the news conference.
"I'm here to say that neither me nor my mom will find closure in the death of another human being," she said. "That makes us like him. For us to want his blood, to say that we will only be satisfied by his death brings us to his level."
Speakers at the "Yes on 62" campaign launch included former death penalty proponents Ron Briggs, who led the campaign to bring the death penalty to California in 1978, former California Attorney General John Van de Kamp, and former Los Angeles District Attorney Gil Garcetti.
Rabbi Jonathon Klein, executive director of CLUE, a Los Angeles nonprofit that organizes the faith community around issues of economic justice, spoke about the death penalty and all religious traditions.
"This is a compassion-driven measure that also makes sure that justice is served," he said. "We know that all of our religious traditions are pointed in the same direction. And that is to move away from the death penalty, to move away from a justice system that has killing and violence at its core."
The California bishops quoted Pope Francis who said during his Angelus address Feb. 21 in Rome: "In fact, modern societies have the ability to effectively control crime without definitively taking away a criminal's chance to redeem himself. … The commandment 'thou shall not kill' has absolute value and pertains to the innocent as well as the guilty."