Death Penalty Foes Gain with Papal Support

DEATH PENALTY OPPONENTS and news media affiliated with the Vatican found a new occasion to condemn capital punishment after an electrocution in Florida went awry.

Commentators for Vatican Radio and the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano reacted with horror to reports that Pedro Medina, convicted of murder, burst into flames when the electric chair malfunctioned at the prison in Tallahassee, Fla. The accident in late March was later attributed to a malfunction in the hood that covers the head of the condemned.

Late last year, Pope John Paul II sent an appeal for clemency to Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles on Medina's behalf. Lawyers, meanwhile, appealed to the state supreme court for a stay of execution because Medina was mentally

ill. The court acknowledged the illness, but did not grant the delay.

Medina, a 39-year-old Cuban who had remained in the United States since seeking refuge in 1980, was convicted of murdering a 52-year-old teacher named Dorothy James, whom he had befriended.

A U.S.-based correspondent for Vatican Radio, Paolo Mastrolilli, said the mishap in Medina's execution had shaken “the indifference with which the majority of Americans normally accept executions.”

Despite widespread political support for the death penalty, abolitionists are making inroads against capital punishment.

At least 35 states have laws that allow juries to hand down life imprisonment sentences without the possibility of parole, according to Richard Dieter, executive director of the Washington-based Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC). Imposing a life sentence without parole on a convicted criminal gives juries the opportunity to punish the person without making him pay the ultimate price.

InVirginia, Republican Gov. George Allen led the efforts to abolish parole for all life sentences, and his state carried out more executions in 1996 than any other state. Nonetheless, juries in the state are handing down life sentences without parole to criminals, rather than death sentences, according to a recent report in The Washington Post.

Last year, when Virginia executed eight convicted murderers, there was only one new death row inmate. In 1995, six people were sentenced to death, and in 1994, the year before the state's law changed, death penalty convictions were handed down ten times, according to Virginia's Corrections Department. Similar declines have also occurred in Georgia and Indiana, two other states that have introduced life without parole in recent years.

Perhaps one of the biggest boosts in recent years for death penalty opponents was Pope John Paul II's teaching in the encyclical Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life) that modern states should not exercise the right to capital punishment.

“[T]he nature and extent of the punishment [for a crime] must be carefully evaluated and decided upon, and ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society,” the Pope wrote in Evangelium. “Today, however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, in not practically nonexistent.”

Said Professor William May, a moral theologian from the John Paul II Institute for Studies of Marriage and Family in Washington: “The Church does not claim that the death penalty is intrinsically immoral, as is abortion or euthanasia.” But, “in the Pope's judgment, there are ways (other than the death penalty) of protecting society from criminals and other means of achieving justice,” said May. To abide by the Church's teaching, he added, “you'd have to prove that capital punishment must be used to restore justice” in order to justify carrying it out.

Franciscan Father Gino Concetti, a theologian and long-time columnist for L'Osservatore Romano, said that though Medina's responsibility for the crime could not be ignored, the punishment was wrong. Noting that Medina was not born in the United States, the priest said, “In the country of democracy and freedom, he found a barbaric end.”

Father Concetti wrote that the incident should prompt Christian authorities in the U.S. justice system to consider abandoning the death penalty, particularly in the course of commemorating the Easter season and “another who was condemned to death.”

From the Pope to individual bishops, the Church has formed and enunciated a “clearer and clearer position on the death penalty,” according to the DPCI's Dieter, who is Catholic. He cited the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin's visit to a death-row prisoner in Illinois, shortly before the prelate died. Dieter also said that New York Cardinal John O'Connor's denunciation of the death penalty during a funeral last year for a slain police officer “took a lot of courage.”

Meanwhile, Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz of Lincoln, Neb., has called pro-death penalty Catholics to rethink their views on capital punishment, in light of Evangelium Vitae.

Illinois State Police Director Terrance Gainer made the connection between abortion and the death penalty in a recent interview. A 28-year veteran of law enforcement, said he thinks life imprisonment, and possibly a term of hard labor, would be a better punishment than the death penalty for murderers. “I'm not against punishment, and I'm not even against revenge. I just do feel that the snuffing out of a life, whether you do it through abortion or the electric chair, is not something I like,” he said during a radio interview.

Gainer has been an official witness to several executions at Stateville Correctional Center near Joliet, but it was John Gacy's May 1994 execution that made him an anti-capital punishment activist. “I've been trained to keep people from dying, and I thought the atmosphere surrounding those executions was much too joyful,” he said of death penalty proponents who heckled, wore T-shirts and carried banners calling for Gacy's death.

More recently, the American Bar Association (ABA) called for a halt on executions in this country until jurisdictions impose safeguards to ensure that death penalty cases are handled fairly. Meeting in San Antonio in February, the House of Delegates, the ABA's policy-making body, voted by a margin of 280 to 119 to approve the measure.

The $100 million-organization has never taken a stance on the death penalty, other than to call for competent counsel for defendants and to urge abolishment of the death penalty for minors or the mentally handicapped. With 370,000 members, the ABA is the world's largest voluntary professional association.

But the vote took place at the end of the ABA's mid-year meeting, so halting death penalty convictions didn't make it onto the ABA's top-10 list of legislative priorities, according to a representative for the association in Chicago.

Despite their recent successes, death penalty opponents have a long way to go. At present, 38 states allow death penalty sentences, and state legislatures in Alaska, Iowa and Michigan and other holdout states usually introduce bills to re-impose capital punishment each year, according to Dieter.

Rep. Henry Gonzalez (D-Texas) regularly introduces a bill on Capitol Hill to abolish the death penalty each year, but he receives limited support, according to Dieter. In the Americas, only Cuba, Jamaica, Barbados and a few other island nations use the death penalty.

In the United States, 3,153 people were on death row as of July 1996, according to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Peoples (NAACP) Legal Defense Fund. Forty-eight percent were white and 41 percent were African-American, according to the survey. More than 80 percent of victims in death penalty cases are white, even though only half of murder victims are white, according to the NAACP survey.

Sister Helen Prejean CSJ, the Louisiana-based Religious who ministers to death row inmates and their victims and whose book Dead Man Walking inspired the award-winning 1995 film of the same title, said inner city residents—who are more likely to be the victims of violent crime—oppose capital punishment. Meanwhile, more affluent suburban residents call out for the death penalty to redress injustices.

Despite its reputation as the murder capital of the world, District of Columbia voters rejected capital punishment in a vote in the early '90s, with strong opposition to the death penalty coming from Christian clergy. Despite this opposition, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-Texas) recently introduced a bill in Congress to legalize the death penalty in Washington.

Opponents of the death penalty also say that innocent people can die as a result of executions. University of Florida Professor Michael Radelet found that 70 inmates have been released from death row during the last 25 years because of doubts about their guilt. Radelet, the head of the university's sociology department, said his study helps strengthen the ABA's recent recommendation to halt executions.

According to a study published in the Stanford Law Review, 350 inmates were mistakenly convicted of potentially capital crimes from 1900 to 1985. Twenty-three of these people were executed for crimes they didn't commit. Unlike O.J. Simpson, they weren't able to hire the best lawyers money can buy. According to the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, more than 75 percent of death row inmates could not afford to hire a defense lawyer.

Beyond moral issues, death penalty opponents say capital punishment does not deter criminals, and it's costly to execute them. A1982 study by the New York Public Defenders Association shows it cost $1.8 million to litigate a model capital case through the first three levels of review in New York. A 40-year life sentence cost the state $602,000. A 1988 Florida study determined that the state pays over $3.1 million per execution.

The Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) Crime Reports Division's Crime in the United States showed that states without the death penalty averaged 4.9 murders per 100,000 citizens, while states with capital punishment averaged 7.4 murders.

William Murray is based in Kensington, Md.