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WASHINGTON LETTER Sep-3-2004 (880 words) Backgrounder. With logos posted March 10 and photo posted Sept. 3. xxxn

Campaign '04: Kerry, Bush at near-opposite extremes on death penalty

By Patricia Zapor
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Should Sen. John F. Kerry be elected in November, the United States would have as president its strongest opponent of the death penalty in at least the last half-century, capital punishment opponents believe.

Kerry would be "the most anti-death penalty president elected in the modern era," according to David Elliot of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.

Between the Massachusetts Democrat and his Republican opponent, President George W. Bush, there are clear distinctions when it comes to capital punishment. The topic is among a series of issues addressed by the U.S. Catholic bishops in their election-year publication, "Faithful Citizenship: A Catholic Call to Political Responsibility."

As governor of Texas, Bush signed off on 152 executions. As president, he has maintained his support for the death penalty. Three men have been executed under federal law while he has been in office, the first federal executions since 1963. (In 1972 the Supreme Court overturned death penalty laws. A revised federal law was enacted in 1988.)

Bush also has expanded use of the death penalty through new terrorism-related provisions and he is seeking further broadening of the Patriot Act to allow capital punishment in more cases. Attorney General John Ashcroft also has encouraged federal prosecutors to evaluate more crimes for possible capital prosecution under federal laws, especially in states that do not have state-level capital punishment laws.

Kerry has said he opposes capital punishment except in cases involving terrorism. While he may have voted in favor of some omnibus crime bills that included expansions of capital punishment, on stand-alone legislation Kerry has opposed the death penalty in a variety of ways.

He was one of just five co-sponsors of a 2001 bill calling for a nationwide moratorium on executions while a study is conducted of how the death penalty is applied.

He opposed bills that would have re-established the death penalty in the District of Columbia and battled efforts to make certain drug offenses capital crimes. Kerry also has supported bills to prohibit capital punishment for juveniles and the Innocence Protection Act, which would open up the use of DNA evidence.

Frank McNeirney, director of Catholics Against Capital Punishment, said that as far as the death penalty is concerned Kerry represents a refreshing change of pace among presidential candidates.

Every president in recent history has supported the death penalty while in office. Former President Jimmy Carter now speaks out against the execution of juveniles and other forms of capital punishment, but as governor of Georgia he signed a law reinstating the death sentence there.

McNeirney noted that this year the Democratic platform even dropped a reference to supporting capital punishment, which it had included for at least the previous three campaign cycles. The Republican platform says the party supports "courts having the option to impose the death penalty in capital murder cases."

Most U.S. provisions for the death penalty are at the state level, and the president has no role in how they are applied, with the somewhat distant exception of the appointment of federal judges who may ultimately rule on some capital cases.

The federal death penalty does fall under the president's purview, however, particularly through decisions of the Justice Department about when capital convictions are pursued.

"One reason why death penalty opponents would welcome a Kerry victory is that it would undoubtedly result in the appointment of a U.S. attorney general who either opposes capital punishment or, at the least, would be far less aggressive in seeking death sentences for crimes covered by federal law than ... Ashcroft," McNeirney said.

He described Ashcroft's "passion for seeking the death penalty" as unprecedented, and noted that the attorney general frequently overrides the advice of local U.S. attorneys to decide in favor of prosecuting more cases under death penalty laws, "extending even to states where citizens and their lawmakers have long ago abolished executions."

McNeirney noted that the president can exercise clemency for those convicted of federal crimes as well as potentially influence the use of capital punishment in military prosecutions.

The president might also create a commission to evaluate the application of the death penalty nationwide, as has been done by some states, he added.

The Kerry campaign did not respond to requests from Catholic News Service for comment about how he might approach those issues.

"Faithful Citizenship" summarizes the church's position by saying, "Society has a right and duty to defend itself against violent crime and a duty to reach out to victims of crime. Yet our nation's increasing reliance on the death penalty cannot be justified. We do not teach that killing is wrong by killing those who kill others."

It goes on to note that Pope John Paul II has said the death penalty is "both cruel and unnecessary" in modern society.

"We encourage solutions to violent crime that reflect the dignity of the human person, urging our nation to abandon the use of capital punishment," the document says. "We also urge passage of legislation that would address problems in the judicial system, and restrict and restrain the use of the death penalty through use of DNA evidence, a guarantee of effective counsel, and efforts to address issues of racial justice."


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