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WASHINGTON LETTER Oct-29-2010 (890 words) Backgrounder. xxxn

For pro-life cause, opposing death penalty comes down to God's mercy

Protesters march in the Pilgrimage for Life in Huntsville, Texas, last November. The Texas Catholic Conference organized the march in protest against abortion and the death penalty. (CNS file/Erik Noriega, Texas Catholic Herald)

By Nancy Frazier O'Brien
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- As the 2010 edition of Respect Life Month drew to a close, the issue of capital punishment was once again in the world spotlight as the Vatican called on Iraq not to execute former Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz.

It might not be easy to advocate for the life of a convicted murderer or for someone like Aziz, sentenced to death by hanging for persecuting Shiite Muslims, but it is important to the pro-life cause, said Deirdre A. McQuade, assistant director for policy and communications in the U.S. bishops' Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities.

"It demeans our culture to use violence to answer violence, and it can only further undermine respect for innocent life," McQuade told Catholic News Service Oct. 27. "If the state can protect us without committing additional violence, that is the way we are called to go."

Bishop Robert W. Finn of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo., made that point in one of the articles for this year's Respect Life program, linking the death penalty issue to the Catholic belief in divine mercy.

"God did not abolish justice. Rather, he intended by the offering of his Son to purge human justice of any sense of wrath or revenge," he wrote. "As we seek a reason to put aside the practice of the death penalty, perhaps the best motive is our desire to imitate God in his mercy toward those for whom Jesus died."

Bishop Finn's call came at a time when many others -- including members of law enforcement -- were calling for an end to or curtailing of the use of capital punishment.

Police Chief James Abbott of West Orange, N.J., said his six months serving on the New Jersey Death Penalty Study Commission changed his mind about the death penalty. He said he still believes in it in theory, but "no state has found a way to carry out the death penalty quickly and cheaply and also accurately."

"I ... know that in practice, (the death penalty) does more harm than good," he said at a mid-October forum at the National Press Club in Washington that brought together representatives of U.S. and European law enforcement.

"So while I hang on to my theoretical views, ... I stand before you to say that society is better off without capital punishment," Abbott added. "Life in prison without parole in a maximum-security detention facility is a better alternative."

Former Detective Superintendent Bob Denmark of Lancashire Constabulary in England said he investigated more than 100 homicides in the United Kingdom and genocide in Africa on behalf of the United Nations. In some of those cases, he was certain a defendant was guilty but was later proved wrong, he said.

He also said he did not think deterrence would have been a factor in the "vast majority" of the cases he investigated.

"If you were to use execution of killers as a deterrent, I think you would end up having to execute every killer in the hope that you might deter some potential killer in the future," Denmark said.

A national poll of police chiefs last year found that they considered the death penalty an inefficient use of taxpayer resources and would prefer more state and federal funding go to improving law enforcement resources and providing treatment for drug and alcohol problems.

A San Francisco-based group called Law Enforcement and Judges for Alternatives to the Death Penalty says California could save at least $125 million a year by abandoning the capital punishment option in favor of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

California currently has more than 680 people on death row, and housing a prisoner on death row costs $90,000 more each year than housing that same prisoner in a maximum-security prison, the group says. Other additional costs incurred because of the death penalty are associated with the trials and required appeals in death penalty cases.

In Texas, where 464 people have been executed since 1976, including 17 of the 43 executed in the United States this year, Anthony Graves was freed Oct. 27 after 18 years in prison, including 12 on death row, for a crime that prosecutors say he did not commit.

Students and professors from the University of Houston Law School and the University of St. Thomas in Houston helped gather the evidence that led to Graves' exoneration.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, nearly 140 people have been released from death row with evidence of their innocence since 1973.

But for Catholics, the central reason for opposing the death penalty does not have to do with the possibility of killing an innocent person, the deterrence factor or the economic costs of capital punishment. Instead, it is related to respect for the dignity of human life and divine mercy.

Those who believe in Christ "never see anyone as irredeemably wicked," McQuade said. "God's mercy extends to all of us."

The U.S. bishops, who have been advocating against capital punishment for more than 25 years, began an ongoing Catholic Campaign to End the Use of the Death Penalty in 2005. The Respect Life program has been featuring the issue of capital punishment every few years since the program began in 1972, McQuade said.

But this is the first time a Respect Life article has focused on "the spiritual dynamics" of the issue, she said.


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