The Catholic bishops' conference opposes the use of the death penalty. We are guided by our Holy Father Pope John Paul II who stated on his last visit to the United States: "A sign of hope is the increasing recognition that the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil." However, in the current political climate we may not be able to end the death penalty now, but we can reduce the number of cases in which it is applied and actually carried out through support of The Innocence Protection Act. Sponsors include Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Gordon Smith (R-OR) and Susan Collins (R-ME); and Representatives William Delahunt (D-MA) and Ray LaHood (R-IL).
What does the bill do?
The bill addresses three major problems with the current capital punishment process:
- DNA PROVISIONS: Establishes rules for the preservation of and access to DNA evidence so that innocent people are not executed. Prohibits states from denying applications for DNA testing by death row inmates if the proposed testing has the potential to produce new exculpatory evidence material to the inmate's claim of innocence.
- COMPETENT COUNSEL PROVISIONS: Establishes a National Commission on Capital Representation to develop standards for providing adequate legal representation for indigents facing a death sentence and establishes a grant program to help States implement the Commission's standards.
- INFORMED JURY PROVISIONS: Provides juries in Federal death penalty prosecutions brought under the drug kingpin statute the option of recommending life imprisonment without parole. Encourages States to instruct juries on all sentencing options, including parole eligibility rules and terms in death penalty cases.
Since the Pope and the U.S. bishops have called for an end to capital punishment, why would Catholics support a bill that has a goal of only "fixing" it?
Ensuring, (a) access to all material evidence (including DNA evidence), (b) competent legal representation, and (c) fully informed juries about sentencing options, will dramatically decrease the number of people sentenced to death. When fully implemented these provisions will result in a decrease in the number of death sentences.
Making the application of the death penalty fairer is a step in the right direction. This system has sent the wrong person to death row 95 times in 22 states since 1973. Additionally the public debate about the problems with the death penalty that will be generated by this legislation, may help shape the broader debate in our direction.
Does the bishops' conference also support bills which call for a moratorium or abolition?
Of course it does. However, The Innocence Protection Act has a greater chance of passage than bills which call for abolition or halt the death penalty. Questions of fairness appear to resonate with politicians across the political spectrum. Regardless of one's position on the death penalty itself, there is growing strong support for measures to insure that mistakes are not made.
Since the Catholic Church's strong opposition to capital punishment is widely known, could its support of this legislation backfire? Those who support reform, but not abolition, will realize that there are ulterior motives.
Supporters of this legislation include the whole range of opinions on capital punishment from wholehearted support to abolition. Polls indicate that as many as 80% of the American publicincluding strong supporters of the death penaltyagree that defendants ought to have a fair trial and access to all the evidence against them. In addition to the Catholic bishops, Rev. Pat Robertson and commentator George Will support these changes. Governor George Ryan, (R-IL) put a halt to executions in his state when more people were freed from death row than executed. He simply refused to tolerate such mistakes. Finally, the American Bar Association proposed similar measures in 1998 when it called for a moratorium on the use of the death penalty. All are united in the belief that the current system is unfair, and that the unthinkable possibility exists that an innocent person will be put to death.
Is The Innocence Protection Act a type of federal mandate that the states generally resist? Why would states agree to adopt it?
The Innocence Protection Act urges states to put into place practices that ensure fairness in capital cases. The incentives to comply with the standards and the sanctions for failing to do so are modest. However, the major issues that the bill addresses are widely espoused and seen to be reasonable: i.e., the preservation of and access to DNA evidence and the provision of good legal counsel to indigent defendants facing capital charges.
In twenty-two states, 95 people have been released from death row because of new evidence. Additionally, nearly two-thirds of all capital sentences are overturned frequently because of incompetent counsel. National uniform standards are required so that the fate of innocent people is not determined by where they happen to live.
For more information: Dan Misleh 202-541-3190