(Update June 2005)
As of this writing, the federal government (including the military) and 36 states have statutes authorizing the use of the death penalty down from one year ago, when there were 38 states. Recent legal challenges in the states of New York and Kansas have forced those two states to either fix badly written laws or to simply join the other twelve states that have chosen not to use the death penalty at all. Currently, there are 3,471 inmates on death row across the United States. Since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976, there have been approximately 948 inmates put to death. In that same time period, 117 people have been released from death row in 25 states with evidence of their innocence, and 220 death row inmates have been granted clemency because of doubts about their guilt or concerns about the death penalty process.
On October 30, 2004, the President signed into law the final version of H.R. 5107, the Justice for All Act of 2004. This anti-crime bill included provisions from the Innocence Protection Act (IPA) which the USCCB supported since its inception in March of 2001.
The Justice For All Act ensures access to post-conviction DNA testing for those currently serving time in prison or on death row, and provides much-needed funds to test a nationwide backlog of more than 300,000 rape kits and other crime scene evidence. A strategic move by the House led to a dramatic improvement in H.R. 5107 with the addition of victims’ provisions including funding for victims' services through grants to prosecutor and defender offices, as well as assistance to families of murder victims. In the end, the legislation enjoyed the broad support of leaders from the victims' rights community, criminal justice reform advocates and even those who support the use of the death penalty.
Cardinal McCarrick, while Chairman of the Domestic Social Policy Committee, wrote numerous letters to Congress urging passage of this legislation. Then President of the USCCB Bishop Gregory also called on President Bush to sign the bill once it had reached the President’s desk. The passage of the Justice for All Act of 2004 is the result of three years of steady advocacy and negotiation. It is not only an important step in criminal justice reform and victims’ rights but also could lead to a significant reduction in the use of the death penalty.
As part of the Catholic Campaign to End the Death Penalty, Conference staff will continue to look for other legislative opportunities that could lead to a reduction and the eventual elimination of the use of the death penalty in the United States. We will also be monitoring any Congressional bills that seek to expand the use of the death penalty.
Supreme Court Action
On October 13, 2004, the United States Supreme Court heard arguments in a Missouri case, Roper v. Simmons, involving a juvenile. The USCCB and 29 other religious organizations urged the High Court to affirm a lower court ruling that the execution of persons for crimes committed as juveniles violates the constitutional guarantee against cruel and unusual punishment. In a statement concerning the brief, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, Archbishop of Washington and Chairman of the USCCB Domestic Policy Committee, expressed the hope that the Supreme Court would now extend the same moral wisdom and legal reasoning to the use of the death penalty against those who committed capital crimes as juveniles as it did two years ago when it concluded that the execution of persons with mental retardation could not be squared with the constitutional guarantee against cruel and unusual punishment. The list of religious groups that joined the USCCB on the Simmons brief represent a wide faith spectrum including Lutheran, Methodist, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, United Church of Christ, Mennonite, Buddhist, Jewish and Greek Orthodox organizations. As of this writing, the Supreme Court had still not issued an opinion but one could be forthcoming soon.
Since 1980, the USCCB has taken a strong and principled position against the use of the death penalty in the United States. We oppose the use of the death penalty not just for what it does to those guilty of horrible crimes, but for how it affects society; moreover, Pope John Paul II, in both The Gospel of Life and the revised Catechism of the Catholic Church, states that our society has adequate alternative means today to protect society from violent crime without resorting to capital punishment.
“Catholic Campaign to End the Use of the Death Penalty”: On March 21, the USCCB launched the Catholic Campaign to End the Use of the Death Penalty in the United States. Speaking to an overflowing room of reporters at the National Press Club on behalf of Bishop DiMarzio, who could not attend, Cardinal McCarrick said, “The Catholic campaign will work to change the debate and decisions on the use of the death penalty: building a constituency for life, not death; calling on our lawmakers to lead, not follow; to defend life, not take it away. . . . This cause is not new. Our bishops’ conference has opposed the death penalty for 25 years. But this campaign is new. It brings greater urgency and unity, increased energy and advocacy, and a renewed call to our people and to our leaders to end the use of the death penalty in our nation.”
At the press conference, noted pollster John Zogby reported that support for the use of the death penalty has plunged from as high as 68% to less than half of Catholics (48%), according to a November 2004 survey of Catholic attitudes on the death penalty. Another 47% oppose it. The percentage of Catholics who are intensely supportive of the death penalty has been halved, from a high of 40% to 20% according to the survey.
The other participants in the press conference were: Mr. Bud Welch, whose daughter Julie Marie was killed in the Oklahoma City bombing; and Mr. Kirk Bloodsworth, who came into the Church while living on death row, and spent over eight behind bars before DNA testing proved his innocence. This event generated widespread publicity in the media, including press coverage by the Washington Post, New York Times, Chicago Sun-Times, AP, UPI, Reuters, etc.
The campaign’s website, www.ccedp.org, includes a basic brochure, a clear explanation of the Church’s teaching, and resources for education and action. The site also includes the many statements of bishops around the country (e.g., Archbishop Chaput of Denver and Bishop Wuerl of Pittsburgh). Staff is currently developing educational materials and other tools to help Catholics get involved with the campaign. The response so far has been very encouraging.
Court Action: On March 1, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Roper v. Simmons, a Missouri case on the juvenile death penalty. The High Court announced that executing juvenile offenders, those who committed capital murder under the age of 18, was unconstitutional because it violated the Eighth Amendment’s cruel and unusual punishment standard. The decision immediately removed approximately 72 men on 12 state death rows across the country, including 29 in Texas, (40%) of all the juvenile offenders. Bishop DiMarzio, Chairman of the Domestic Policy Committee, issued a statement praising the Roper decision.
The USCCB and 29 other religious organizations had submitted an Amicus Brief urging the Court to affirm the lower court ruling that the execution of persons for crimes committed as juveniles violates the constitutional guarantee against cruel and unusual punishment. The list of religious groups that joined the USCCB on the Simmons brief represented a wide spectrum of faiths including Lutheran, Methodist, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, United Church of Christ, Mennonite, Buddhist, Jewish and Greek Orthodox.
Legislation: USCCB staff is currently in dialogue with Senator Feingold’s (D-WI) staff regarding a bill that would create a National Commission on the Death Penalty to determine if it is being imposed fairly. The hope is the proposed legislation will have bipartisan support and will be introduced by Senator Feingold by the end of June. While most of the activity on the death penalty is at the state level, it is also important to pursue federal legislation which can help keep the focus on problems with the application of the death penalty as a means to its eventual end.
What You Can Do
- Look for more information, resources and materials on our website, www.usccb.org/sdwp/, under “Ending the Death Penalty” or go to the web site for Catholics Against Capital Punishment, www.cacp.org.
- Join the Catholic Campaign to End the Death Penalty!
For More Information
Andy Rivas 202-541-3190; (fax) 202-541-3339; email@example.com or Frank McNierney (DSD Consultant on the death penalty) firstname.lastname@example.org.