State Of The Death Penalty
The federal government and 38 states have statutes authorizing the use of the death penalty. Currently, there are over 3,600 inmates on death row. In 2002, 71 people were executed in the United States, an increase from the 66 executions in the prior calendar year. Last year the U.S. Supreme Court issued two landmark rulings restricting capital punishment in cases involving the mentally retarded, and barring judges from imposing a death sentence without the recommendation of a jury. According to an October Gallup poll, 70% of Americans support the use of the death penalty. Gallup also found that, when asked, only 52% supported the use of the death penalty when life without parole was an option, and only 53% felt that the death penalty was applied fairly.
Since 1973, 103 people in 25 states have been released from death row with evidence of their innocence. On the occasion of the 100th person released from death row, the Catholic Conference once again called for measures to restrain, restrict and end the use of the death penalty in the United States (see 101 Reasons to Abandon the Death Penalty, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, April, 2002). Since 1976, 220 death row inmates have been granted clemency because of doubts about the defendant's guilt or concerns about the death penalty process. The most recent clemencies occurred on January 11, 2003, when Governor George Ryan of Illinois felt morally compelled to "commute to life" the death sentences of everyone currently on death row in Illinois, and those awaiting sentencing in capital cases, a total of 167 people in all.
Gov. Ryan's actions have contributed to a new dialogue on the use of the death penalty. This offers us and other opponents of the death penalty new opportunities to advocate legislation that would curb and eventually end the use of capital punishment.
Policy: Innocence Protection Act/Moratorium
The USCCB supports the Innocence Protection Act (IPA), which is an attempt to provide access to DNA evidence and competent counsel, among other provisions, to accused persons in capital cases. The IPA legislation was introduced in both houses with bi-partisan support. The Senate Judiciary Committee held hearings on the IPA and voted out the legislation, but the bill never made it to the Senate floor. The House Judiciary Committee held only one hearing but never brought the legislation up for a vote.
In the 108th Congress, Senator Hatch (R-UT) is now Chairman of the Judiciary Committee. He opposed the IPA and is on record promising to introduce his own bill that would limit access to DNA evidence for those who did not confess to capital murder and those who apply for access within a specific time frame. In the House, several co-sponsors of the IPA are negotiating with Rep. Sensenbrenner (R-WI), the Chairman of the Judiciary Committee to obtain his support for the bill. As of this writing, a new version of the IPA has not been introduced in either the House or the Senate.
Senator Feingold (D-WI) has re-introduced S. 132, the National Death Penalty Moratorium Act, which the Bishops' Conference supports. The proposed Moratorium would prohibit the federal government from carrying out the federal death penalty until Congress has considered the final findings and recommendations of a new Commission. This Commission would review whether administration of the death penalty is consistent with constitutional requirements of fairness, justice, equality, and due process. The Act is expected to be introduced in the House soon.
The Innocence Protection Act would not end the use of the death penalty, which is the Conference's ultimate objective. The Bishops' Conference supports the IPA because it will help to protect innocent people from a wrongful sentence of death and because the bill would encourage further national debate about the morality and effectiveness regarding the abolition of the death penalty. The National Federal Moratorium Act would stop executions and focus attention on what is wrong with the use of capital punishment and why there is a need for reform.
The need for such reform is underscored by the findings of the Illinois commission, appointed by Gov. Ryan, which made 85 recommendations to the state legislature designed to reform its death penalty and law enforcement procedures. The legislature did not introduce legislation to enact any of the 85 recommendations. The problems in Illinois are common to nearly all states that retain the use of the death penalty. As this new dialogue on innocence, crime and punishment unfolds, the Bishops see a new opportunity to appeal to all people of goodwill, and especially Catholics, to work to end the use of the death penalty.
What You Can Do
Once the IPA is introduced, we will focus on the Judiciary Committees in the House and Senate. Please contact Senator Hatch of Utah, Representative Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, and the other members of the Judiciary Committees. Let them know that the system is broken and innocent people are being wrongfully convicted and sentenced to die. Tell them the use of the death penalty diminishes all of us. Tell them we cannot teach that killing is wrong, by killing.
Also, contact your local Senators and Representatives and tell them you strongly support a moratorium on executions. A national Commission is needed to look into racial disparity in sentencing practices, incompetent legal counsel and frequent due process violations.
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