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Editorial: The tide is turning on the death penalty

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The number of prisoners condemned to die steadily increased during the 20 years following the death penalty's reinstatement in 1976. From the peak in 1996, when 315 prisoners were sentenced to death, the decline has been precipitous -- only 77 and 80 new death sentences in the last two years. The number of executions per year is also on a downward trend: from a high of 98 in 1999 to 43 in 2012 to 39 last year. Maryland abolished the death penalty last year, the sixth state in six years to do so. Delaware and Colorado, both of which came close last year, may pass similar legislation soon. Thirty-two states now allow the death penalty, but last year death sentences were handed down in just 15 states. Only nine states carried out executions last year; nearly 60 percent of those were in Texas (16) or Florida (7).

Public support for capital punishment is also diminishing. In its annual survey at the end of last year, the Gallup organization found 60 percent of Americans say they favor the death penalty for convicted murderers, the lowest level of support Gallup has measured since November 1972, when 57 percent were in favor. Given a choice between execution and life in prison, less than 50 percent of respondents favor the death penalty, Gallup found. A similar survey by the Public Religion Research Institute found most Catholics opposed the death penalty and those who attended church at least once a week were even more opposed (57 percent to 37 percent favoring life without parole). A survey conducted last summer by Barna Group found that only 32 percent of Christian millennials (born between 1980 and 2000) agree that "the government should have the option to execute the worst criminals." Support drops to 23 percent among "practicing Christian millennials."

The bishops of Louisiana (see story) explain the moral foundation for Christian opposition to state-sanctioned death: "This position is based on consistent Church teaching which is rooted in affirming life. ... [Capital punishment] will neither enact justice ... nor will it provide true healing, reconciliation, or peace to those involved."

Social scientists, however, point to a more prosaic interpretation of the changing public opinion: People recognize the system doesn't work. Two-thirds of Gallup respondents say the death penalty isn't a deterrent to serious crime, and Gallup found that respondents worry that innocents might be executed. (One hundred and forty-three death row inmates have been exonerated since 1973, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Another 30, though not exonerated completely, have been cleared of their capital offense and moved off death row, the center adds.)

Reacting to the Barna data, Heather Beaudoin of Equal Justice USA, a national organization working to reform the criminal justice system, told Religion News Service that it confirms what she sees: a growing desire among younger Christians to abolish the death penalty.

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"The question for them is no longer 'Is it right or wrong?' " Beaudoin said. "They are seeing how it is actually functioning in our country -- the race issues, the risk of executing the innocent, the fact that if you can afford an attorney you'll probably not end up on death row -- and they are changing their minds."

As a nation, we've reached the point where the barbarity of the death penalty can no longer be denied. The grim deaths of Dennis McGuire and Michael Lee Wilson are cases in point. They dash the notion that lethal injection is an antiseptic medical procedure and exposed it for what the Louisiana bishops rightfully call it: "an assault on human life." States can't get the drugs they need to execute their inmates so they resort to secret stashes of unknown compounded drugs from unregulated sources and untested results. In Missouri last month, a federal appeals court denied Herbert Smulls' claim that he was entitled to basic information about the execution drugs, which the state said should be kept secret. He was killed Jan. 29 without learning the provenance of the drug that killed him.

States like Missouri, Tennessee and Georgia, who won't admit they don't know how these drugs work, are scrambling with legal feints and legislation to throw walls of secrecy around the drugs and the companies that produce them. In Louisiana, Christopher Sepulvado has won at least a temporary reprieve to plead his case against such secrecy. Our hope is that this is the beginning of the last skirmish to finally abolish the death penalty.

This story appeared in the Feb 14-27, 2014 print issue under the headline: The tide is turning on the death penalty .

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