The Death Penalty is Fundamentally Unjust

As the Church’s opposition to the death penalty grows stronger, a greater emphasis seems to be on the presumed inherent incompatibility of the death penalty with mercy toward the individual person facing execution, rather than its impact on justice or the common good. Depending on one’s theological views, this may be seen as a positive or unfortunate development. But the reality is that this debate should essentially be moot—the death penalty is fundamentally unjust. It undermines the common good, it cannot be fixed, and it has no place in modern society. As California voters get ready to address this issue, the LA Times has provided a succinct case for its abolition:

The chief reason to abolish the death penalty in California is that it is cruel and unusual punishment, both immoral and inhumane and out of step with “evolving standards of decency” in the United States. It has little deterrent effect, by most accounts, and is administered so capriciously that it makes a mockery of the concept of equal justice. Poor people and people of color are disproportionately put to death for crimes that bring other defendants merely a long prison sentence. Indeed, whether a murderer is ultimately executed often depends less on the gravity of his offense than on whether he committed it in a particular county or a particular state or was represented by a decent lawyer. The process is open to manipulation and mistakes, yet once the appeals process is complete, miscarriages of justice can never be corrected, for obvious reasons.

Even those who do not object to capital punishment on principle ought to support abolition because of the system’s inefficiency, exorbitant costs and long delays. Proponents of Proposition 66 say they can speed up the process and make the death penalty work, but there are serious doubts that their proposal would achieve the kind of fast-tracking they promise, and critics argue persuasively that the system might become even more expensive. And if it does succeed, it would likely require unacceptable compromises of basic constitutional rights, increasing the chance that innocent people might be put to death. In fact, about one in 10 of California death sentences eventually get overturned. There is too much at risk to speed up the process.

It is not needed to prevent crime. It hasn’t been shown to deter crime more than life in prison without the possibility of parole. It is arbitrary, capricious, and unfair. It reflects systemic injustices. And the specter of killing innocent people cannot be eliminated. Even for those who believe the death penalty can (in theory) be reconciled with love and solidarity for all, in practice, it is manifestly unjust and detrimental to human flourishing.