Bishop Fabre: Louisiana Should End the Death Penalty

Bishop Shelton Fabre of the Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux, chair of the US Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism, writes:

Two leading Louisiana legislators, one Democrat and one Republican, have sponsored bipartisan legislation to repeal the death penalty in Louisiana. The Legislature should pass this measure, and the governor should sign it.

For Catholics and many people of good will, the death penalty is inadmissible in today’s world because it offends the dignity of the human person without actually helping to promote the common good. Every faith tradition teaches that each of us is made in the image of God and that all human life has value. A person does not lose his humanity — even after committing a serious crime….

Nationwide, more than 70 percent of the people executed in 2018 showed evidence of serious mental illness, brain damage, intellectual disabilities, or severe childhood abuse and trauma. A few years ago, a man who was executed in Missouri had no criminal history until he suffered a brain injury while working at a lumberyard. There are better ways to keep the public safe….

For as long as humans are making the decisions, the system will be imperfect. Since 1973, 165 people have been exonerated and freed from death row with evidence of their innocence, including 11 people in Louisiana….

Just as the risk of executing an innocent person is unacceptable, so too is the racial prejudice that infects every aspect of our death penalty process. Nearly 70 percent of the people on Louisiana’s death row are people of color, the highest percentage of any state with more than three people on death row. In one study of Louisiana’s system, the chances of a death sentence were 97 percent higher for defendants whose victim was white than for defendants whose victim was black. Louisianans should not stand for this prejudice….

In nearly a decade, we have seen that we can do without the death penalty. It’s time for Louisiana to bring our public policies in line with our values, to embrace a culture of life, to choose mercy, and to end capital punishment once and for all.


Three Bishops Speak Out Against Death Sentence in Case with Racist Juror

Archbishop Wilton Gregory, Bishop Frank Dewane, and Bishop Shelton Fabre write:

There is no toxin more pernicious than hatred based on racial stereotypes. Despite progress in overcoming the sin of racism in recent years, racism still exists in American society—causing pain and hurt, and even leading to death. As a case in point, Keith Tharpe sits on death row in Jackson, Georgia, convicted of a gruesome murder 28 years ago. While we cannot speak to the legal issues of this case, it is apparent that racism may have played a part in Tharpe’s death sentence. After the trial, one of the jurors displayed shocking racial prejudice in an affidavit, liberally using racial slurs as he “wondered if black people even have souls.”

Lower courts have been unwilling to reconsider the verdict, but the case is now before the United States Supreme Court, which could grant a writ of certiorari to consider the merits of Tharpe’s contention of racial bias. The failure to thoroughly consider the effect of racism in jury deliberations could lead to Tharpe’s execution. We therefore join with many others in asking the Supreme Court to consider this case and the effects of an admittedly racist juror….

Whenever personal prejudices surface in a trial, society relies on appellate courts and especially the Supreme Court to rectify these biases. We thus exhort the Supreme Court to take up Tharpe’s case and correct the clear, documented racism in the case by granting him a new sentencing hearing….

It’s not just the stain of racism that leads us to oppose Tharpe’s execution. The Catholic Church teaches that in the light of the Gospel, “the death penalty is inadmissible,” a teaching that has been reinforced most recently by Pope Francis. Indeed, the death penalty violates human dignity even if the convicted individual has committed a terrible crime….

The U.S. Supreme Court must intervene in his case to ensure that fairness is protected and justice is defended—before it’s too late. To do nothing would be tragic not only for Tharpe, but for our collective dignity.


Delaware’s Death Penalty Declared Unconstitutional by State’s Supreme Court

via Jessica Masulli Reyes, The News Journal:

In a landmark decision, the Delaware Supreme Court has ruled that the state’s death penalty statute is unconstitutional.

A 148-page opinion released Tuesday afternoon said that the current law is a violation of the Sixth Amendment role of the jury. The decision of whether and how to reinstate the death penalty should now be left to the General Assembly, the opinion said.

The question before the top state court arose after the U.S. Supreme Court found in January that Florida’s death penalty law was unconstitutional because it gave judges – not juries – the final say to impose a death sentence.

Delaware and Alabama are the only other states that allow judges to override a jury’s recommendation of life.


If We Are Going To Kill Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, We Shouldn’t Sanitize It or Turn Away

The population of my hometown in 1801 was 2,000 hardy souls. On September 10th of that year, 10,000 people gathered on the Town Common. What caused the population to swell to five times its usual size? A good old fashioned hanging.

Earlier that year, Jason Fairbanks murdered his girlfriend—or failed in his half of a suicide pact, depending on who you believe. The jury thought it was the former and sentenced him to die, but he escaped and nearly made it to Canada before he was captured, returned to Boston, and finally acquainted with the hangman’s noose.

The story made headlines around the country, which was no small feat just 25 years after the founding of our republic. In our own day, the trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev for the Boston Marathon bombings was watched around the nation and around the world, and especially here in the Hub of the Universe.

If ever there was a case for putting a man to death as punishment, surely this is it. However, I don’t want to see a needle inserted into the younger Tsarnaev’s arm in Indiana. Instead, I want to see him held in a pillory on the Boston Common for a few days, and then executed by firing squad.

Let his blood pour down Beacon Hill, past Frog Pond where children splash and frolic, and pool at the site of the Liberty Tree. I hope far more than 10,000 people show up to watch in person, and that it is broadcast live on every TV station in America for those who can’t make it to Boston.

If we are going to send him off to meet his Maker, if we have decided that he is no longer fit to breathe the same air that we do, if we have raised ourselves up so high that we feel comfortable declaring that he is a monster, not formed in the image and likeness of the same God who fashioned us, then I want as many people as possible to see just how far we have been reduced.

In Terre Haute, the first of the three drugs that will be injected into Dzhokhar’s veins is a barbiturate designed to paralyze him. This isn’t done for his benefit, but for ours. The Congress of the United States has decreed that killing criminals is acceptable, but that we shouldn’t have to see them twitch and gasp for air and struggle to live on the table. What a gruesome thing that would be to have to watch.

I want us to see his death in all its ugliness and know it is our tax dollars paying for it and our public officials carrying it out. I want to see his body pierced with bullets, just like he ripped the flesh of hundreds with shrapnel from a bomb he made “in the kitchen of your mom.” We rightfully condemn him for what he did. Let us see if we have the stomach to witness such a horrific act and to know that it was carried out in our name.

We shouldn’t kid ourselves about what is happening. Dzhokhar is now supposed to die in a clean, sanitary, orderly room, far from Boston and far from most Americans. There is nothing clean or sanitary about what we are doing, however. It is murder. His death certificate will list homicide as the cause of death. We shouldn’t try to sugarcoat it.

I have made no secret about the fact that I stubbornly hold on to an angry grudge against the brothers Tsarnaev. That makes me far from impartial, but I say shoot him. Then, as we stand over his bullet-riddled corpse, let us ask ourselves if we are really any better than he is.


Gambling with Innocent Lives: The Death Penalty and a Flawed Criminal Justice System

Early this month Henry McCollum, North Carolina’s longest serving death row inmate, walked out of prison a free man. He has spent the majority of his life—30 years—behind bars for a crime he did not commit. Thanks to DNA evidence, we now know that the confession extracted by police in the early 1980s was in all likelihood the result of a scared kid who was looking for a way to go home, rather than a piece of real evidence.

This is a sobering story.

The assumptions of a few law enforcement officers not only unjustly cost Henry McCollum many years of his life, but would even have taken his life had not DNA evidence emerged. Many of us are left wondering how many more Henry McCollums there are. How many men and women have been killed in the name of justice for crimes they did not commit? How much blood do we unknowingly carry on our hands? How many wrong convictions will it take before we reevaluate the death penalty?

I was particularly touched this week by reading an article by McCollum’s attorney, Kenneth J. Rose, on the case. In it, he states:

With Henry finally free, some people expect me to feel satisfied, or even happy. The truth is: I am angry. I am angry that we live in a world where two disabled boys can have their lives stolen from them, where cops can lie and intimidate with impunity, where innocent people can be condemned to die and where injustice is so difficult to bring to light.

This opinion gets at the heart of the matter. Not only does our justice system make mistakes with life and death hanging in the balance, all too often the system is simply broken. Injustice is evident throughout the system. We see injustice in the demographics of those who are prosecuted. We see injustice in the laws we enforce. We see injustice in the litigation. We see injustice in the sentencing. And we see injustice for the returning citizens who leave our prisons. The recent release of Henry McCollum (as well as his brother Leon Brown, who was also released after serving 30 years of a life sentence) is simply the latest example of a damaged system leaving damaged people, families, and communities in its wake.

We are giving the right to kill to a system that is broken at every level.

Recognizing that human life is sacred and that it should never be taken if recourse to other action is available, the Catholic Church teaches that the death penalty should be avoided in contexts where other means of protecting the lives of those in the community are available (CCC 2267). Catholic teaching is also clear that the death penalty is never an ethical recourse in situations where there can be any doubt of the guilt of the condemned. This latest example of the fallible criminal justice in the United States strengthens my resolve to continue to fight to see an end to the death penalty throughout all 50 states and US territories.

To find out news and information about how you can get involved, please check out the good work that is being done by the Catholic Mobilizing Network to End the Use of the Death Penalty.

For further reading on Catholic teaching about the death penalty see:


Around the Web

Check out these recent articles from around the web:

Bet on Africa rising by Michael Gerson: “Africa is not a brand. It is an impossibly large and diverse continent, which includes both Ebola hot zones and six of the top 10 fastest growing economies in the world.”

Pope Francis and the New Values Debate by John Gehring: “Pope Francis understands that talk is cheap. Families need more than lofty rhetoric.”

Why Modern Man Needs a Dose of Dawson by Jonathan Liedl: “As Christianity is the bridge between the spiritual and the material, Dawson is a bridge between religious truth and historical analysis.”

These Are The Things Men Say To Women On The Street by Alanna Vagianos: “Street harassment is defined as any unwanted gawking, whistling, commenting and/or physical contact of a sexual nature — something that up to 99 percent of women report experiencing in their lifetimes. In case you needed proof that the sidewalk can be a hostile place for women, these are just a few of the things female editors at The Huffington Post have heard while walking down the street…”

Is a Hard Life Inherited? by Nicholas Kristof: “This crisis in working-class America doesn’t get the attention it deserves, perhaps because most of us in the chattering class aren’t a part of it. There are steps that could help, including a higher minimum wage, early childhood programs, and a focus on education as an escalator to opportunity. But the essential starting point is empathy.”

No, America Is Not Turning Libertarian by Jonathan Chait: “Older Americans oppose ‘bigger government’ in the abstract by a margin of some 40 percentage points. That young voters actually favor ‘bigger government’ in the abstract is a sea change in generational opinion, not to mention conclusive evidence against their alleged libertarianism.”

‘Dead Man Walking’ nun: ‘Botched’ executions unmask a botched system by Moni Basu: “Prejean wants Americans to understand that it’s not just the act of killing that was botched in the cases of Wood and Lockett. She believes the entire death penalty system is botched — from the moment an arrest takes place to the trial, conviction, appeals and execution.”


Around the Web

Check out these recent articles from around the web:

A Raw Deal: Our Pain, Their Gain by Michael Stafford: “The great task that has been set before us in the coming years is simply this- to break the power of the wealthy and make America’s government one run by and for the people once again.”

China has not been able to hide Liu Xiaobo’s ideas by Dana Nemcova, Jiri Gruntorad and Jan Ruml: “Liu may be invisible outside his prison cell, but the values he spent a lifetime championing are acknowledged by a growing number of Chinese as a key element of China’s future politics. The Chinese government should bow to this reality and free Liu. He should be allowed to again take part in the conversation for democratic reform that he has done so much to foster.”

The New Cardinals by Michael Sean Winters: “Most of the names on the list are unknown to those outside their dioceses. We will get to know more about them in the weeks ahead. My guess is that all of them will, in some significant way, reflect Pope Francis’ own approach to ministry, a certain humility, a commitment to the poor, none of the ‘butterfly’ clerical qualities the pope denounced in a sermon last week.”

The Female Face of Poverty by Maria Shriver: “We have the power—not just to launch a new War on Poverty, but a new campaign for equity, for visibility, for fairness, for worth, for care.”

How Pope Francis Challenges the Right (and Left) by John Stoehr: “Perhaps Francis is challenging liberals to expand their moral horizons, too. He’s doing so by reminding us, though without saying it, that laissez-faire capitalism is the historical legacy of liberalism. Free markets, free trade, and globalization are the hallmarks of a liberalized world economy. So while contemporary liberals are gaga for Francis right now, maybe they should reconsider. He’s not only revealed that Rush Limbaugh isn’t a conservative. He’s revealed that Limbaugh is a champion of a certain kind of liberalism.”

Four new echoes in ‘Francis revolution’ by John Allen: “The pope made headlines by telling the mothers present they shouldn’t be embarrassed if they needed to breastfeed their infants, but the more substantive newsflash was that among those baptized by Francis was a little girl, Giulia, whose parents were married only civilly and thus not in the church.”

Pope Francis & Civil Marriage for Catholics by Michael Sean Winters: “He reminded us that God’s superabundant mercy is greater than any of our sins, His love is greater than any of our troubles, and that if the Church is to be truly the Church of Jesus Christ, this ‘rule’ of grace trumps all others in the pastoral care of the flock entrusted to the Church.”

BBC Newsday: Starvation in Syria leaves children eating grass to stay alive: “Activists say many are now starving in Syria, where one father reportedly tried to set fire to himself and his three children in a Damascus street rather than die slowly of hunger.”

Hunger, death in besieged Damascus area by AP: “Children, the elderly and others displaced by Syria’s civil war are starving to death in a besieged camp where women brave sniper fire to forage for food just minutes from the relative prosperity of Damascus. The dire conditions at the Yarmouk camp are a striking example of the catastrophe unfolding in rebel-held areas blockaded by the Syrian government.”

Thinking Church: Fueling our Fire by Adam Brown, Our Daily Thread: “The MCHM spill, which was only the latest in a century-long line of human and environmental disasters in the mountain state, occurred on a Thursday and affected 300,000 residents, 1/3 of the West Virginia’s population. Yet the Sunday talk shows on January 12 were busy discussing New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s involvement in the closing of lanes of the George Washington Bridge. Getting to and from the Big Apple quickly is more important than the water and lives of those who extract and transport the cheap energy that powers New Jersey homes, New York commuter trains and high rise office buildings.”

Almost Everything You Read About Parenting On The Internet Is Wrong by Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry: “The parenting stories that are all the rage have all the hallmarks of why our current bourgeoisie is insane.”

Does anybody care about human trafficking? by Phyllis Zagano: “The United Nations reports that at any given time, 2.5 million trafficking victims fuel a $32 billion industry. Half are children. Most are younger than 24. For every 800 persons trafficked, there is but one conviction. It is all over the world. It is not stopping. Small scale or large, the slave trade continues.”

Smoking Has Killed More Than 20 Million Americans Over The Past 50 Years by Tara Culp-Ressler: “Lushniak noted that smoking has contributed to the premature deaths of an estimated 20 million Americans since the publication of the groundbreaking report in 1964. 2.5 million of those deaths were related to secondhand smoke.”

Poll: Younger Christians less supportive of the death penalty by Jonathan Merritt: “It showed an even sharper difference in support for the death penalty among ‘practicing Christians,’ which Barna defined as those who say faith is very important to their lives and have attended church at least once in the last month. Nearly half of practicing Christian boomers support the government’s right to execute the worst criminals, while only 23 percent of practicing Christian millennials do.”

Ukraine warns Church over prayer services for protesters by Agence France-Presse: “The Ukrainian government has threatened to outlaw the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church for holding prayer services for opposition protesters occupying Kiev’s central square.”