Thursday, March 19, 2009

Death Penalty Dealt Another Blow

New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson has signed a bill abolishing the Death Penalty in that state. From AP:
SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Gov. Bill Richardson, who has supported capital punishment, signed legislation to repeal New Mexico's death penalty, calling it the "most difficult decision in my political life."

The new law replaces lethal injection with a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. The repeal takes effect on July 1, and applies only to crimes committed after that date.

"Regardless of my personal opinion about the death penalty, I do not have confidence in the criminal justice system as it currently operates to be the final arbiter when it comes to who lives and who dies for their crime," Richardson said. . .

. . .New Mexico becomes only the second state after New Jersey to ban executions since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976. Fourteen other states do not impose capital punishment.

"The tide is turning and the end of this cruel and inhuman form of punishment in the United States is only a matter of time," said Terry Davis, the secretary general of the 47-nation Council of Europe.

All European nations have banned or suspended capital punishment.

The repeal passed the state Senate by a 24-18 vote Friday and was approved by the House a month earlier. With Richardson facing a midnight deadline to decide whether to sign or veto the legislation, he said he made the decision in the late afternoon after going to the state penitentiary.

There he saw the death chamber and visited the maximum security unit where those sentenced to life-without-parole could be housed.

"My conclusion was those cells are something that may be worse than death," the Democratic governor said at a news conference in the Capitol. "I believe this is a just punishment."

A similar bill is working its way through the Colorado legislature. SB 1774 in Colorado is supported by Archbishop Charles J. Chaput and the Colorado Catholic Conference. In his latest column, Archbishop Chaput wrote:
Both Scripture and a long tradition of Catholic thought support the legitimacy of the death penalty under certain limited circumstances. But as Pope John Paul II argued so eloquently, the conditions that require the death penalty for society’s self-defense and the discharge of justice in modern, developed nations almost never exist. As a result, the right road for a civilized society is to abolish the death penalty altogether.

The official Colorado Catholic Conference position reads, in part:
We believe that all people have a natural right to life, because every human being is made in the image and likeness of God, who alone is Lord of life from its beginning until its end (cf. Gn 1: 26-28).

Obviously, behavior that threatens or takes lives cannot be tolerated. Those whose actions harm others must be held accountable. Society has a right to establish laws that protect all people and promote the common good. But the need to punish violent criminals does not logically lead, in our day, to the conclusion that capital punishment should be employed.

We grieve for the victims of murder and the terrible suffering of their families. In capital murder cases, we recognize that grave punishment is needed both to serve justice and to ensure the safety of the community. But we also believe, as Pope John Paul II once observed, that improvements in the penal system of developed countries like our own make the death penalty unnecessary to protect the community.

The state of Colorado has other means available to it besides the death penalty to exact justice and render the criminal unable to do harm. We need to continue the reform of our criminal justice system, and we need to impose punishment in a way that protects society from violence while avoiding further killing under official guise.

All human life, from conception to natural death, including the life of a convicted murderer, has intrinsic value. For the sake of our own humanity, we need to turn away from a mistaken idea of justice based—in practice—on further and unneeded violence.

Moratorium bills are also winding there way through the Kansas and Missouri legislatures where they are strongly supported by the respective state's Bishops Conferences (contrary to some ill-informed KC Star letter writers).

Jude Huntz, Director of Human Rights for the Diocese of Kansas City - St. Joseph discussed these bills on KCUR's Up to Date in Kansas City this week. You can listen to his interview here.

Unfortunately, the Kansas Bill seems stuck in committee for this year. The Missouri bill (Deeken HB484 / Days SB321), however, has strong bi-partisan support. Later we'll have a guest post from Jude on how you can lend your support to the passage of this bill. Meanwhile, you can show your support by joining the Death Penalty Moratorium group on Facebook set up by the Diocese of Kansas City - St. Joseph.