Editorial: Recent cases highlight the flaws of the death penalty

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Death sentences and long prison sentences seem to be crumbling everywhere you look.  

In Tennessee, a judge in Nashville changed the death penalty sentence for Abu-Ali Abdur’Rahman to life in prison at the request of the district attorney general after evidence of racial bias in the selection of the jury was uncovered. Abdur’Rahman will serve three consecutive life sentences stemming from his conviction in a 1986 murder of a Nashville man. 

And in Memphis, the Shelby County District Attorney General will no longer seek the execution of Pervis Payne, who was sentenced to death in the 1988 murder of a woman and her son. Payne is intellectually disabled, and both the state and U.S. supreme courts have ruled intellectually disabled people shouldn’t be executed. The Tennessee General Assembly passed a law last year to bring state law in line with those court rulings, and the prosecutor announced that given the new law, her office instead would ask the court to give Payne two life sentences instead. 

And Oklahoma’s governor recently commuted the death sentence of a man for the 1999 murder he was convicted of to life in prison without the possibility of parole. The clemency petition said the death sentence should be commuted because of ineffective and inexperienced defense attorneys, racial bias among the jury and alleged prosecutorial misconduct. 

In Missouri, a judge released a man who was sentenced to life in prison after he was convicted of the murder of three people even though there was no physical evidence linking him to the crime scene, family members provided alibis, and the admitted killers said he was not there. 

“Under these unique circumstances, the Court’s confidence in (the inmate’s) conviction is so undermined that it cannot stand, and the judgment of conviction must be set aside,” the judge wrote. 

We pray always for the victims of violent crimes. Innocent lives are lost in unjust circumstances, but we cannot allow our pain of loss turn into a sense of retribution that prevents those accused of crimes from receiving fair trials that lead to proper punishment and still protect society. 

The bishops of the three dioceses of Tennessee – Nashville, Memphis and Knoxville – have repeatedly proclaimed the Church’s teaching that the death penalty is a violation of the God-given dignity of every person and urged current and past governors to commute the death sentences of inmates facing their execution. 

Besides citing the Church’s view on the dignity of every person, even those convicted of serious and heinous crimes, the bishops have often cited the flaws in the criminal justice system that can lead to mistaken and unwarranted convictions. 

In some cases, the wrongful convictions were unintentional. Others have been reflections of the disadvantages the poor often face in the courts. There have been instances of racial bias at play or misconduct by law enforcement and prosecutors. 

These recent cases of death sentences being commuted because of mistakes in the legal process are vivid examples of why the bishops and the Church have called for the end of the death penalty. Executing someone leaves no chance for such mistakes to be rectified.  

The bishops in this state and across the country understand and acknowledge that the government’s role is to protect the safety of its citizens and to hold those who break the law accountable for their crimes. There are other options besides the death penalty to hold people accountable.  

“With modern prisons, we do not need the death penalty to keep us safe,” the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops wrote to Congress urging an end to the federal death penalty. “We can accomplish justice without it and strengthen respect for the sacred dignity of every human life, which is so needed today.” 

And the bishops understand the pain and loss suffered by the victims and their loved ones and pray that they can find peace.  

“The terrible loss of the families of victims must be considered as well,” the U.S. bishops said in their letter to Congress. “So much energy and resources go into carrying out executions. We urge you to redirect these resources towards providing compassionate and professional assistance to the families of victims.” 

The goal of the legal system should be justice, not simply revenge. 

When Pope Francis addressed a Joint Meeting of Congress in 2015, he called for the abolition of the death penalty across the globe. “I am convinced that this way is the best, since every life is sacred, every human person is endowed with an inalienable dignity, and society can only benefit from the rehabilitation of those convicted of crimes,” he said.  

We pray that the recent cases of death sentences being reconsidered will convince more people, including our government leaders, that the death penalty is flawed and against God’s plan for his people. 

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