When I was 8 years old, I heard a news story on the radio one morning about a man due to be executed. My mom didn’t realize what I was hearing until I asked her point-blank what the “death penalty” was. After a sip of coffee and a half-tired, half-reluctant sigh, she explained it to me. There was no editorializing in her comments or in her tone–she just gave me the facts. Even so, I came to my own conclusion very quickly: The death penalty was and is wrong.
I decided to write to then-President George W. Bush and ask him to abolish it. In my letter, I cited that Catholic grade school mantra I knew so well: “Two wrongs don’t make a right.” I waited patiently for a response and for the news that the United States would suspend all executions. The reply I finally received from the White House was disappointing, to say the least. It was a form letter that didn’t really address my concerns, but instead attempted to redirect me by encouraging me to keep up my studies and to “read as much as I can.”
Frustrated though I was, I took the President’s advice. I have been a voracious reader since elementary school, and, as I reflect on my life-long opposition to capital punishment, the experience I had reading a particular book quickly comes to mind.
“Dead Man Walking,” Sister Helen Prejean’s groundbreaking account of her work as a spiritual adviser to two men on death row, had a profound effect on me, as it has had on millions of readers. Even 23 years after its publication and 21 years after the release of an Academy Award-nominated film adaptation, “Dead Man Walking” is just as powerful in its depiction of the emotional and spiritual toll the death penalty takes, not just on those sentenced to death, but on everyone involved in facilitating it. In Sister Helen’s account, officers, wardens, technicians, coroners, and governors all push aside their moral compasses to cope with the act of ending a life. Sister Helen also explores the ways in which capital punishment is at best arbitrary and capricious and at worst calculated and cruel in its disproportionate targeting of African-American men and those in the lower economic strata of our society who cannot afford top-quality legal counsel.
The issues that Sister Helen lays out in “Dead Man Walking” are being debated once again in California and Nebraska, where voters will be deciding the future of capital punishment in their states. In California, Propositions 62 and 66 aim to either “end or mend” the death penalty. Proposition 62 repeals the state’s capital punishment laws in their entirety and replaces the maximum sentence with life in prison without the possibility of parole, while Proposition 66 would restrict the appeals process for those sentenced to death to expedite executions. The vote is more straightforward for the people of Nebraska, who will simply have to vote to either “repeal” or “retain” the state legislature’s decision to abolish capital punishment in Referendum 426.
Catholic leaders have always fought on the frontlines of social justice in this country, and the fight to end the death penalty is no exception. Bishops in California issued a statement in which they condemned the use of the death penalty, saying: “Our commitment to halt the practice of capital punishment is rooted both in the Catholic faith and our pastoral experience … Capital punishment [is] severely and irrevocably flawed in its application.” Bishops in Nebraska issued a similar statement, in which they also argued that the risk of inadvertently executing an innocent is too great to even consider putting convicted persons to death.
Their sentiments are shared by Pope Francis himself, who has repeatedly called for global abolition of the death penalty, including in his address to Congress last year. It is fitting that the votes to end the death penalty in California and Nebraska should come during the last month of the Jubilee Year of Mercy, and one can only hope that mercy will prevail on November 8.