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Dialogue As Dissent: Religious Leaders Speak Out on Capital Punishment

Two bishops, an imam, a rabbi, a reverend, and the president of the Hindu Temple Society of North America walk into the Kennedy Center. This is not the beginning of a micro-aggression laden joke, but rather the beginning of an innovative panel, Deadman Walking: Religious Leaders Dialogue on the Death Penalty, that aimed to display unity across faiths and political affiliations in the midst of an unprecedentedly polarized time in American public discourse. The religious leaders had gathered to discuss their shared ambition to abolish the death penalty.

The religious leaders are not alone in their opposition. Since its zenith at approximately seventy-five percent of the population in the mid-1990s, support for the death penalty among both political liberals and conservatives has eroded by 20 percentage points according to Gallup. Although support for the death penalty is markedly higher among conservatives, as 72% of self-identified Republicans still support capital punishment, the majority of Americans now oppose the penalty according to some polls and significantly more perceive the penalty as unfair.

Numerous states have seen repeated bipartisan campaigns to abolish the penalty – nineteen have succeeded, and four additional states have effective moratoriums on capital punishment. Still, the majority of states and the national government still have and use capital punishment. Nebraska abolished the death penalty legislatively in 2015 but brought it back via referendum last year. Other states, such as Washington, have seen numerous failed attempts to abolish the death penalty. California’s November referendum result in favor of the death penalty was a particularly strong blow to those opposed to capital punishment. And the wide-reaching return to power for the Republican party, with President Trump, who once took out full page ads to advocate the death penalty for the now-acquitted Central Park Five in New York’s four largest papers, and a staunchly pro-capital punishment Vice President Pence at its head, has also given pause to some anti-death penalty advocates including those interviewed for this article.

Many more anti-death penalty advocates hope to continue business as usual. Karen Clifton, of the Catholic Mobilizing Network, a group for organized Catholic opposition to the death penalty, is optimistic about the chances of her group’s efforts under the Trump administrations.

“Our main focus is always to mobilize Catholics around the issue of the death penalty and help them to be informed participants in this debate,” said Clifton. “With support for the death penalty at an all time low, Catholics have more opportunity than ever to proclaim the Church’s pro-life message.”

Clifton also pointed out that last last year experienced the lowest number of executions in nearly three decades and that the vast majority of those executions, sixteen out of twenty, took place in only two southern states – Texas and Georgia.

Marc Hyden of Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty is also not particularly concerned about the effects of the current political climate on his coalition’s work to end capital punishment.

Hyden asserts that nothing has changed for him, and cautions against looking at some polls as they can be misleading. Many national polls do not tell respondents that there is an alternative to the death penalty. Hyden points to polls in North Carolina, Kentucky, and Oklahoma which show that most people would repeal the death penalty if they knew they could replace it.

Hyden also pointed out that although President Trump and his then-nominee for Attorney General, Jefferson Sessions, are both pro-capital punishment, so were  President Obama and former Attorney General Loretta Lynch. Both Hyden and Clifton agree that effective anti-capital punishment reform takes place at the state and local level more often than not, and both maintain that their respective groups, Catholics, and conservatives have strong reasons, including inefficacy, cost, and pro-life religious tenets, to oppose the death penalty to an even greater extent in the future.

This last objection of both Clifton’s Catholic Mobilization Network and Hyden’s Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty – that the penalty contravenes the pro-life tenets of their organizations’ morality and religion – is gaining considerable traction in conservative circles.

“Some people believe in a consistent life ethic so from conception to natural death all life should be protected. Others believe that we should only be safeguarding innocents,” explained Hyden. “My view is that no matter what kind of pro-life philosophy you subscribe to the death penalty is in violation of that because it’s not always right.”

Clifton also emphasizes the notion of a consistent life ethic. Her organization partners with numerous other organizations in favor of such diverse topics as immigration reform and environmental protection.  

“We are called to maintain a consistent ethic of life, and that must take into consideration not only the vulnerability present at the beginning of life but all the points in life which leave people vulnerable and unable to flourish,” Alexandra Carroll, Catholic Mobilization Network’s Communications Director wrote in an email. “This includes issues of conflict and violence as well as climate change, immigration and more directly the use of capital punishment.”

Capital punishment is also extremely expensive. Clifton highlighted that housing an inmate for life costs approximately $300,000 in most prison systems, but that sentencing a person to death costs millions of dollars on average. Phoebe Ellsworth, Professor of Law and Psychology at the University of Michigan and vice president of the Death Penalty Information Center, is an expert on public perception of the death penalty and the psychology of eyewitness testimony. She explained that many people simply do not understand why the government ties up so many resources in attempting to sentence citizens to death when they could be better spent resolving crimes.

“My feelings on fiscal responsibility in government have also been a driving force. I like government limited in scope,” said Hyden. “I can’t imagine a bigger power to give the government than one that says you can go ahead and kill your citizens.”

A large component of the extreme expense associated with capital punishment results from ineffective prosecutorial methods such as eyewitness testimony. Professor Ellsworth explained that, even though eyewitness testimony is proven to be extremely unreliable, it is still often the most effective piece of evidence in convincing a jury of a person’s guilt or innocence. Although the introduction of more reliable DNA evidence has the potential to ameliorate inequities and inefficiencies in the justice system and may, as Ellsworth noted, have lead to decreased support for the death penalty as it exposed an astounding number of wrongful convictions, Carroll, Clifton, Ellsworth, and Hyden all agree that the death penalty is just too flawed to continue.

“Beyond the glaring act of taking a life that is understood as sacred,” wrote Carroll, “since 1973 more than 150 people, the current total is up to 157, have been exonerated due to evidence of their innocence.”

All four referenced this significant number of exonerations in their accounts. As Hyden sees it, American taxpayers and citizens do not want to see another big, ineffective, and expensive government program especially if it leads to deeply unethical outcomes.

“Americans don’t want another big government program that doesn’t work,” said Hyden.

Carroll, Clifton, and Hyden all point to the punishment’s inefficacy as a deterrent as yet another significant way in which the penalty is ineffective and unfair.

“Plagued with racial bias,” wrote Carroll, “the death penalty additionally does not serve as a deterrent to violent crime.”

All four anti-death penalty advocates are confident that this body of evidence will convince the population beyond a shadow of a doubt that the death penalty should be abolished in the foreseeable future. Ellsworth expects to see an end to the death penalty in the next twenty years or so. Hyden and Clifton both feel that ending capital punishment will be a function of increased education about the adverse effects and anti-life nature of the penalty.

Clifton pointed to bipartisan House Bill 316 in the Texas state legislature as an example of an effective localized measure to make capital punishment less likely and thus bring about its demise. The bill requires that juries are required to be made aware of the alternative of lifetime without parole in cases involving heinous crimes that are otherwise thought to merit the death penalty. Hyden, too, pointed out that this is a particular facet of criminal punishment of which many Americans, including those who comprise juries, are unaware. All have hope that through discussion of the issues consensus and unity will be reached.

“When we have all of the faiths speaking out in unison about the dignity of life and the ability for people to change and to be reconciled,” said Clifton. “It’s very very powerful when all of the faith leaders speak out in unison.”