Friday, 26 January 2007

Catholic leaders seek end to death penalty in two states


Catholic leaders seek end to death penalty in two states

By Jerry Filteau
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- In separate actions the Maryland Catholic Conference and Bishop Blase J. Cupich of Rapid City, S.D., have called for an end to the death penalty in their states.

Both states currently face a de facto moratorium on executions because of legal difficulties over the use of lethal injection to carry it out.

Maryland Catholic Conference executive director Richard J. Dowling Jan. 25 urged the state's General Assembly to adopt legislation that would substitute life imprisonment without parole for all crimes currently punishable by death in Maryland. The conference is the public policy agency of the bishops of Maryland.

"Most Marylanders are ready for repeal" of capital punishment, Dowling said in a one-page statement that noted the Catholic Church "has long been a leader on this issue."

He said a poll two years ago showed that 63 percent of Marylanders of voting age "viewed life without parole as an agreeable alternative to death by execution."

The same day, the chief sponsors of identical repeal bills in the Senate and House of Delegates held a news conference announcing their plans to introduce the legislation.

Gov. Martin O'Malley told reporters he would definitely sign such legislation if it passed. "We waste a lot of money pursuing a policy that doesn't work to reduce crime or save lives," he said.

Bishop Cupich appealed for the abolition of the death penalty in South Dakota in a two-page article in the Jan. 29 issue of America, a New York-based national Catholic magazine.

He linked the issue to the state's efforts last year to ban abortion except to save the mother's life.

He acknowledged that many wish to keep the two issues separate. But he argued that when the question is viewed through the lens of the sanctity of human life, a state that protects the lives even of those who commit "monstrous crimes" would "be consistent in defending the inherent and inalienable value of every human life."

"South Dakotans have a unique opportunity throughout the coming year to witness to our nation and the world that the sacred right to life is universal and God-given," he wrote.

Last December the Maryland Court of Appeals, hearing an appeal by death-row inmate Vernon L. Evans Jr., halted executions until a committee of state senators and delegates reviews the rules and procedures for administering lethal injections. The court, which is the equivalent of the supreme court in most states, said the rules must be regarded as state regulations and had not been subjected to the public review required for them.

The Maryland ruling followed close on the heels of the suspension of executions in Florida following a botched execution there and in California at the order of a federal judge.

In South Dakota, Gov. Mike Rounds issued a stay of execution last August for Elijah Page when he learned that the state law still called for a two-drug combination, instead of the three-drug protocol that has been adopted by all other states that use lethal injection. Page would have been the first man executed in South Dakota in 59 years.

Bishop Cupich wrote that legislators in South Dakota have "announced their intention to fix what is now known as 'the cocktail problem,' so that the death penalty can be carried out."

Instead, he called on legislators to rely on the principles they espoused last year when they adopted legislation outlawing virtually all abortions in the state. Voters subsequently defeated that legislation by referendum.

In the debate over that legislation, the bishop said, its proponents "forcefully argued that the right to life is universal and God-given. The statute they supported did not refer to degrees or gradations of the right to life, nor did it rest on an individual's quality of life, age or moral worth."

Applying that principle to the death penalty debate, he said, "A state that rejects in principle the execution of even those individuals whose crimes are unspeakable bears powerful witness to the unconditional nature of the right to life. ... A state that refuses to use the death penalty advances a culture of life with great power of witness precisely because it protects the lives of those who have been judged least worthy of its vindication."

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