Death is Seldom the Answer

Jan.26- Feb. 1, 2006
VOL 125 NO. 3
Death is Seldom the Answer
By Claudia Mathis/ SUN staff writer
SUN photo(s) SUN illustraion
Progress is Being Made in Battle Against the Death Penalty

“I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life, then, that you and your descendants may live.” — Dt. 30:19

Over the past 10 years, many new developments have emerged highlighting the injustice of the death penalty. Recent cases of wrongful death penalty application, in which new DNA evidence was used to overturn murder convictions and free innocent prisoners, are gruesome reminders that the U.S. criminal justice system is not foolproof.

John Restivo was unjustly treated by the system. Restivo spent 18 years in various New York prisons for a murder he didn’t commit. On Dec. 29, 2005, three years after his conviction was overturned based on DNA evidence, the Nassau County District Attorney’s office finally vacated all charges against him.

“My trial was unfair,” said Restivo. “I fought for DNA testing every step of the way. I feel like the system let me down. It’s been a nightmare, but it could have been worse — I could have died.” He credits the support provided by his family and friends for making it through the ordeal. “I also kept hoping that new technological developments would help my case,” added Restivo. Restivo has vowed to continue speaking against the death penalty and against the kinds of abuses that led to his wrongful conviction. He gave compelling testimony at last year’s Assembly hearings on capital punishment.

Twenty-five years ago the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops first called for an end to the death penalty. Since then, Catholics have worked with others in state legislatures, in the courts and in Congress to restrain or end the use of the death penalty. Under the leadership of Pope John Paul II, Catholic teaching on the death penalty has been articulated and applied with greater clarity and strength. Many people, especially Catholics, appear to be reconsidering their past support for the death penalty. The Supreme Court and some states have limited the use of capital punishment.

In June 2004 the New York State Court of Appeals targeted New York’s death penalty statute, holding it unconstitutional under the state’s Constitution. The court struck down the “deadlock” provision, which instructed a jury that if it did not agree on either of two sentencing choices — either capital punishment or life without parole — the judge could impose a third, more lenient choice: life with the possibility of parole.

The court ruled that this instruction could coerce jurors into voting for a death sentence to avoid the possibility of a killer eventually being set free on parole. The New York State Senate passed a bill proposed by Gov. George Pataki to restore capital punishment. The Assembly held hearings on the issue, attempting to gain some understanding of the way the death penalty is applied. On April 12, the Assembly Codes Committee voted not to pass the death penalty bill from committee by an 11 to seven vote, thereby stopping the bill and preventing the reinstatement of the death penalty in New York State.

At present, those convicted of the worst offenses face life in prison without parole, not death row. As a result of similar legislation across the nation, 122 people who had been sitting on death row have been exonerated, and one person, John Taylor, remains on death row at the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, N.Y. His appeal hasn’t been heard yet. In December 2004, following the murders of two New York City police officers, Gov. Pataki called a special session of the Legislature to address crimes against law enforcement personnel.

The governor, Senate and Assembly agreed on two pieces of legislation, one of which created enhanced penalties for crimes against police officers, including life without parole but not the death penalty, for those who murder police officers. Therefore, the death penalty cannot be applied for the immediate future. Today, the death penalty is undergoing a serious re-examination of its fairness and effectiveness, its social and moral dimensions.

The number of violent crimes continues to fall since the death penalty was overturned. Sam Donnelly, a parishioner of Holy Cross Church in DeWitt and a professor at Syracuse University, said that the enforcement of capital punishment does not have any effect on the number of murders that are committed. In 2004, the year when New York State’s death penalty was overturned, the state’s crime rate continued to drop, with murder going down 2.9 percent and violent crimes 5.9 percent. By a margin of 46-42 percent, New Yorkers do not want to see the death penalty reinstated, according to the New Yorkers Against the Death Penalty website ww.nyadp.org. And by a nearly two-to-one margin (56-29 percent) they favor life without parole over the death penalty for first-degree murderers.

The New York State Catholic Conference supports abolition of the death penalty in New York State to ensure that executions never again take place in the state. Kathleen Gallagher, pro-life director at the New York State Catholic Conference, said the members of her organization have lobbied against the death penalty for many years. Gallagher was encouraged when the Assembly defeated the bill to restore capital punishment. “It shows a turnaround in public opinion — a change of heart,” said Gallagher. The Catholic Conference advocates for social policies which are committed to human life and which affirm the value and dignity of each individual. The church teaches that every human life is sacred and made in the image and likeness of God, even one that may have committed a heinous crime.

Capital punishment is disrespectful to human life on a variety of levels. The death penalty represents a short-term, violent solution to the very deep problems of crime, poverty, unemployment, lack of education and resources. Catholic teaching on the death penalty is clearly articulated in the encyclical The Gospel of Life, the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church.

In its traditional teaching as summarized in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the church affirms the right and duty of legitimate public authority “to inflict punishment proportionate to the gravity of the offense.” (no. 2266) The Catechism also makes clear that if other ways exist to protect society, the death penalty should not be permitted: “If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity with the dignity of the human person.” (no. 2267)

Bishop Thomas Costello is adamantly opposed to the death penalty. “Once you execute somebody, there’s no appeal, no retreat,” said Bishop Costello. “Certainly we ought to be a church or a people who stand for mercy, forgiveness and rehabilitation, the opportunity to repent and convert. The death penalty takes that away. There’s a lot of evidence that in the administration of the death penalty, racial prejudice is overwhelmingly there. There aren’t many white people or people of means who end up being executed on death row. Instead, the majority of them are impoverished people that are usually non-whites.

“There’s also evidence that it’s far less expensive to maintain someone in prison than it is to execute them,” Bishop Costello continued. “Once you get through all of the legal appeals that are required before you can get to an execution, the amount of money is overwhelming. The economic argument doesn’t really make a lot of difference to me, but for some people it does.” Cindy Falise, director of the diocese’s Respect Life Office and also a board member of New Yorkers Against the Death Penalty, agrees with Bishop Costello concerning the exorbitant cost of the death penalty. Falise believes that the $200 million spent on the death penalty in the last 10 years has diverted public resources that might have been used for education, crime control, victim’s assistance or other programs offering benefits to the public. Falise noted that Third World countries China, Korea, Iran and Iraq are among those that have not abolished capital punishment. “Do we really want to be aligned with these countries?” asked Falise.

David Kaczynski, executive director of New Yorkers Against the Death Penalty, became involved in the battle against the death penalty when he fought to prevent the execution of his brother Theodore Kaczynski, also known as the Unabomber. In January 1996, Kaczynski, along with his wife Linda, tipped off the Federal Bureau of Investigations after they suspected that Theodore might be the Unabomber. They struggled with the decision of whether or not to turn him in. “We realized that if we turned him in, he would die as a result of the death penalty,” said Kaczynski. “We felt it was our responsibility to turn him in to prevent any further violence. We hoped against hope that it wasn’t him.”

Through his experience with the criminal justice system as he tried to prevent the execution of his brother, Kaczynski witnessed the unfair treatment that mentally ill people receive. “I became an activist,” said Kaczynski. “I found it most troubling when I saw the way they dealt with mental illness.” Theodore Kaczynski was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. In 1999, Kaczynski tried to stop the execution of Manny Babbitt, a mentally ill Vietnam War veteran. Babbitt’s brother, Bill, joined Kaczynski in California to help fight the battle. “We assumed if there was enough attention brought to his mental illness and his war record, then he would get life with no parole,” said Kaczynski. “But he got executed. When I was driving back from the funeral, I thought, ‘If I could tell my story, people would think about the death penalty.’

“The Court of Appeals has been a very careful court,” he remarked. “This is a slow process. I believe it will be declared unconstitutional again. I am very hopeful for the future of the death penalty for New York State and the rest of the country.”

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