lunedì 3 agosto 2015

The tide turns against the death penalty in the US

The Tablet
Here in the US the death penalty’s days are numbered. And none are more encouraged by this than those who spend their lives fighting to end it.

They represent organisations such as Journey of Hope, Witness to Innocence, the Catholic Mobilising Network, the Catholic Worker, the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, and the Action Abolition Committee. And last month they gathered to protest against capital punishment for four days in front of the US Supreme Court during the 22nd annual “Starvin for Justice Fast and Vigil to End the Death Penalty.”

“For many years it was hard to see progress, but now its unmistakable. This struggle is almost over,” said long-time anti-death penalty strategist Abe Bonowitz, who has worked on many of the successful state-level repeal efforts.

I attended the fast and vigil as a representative of the Community of Sant’Egidio, a lay Catholic movement engaged in global abolition movement. I spoke about my friendship with Ivan Cantu, a death row inmate, and called for an end to the death penalty, not only because I believe all life is sacred, but because capital punishment is arbitrarily and unjustly applied, and there’s no evidence that it deters crime. I take heart in Pope Francis’ call for everyone to struggle for the abolition of the death penalty.

Capital punishment is legal in 31 American states, but most actively applied in a handful of southern ones. Texas, where my friend Ivan lives, has carried out nine executions already this year.

On the fast and vigil’s opening day, 29 June, the nine-member Supreme Court ruled against the three death-row inmates in Oklahoma who had sought to bar the use of the drug Midazolam in lethal injections. But participants took heart in dissenting opinions by Justices Stephen Breyer and Ruth Ginsburg, who called the death penalty’s constitutionality into question and signalled the interest of America’s highest court to revisit the issue.

Several states have abolished the death penalty in recent years, most recently, Nebraska in May. And everywhere, even in Texas, death sentences and executions seem to be slowing down. With botched executions, prosecutorial misconduct, and exonerations (155 to date since 1973) covered regularly in the press, all sides of the political spectrum are realising the senselessness of the death penalty.

Bonowitz told me: “As more states abandon their use of capital punishment either in law or in practice, it’s fair to expect the Supreme Court to apply its 'evolving standards of decency' doctrine to the death penalty as a whole, and strike it down the same way they disallowed the execution of juveniles and those with intellectual disabilities. Hopefully the right case will come along soon.”

At the fast and vigil, family members of murder victims bore witness to the healing power of forgiveness.

Bill Pelke, whose grandmother Ruth, was murdered in 1986, said forgiving her killer, Paula Cooper, happened automatically, and was almost unexplainable, except for the fact that he didn’t want Cooper’s family to suffer as he did. He forgave Cooper, befriended her, and fought for her release, which took place in 2013. He co-founded Journey of Hope with other victims’ family members who say that executions bring neither justice nor healing.

“Society is starting to learn that murder victim family members can heal without seeing someone else die, and as a result support for the death penalty is waning,” Pelke said.

Journey to Hope and others in the abolition movement will bring their message to Texas for the World Day Against the Death Penalty conference in Dallas from 9-11 October.

“Jesus taught us to forgive. He said we were to forgive 70 times seven,” Pelke said. “He is saying forgiveness should be a habit, a way of life. It almost seems like a secret, but the beauty of forgiveness is its healing power.”

Dani Clark is a member of the Community of Sant’Egidio, a lay Catholic peace and justice movement, in Washington DC

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