Easter season is fitting time to discuss death penalty

By Susan Weishar, PH.D., Guest Column

In the current Louisiana Legislative session, our state lawmakers have the opportunity to take the historic step of ending the death penalty in Louisiana, the most draconian of all punishments which violates the dignity and sanctity of human life and diminishes us all.

Louisiana Catholics Against the Death Penalty again affirms our opposition to the death penalty and our support of legislation ending forever the practice of state-sanctioned killing in Louisiana.

In a 2002 pastoral letter, “Let Justice and Mercy Meet,” the Catholic bishops of Louisiana addressed why people of the Gospel must reject capital punishment as a way of confronting crime:

“Death does not restore, heal or make whole what was lost. Death only causes more death. When the state imposes death as a sentence, a further insensitivity to the loss of life is the result. The death penalty makes it easy to give up on others and neglect the underlying causes which yield violence and death. As a people of the Gospel of Life, we are instead called to build a civilization of life and love and mercy.”

In the April 20 issue of the Clarion Herald, Archbishop Aymond announced a new initiative to engage Catholic high school students in advocacy efforts to end the death penalty in Louisiana. The archbishop was clear that the death penalty is a pro-life issue that cannot be separated from others.

He asked that we “not live in ‘eye for eye, tooth for tooth’ revenge but give the sinner a chance to repent and ask for God’s mercy.”

On Good Friday, the most solemn day in the Christian calendar, Christians were reminded how Jesus, the totally innocent one, forgave his persecutors at whose hands he was suffering an agonizing and humiliating death.

Throughout the Gospels, there is a repeated insistence on the critical importance of mercy and forgiveness of those who sin against us. It is not a peripheral matter in the Christian faith, but rather the core of what it means to take on the mind of Christ.

Forgiveness is a core message

Why Christ’s insistence on forgiveness? So that we may be rescued from the deadly consequences of refusing to forgive – bitterness, alienation, resentment and vengeance.

The death penalty is premised on vengeance and retribution, not redemption. Furthermore, the application of the death penalty is highly prone to errors and is often biased by race, the quality of legal representation and the locality of the crime.

Since 1976, 82% of death penalty convictions in Louisiana have been overturned, the highest rate of reversal in the U.S.

Several studies have shown that one of the most decisive factors in who is prosecuted for the death penalty is the race of the victim. Too often who lives and who dies also depends upon geography –  42 of Louisiana’s 64 parishes have not returned a death sentence since 2000.

The death penalty absorbs much-needed resources that would be better used to prevent crime, support victims and increase public safety. There are much less costly alternatives that both punish offenders and protect society.

In his speech before Congress, Pope Francis reminded our nation’s leaders of their responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of development. He rejected the death penalty as an affront to the dignity and sanctity of human life and because a just and necessary punishment must never exclude the dimension of hope and the goal of rehabilitation.

In August Pope Francis closed any possible “loopholes” Catholics may have harbored regarding the death penalty by approving a change to the “Catechism of the Catholic Church” which states unequivocally that the “death penalty is inadmissible” because it is an attack on the inviolability and the dignity of the human person.

Christians are an Easter people – our faith is rooted in the hope of mercy and resurrection. Jesus’ death on the cross transformed all suffering and pain by refusing to pass it on. The resurrection secured the promise of eternal life.

It is this paschal mystery, this Easter faith, that we are called to live each day, drawing upon the limitless love of God to fortify us against the temptation of fear.

Let us no longer succumb to the fear and hopelessness that the death penalty represents.

We pray that in the 2019 legislative session, our legislators have the courage and wisdom to end the death penalty in Louisiana by supporting HB 215, sponsored by Rep. Terry Landry, which would eliminate the death penalty as a possible punishment for offenses committed on or after Aug. 1, 2019, and SB 112, sponsored by Sen. Dan Claitor, which would require a constitutional amendment to abolish the death penalty be submitted to voters in a state-wide election in November 2019.

Sue Weishar, Ph.D., is a policy and research fellow with the Jesuit Social Research Institute/Loyola University New Orleans and a member of Louisiana Catholics Against the Death Penalty.

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