Home > Social Issues > Life, Justice, & Peace

History of the death penalty in the United States

Banner prop62

Activists gather at Grand Park in Downtown L.A. on July 14 to kick off the Yes on 62 campaign. The measure will be on the ballot in November to eliminate the death penality in California. (photo/Victor Aleman)

In 1980, the Roman Catholic Bishops of the United States called for an end to the use of the death penalty in our country. It was the judgment of the bishops that the use of state-sanctioned executions was no longer necessary and was, in fact, unjustified in our time and under current circumstances.

They wrote that our nation should forgo the use of capital punishment because executing people, when it is not necessary to protect society, violates our respect for human life and dignity. Its application is deeply flawed and can be irreversibly wrong, is prone to errors, and is biased by factors such as race, the quality of legal representation, and where the crime was committed. We have other ways to punish criminals and protect society, they asserted.

At the time, there were 45 states, along with the federal government and the U.S. military, that employed the death penalty or had the option of using it in sentencing those convicted of serious crimes. Please note that the phrase used was not “those convicted of murder.” That is because it was only in 1977 when the Supreme Court, in Coker v. Georgia, declared it unconstitutional for a man to be executed for raping a woman, and to this day there are several states that can execute persons even though they have not killed anyone.

Despite their efforts, for nearly two decades it seemed as though nothing the bishops said could change the hearts and minds of Americans who supported the death penalty, not even Catholics. Massachusetts and Rhode Island were our only victories as they discontinued executions, but the Supreme Court in case after case reaffirmed its constitutionality and in 1994 President Clinton expanded the federal government’s ability to put men and women to death.

However, the conversation changed in 1999.

It was in January of that year when Pope John Paul II arrived in St Louis to take part in a massive youth rally, preside at a Mass of more than 100,000 faithful, and lead an ecumenical prayer service. During the Mass the late pontiff, now St. John Paul II, said:

A sign of hope is the increasing recognition that the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil. Modern society has the means of protecting itself, without definitively denying criminals the chance to reform. I renew the appeal I made most recently at Christmas for a consensus to end the death penalty, which is both cruel and unnecessary. (Homily at the Papal Mass in the Trans World Dome, St. Louis, Missouri, Jan. 27, 1999).

Later that day, during the ecumenical service, His Holiness turned to the governor of Missouri who was sitting nearby and asked him to spare the life of Darrell Mease, a convicted murderer whose scheduled execution was approaching. Gov. Mel Carnahan, a Baptist, was so moved by the Holy Father’s plea for mercy that he commuted Mease’s sentence to life only a few days later. The governor’s response was unprecedented and shocking to a lot of people, provoking a national debate on the subject like never before. Darrell Mease had been convicted of multiple murders and there was no doubt of his guilt. Why in the world would anyone show mercy to him of all people?

Of course, the answer to that question was that of all the people in the world it was the pope who would ask for mercy. From the start of his pontificate he taught that all life was sacred, even the life of the guilty. He had even displayed his ability to grant mercy by forgiving Mehmet Ali Agca, the would-be assassin who shot him in St. Peter’s Square in May of 1981.

After St Louis and the ensuing uproar, the public dialogue on capital punishment was decidedly different. Those advocating for ending its use were no longer simply ridiculed or ignored. There was still a consensus that they were wrong, but a serious national debate had begun. It was a debate that forced national leaders, and the public in general, to think long and hard about what it is to have our government kill on our behalf. It was not long before such a debate began to yield results.

In 2002 the Supreme Court, in Ring v. Arizona, struck down the ability of a judge acting alone to sentence someone to death. The court said that only a jury could impose such a drastic sentence. Later that same year the same court declared, in Atkins v. Virginia that it was unconstitutional to execute the developmentally disabled. Then in 2005, in Roper v Simmons, the Supreme Court justices stated it was unconstitutional to execute anyone who had committed a murder under the age of 18. For the first time, in a long time, our nation had curbed the use of the death penalty, and in the Atkins and Roper cases, the U.S. Roman Catholic Bishops had been a factor in the deliberations. They had submitted amicus briefs in both instances and had been referenced in the majority and minority opinions. 

After our nation’s highest court had made history, it wasn’t long before the states began moving away from capital punishment. New York (2007), New Jersey (2007), New Mexico (2009), Illinois (2011), Connecticut (2012), Maryland (2013), Nebraska (2015) and Delaware (2016) have now abolished its use. Another four states; Oregon (2011), Colorado (2013), Washington (2014) and Pennsylvania (2015) have gubernatorial moratoriums in place for the time being. Here, too, the Church has played an instrumental role.

For example, in New Mexico around 2007/ 2008, the state legislature passed a bill abolishing capital punishment. The governor at the time was the Honorable Bill Richardson, a Catholic, and when the legislation reached his desk he did what he had promised: he vetoed the bill. What few people know is that soon after he exercised his executive privilege, he was invited to breakfast with the three bishops of New Mexico. During that meal the bishops explained, in great detail, the Church’s position and why the governor should reconsider his veto should a similar bill ever reach him again. That happened in 2009 and the second time around the governor signed the bill.

So as of today, we are down to only 30 states, along with the federal government and the U.S. military, currently employing the death penalty. Most of those 30 states rarely impose death and instead sentence the guilty to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Here in California, where we have not executed anyone since 2006, we now have the opportunity to join the growing list of states who no longer need to put people to death. This November, voters can vote yes on Prop 62, which will abolish the death penalty once and for all, and, if history is our guide, it will be people of faith who lead the way.

SIGN UP FOR OUR DAILY EMAIL NEWSLETTER
TOPICS