On the eve of Colorado's last execution, exactly 10 years ago, I wrote the following words in these pages:
Most arguments against capital punishment demonstrate that it doesn't work as a deterrent — but let's say it does.
Most arguments against capital punishment demonstrate that innocent people are sometimes convicted and executed; that the legal system discriminates against minorities and the poor; that defendants in many states get disastrous legal counsel unless they can afford otherwise. All these things seem to be true — but let's ignore them.
Instead, let's assume that a person is guilty of premeditated murder; that he or she gets good legal counsel, with correct legal process, and is convicted by a fair jury after careful and intelligent deliberation. Killing the guilty is still wrong. It does not honor the dead. It does not ennoble the living. And while it may satisfy society's anger for awhile, it cannot even release the murder victim's loved ones from their sorrow, because only forgiveness can do that.
What the death penalty does accomplish is closure through blood-letting, violence against violence — which is not really closure at all, because murder will continue as long as humans sin, and capital punishment can never, by its nature, strike at murder's root. Only love can do that.
Over the past decade, much has changed. Support for the death penalty nationwide has declined. Among Catholics, fewer than 50% now believe in the need for capital punishment, and — not surprisingly — the drop in death-penalty support is most drastic among those Catholics who attend Mass regularly and seek to seriously practice their faith.
More than 120 innocent, exonerated persons have walked off death row in recent decades. But other wrongly convicted persons almost certainly did not. Because of this pattern of inadequacy in state justice systems, some states have halted executions temporarily. Others now seek to repeal the death penalty altogether. More and more doctors have raised ethical concerns about medical cooperation in lethal injections. The time is right for Colorado to turn its back on capital punishment.
State Rep. Paul Weissman claims that state funds currently spent on death-penalty trials and appeals — roughly $40 million over the past decade, in his estimation — could be better used in solving unsolved murders. It's an ingenious argument, and Rep. Weissman deserves Coloradans' gratitude for attacking the flawed logic of capital punishment head-on. But "cost effectiveness" is a thin reason to abolish the death penalty. As others have pointed out, the cost of the death penalty and the resources available to law-enforcement authorities to pursue cases are not really related. Nor is it healthy for any society to spare or kill convicted murderers on economic grounds.
The death penalty is a bad idea because it diminishes the society that employs it. It doesn't deter capital crime. It doesn't bring back the dead. It doesn't give anyone "peace." It sometimes kills the innocent. It coarsens our own humanity and sense of justice. And while both Scripture and long Catholic tradition do support the legitimacy of capital punishment in extraordinary cases, the conditions that would justify its use in developed countries like the United States almost never exist.
Rep. Weissman has opened a very valuable debate. Whether or not his bill succeeds this Assembly session, let's pray that it triggers the beginning of the end of capital punishment in Colorado. We don't need the death penalty, and as people of sense and conscience, we shouldn't want it. We need to end the death penalty now.