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The entrance to the 'death chamber' at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Huntsville Unit, USA The entrance to the 'death chamber' at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Huntsville Unit, USA  (AFP or licensors)

US Bishop on new federal execution dates: no crime should be punishable by death

Archbishop Paul Coakley of Oklahoma City, the chairman of the USCCB's Committee for Domestic Justice and Human Development, expresses his sadness over the decision to resume scheduling executions at the federal level in the United States.

By Vatican News

The US Supreme Court has set four new federal execution dates for death row inmates. These are the first set dates in over 17 years. Archbishop Coakley explains that the last federal execution took place in 2003. In the years since then the US has seen both Republican and Democratic administrations, and so, according to Archbishop Coakley, this apparent reluctance in carrying out executions is not “merely a partisan influence”.

Death penalty in the US

The death penalty has been so widely utilised in the United States, “in so many” states, yet “overall, for many, many years, the public opinion has been moving away from the death penalty”. It is for this reason, that after almost two decades of silence, the news that the federal government will be authorising the execution of prisoners comes as a shock, “and certainly as a disappointment”, says Archbishop Coakley.

Listen to our interview with Archbishop Coackley

It is true that these prisoners may have, perhaps, committed heinous crimes, says Archbishop Coakley. But even if these four people whose executions have been scheduled are guilty of the most terrible of crimes, “I don’t think there is any situation in which the death penalty is justifiable”, he says. Archbishop Coakley adds that he stands with Pope Francis, as well as with the recent developments of the Catholic Church’s understanding of the death penalty, reiterating “I don’t see that it is justified”.

The Church's position

We have seen in the Magisterium of the last several Popes, beginning especially with John Paul II in his Evangelium Vitae, and then through Pope Benedict and Pope Francis, “a greater clarification of the Church’s position on the death penalty”, says Archbishop Coakley. He explains that this teaching is being “refined” through time and that it will take time for Catholics to understand its importance.

Archbishop Coakley goes on to explain that there are many reasons for the death penalty being a breach of morality, beginning with the fact that it is “an affront against human dignity”. On top of that, he adds, “it contributes to the coarsening of society and promotes a culture of violence”. Archbishop Coakley goes on to stress that there is also “the very real possibility” and evidence “that sometimes innocent persons have been condemned to death”.

“So, for many, many reasons, I think we need to as a nation to really step back and reconsider the use of the death penalty in this country. We can do better,” says Archbishop Coakley, adding that “as Americans, we are proud of the freedoms we enjoy in the country, and yet, this does not portray the values on which our Republic has been based from the beginning, in a very attractive or positive way”.

Injustices in the justice system

Archbishop Coakley then goes on to note that “the death penalty does not appear to be applied equitably”. He notes that in the United States “the poor and minorities are much more likely to be given the death sentence than others”, and describes this as a “systemic” harsh reality. There are other ways of administering justice to protect society and of “redressing the wrongs of victims of crime and their suffering”, he argues.

The US reacts

There is a growing movement in the United States that opposes the death penalty, says Archbishop Coakley. He notes that “every time there is an execution in the United States, wherever it may be, there is always some sort of a gathering of people of faith”, who unite in prayer for an end to this kind of treatment of our brothers and sisters. This growing movement, he says, is moving us in the right direction. However, he adds, there “seems to be a real setback” with the announcement of these four federal executions. “I would hope that, God forbid, if these executions are carried out, that it might indeed spark a greater awareness and a greater moral outcry against the use of the death penalty in the United States”.

Archbishop Coakley concludes by noting that we do have a long way to go, but that through “people speaking up”, including people of faith, “we are definitely moving in the right direction”. The decision to resume federal executions has been an unfortunate setback, he says, “but I am not losing hope. Life will be victorious.”

02 July 2020, 17:00