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Death Penalty is Not Justice

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May 17, 2012

By Bishop Cirilo Flores, coadjutor bishop of the Diocese of San Diego. Reposted from U.T. San Diego.

This year, in the Easter season, San Diego reels from two recent murders – a young Iraqi mother of five and a 14-year-old boy visiting friends with his brother. Our community comes together in grief and to comfort the families who have lost loved ones. We recognize their profound pain.

During this difficult period, Easter’s promise of rebirth can seem like an illusion. The cycle of violence seems endless, with justice an impossible ideal. Some have even called for the death penalty for those responsible for these crimes.

So it is fitting that San Diegans should pause and think deeply about executions as many of us are celebrating new life. After all, Easter reminds us that before the Resurrection, an innocent man, Jesus of Nazareth, was executed by his government more than 2,000 years ago.

We know that innocent people have been convicted of murder in California – three were released in 2011 after serving a total of 57 years – and that innocent people have been executed in other states. Nationwide, 140 inmates from death rows have been exonerated of the crimes for which they were wrongly convicted. In light of possible innocence, using the death penalty puts all Californians at risk of perpetrating the ultimate injustice of executing an innocent person, for when the governor gives the final order to execute, he does so in the name of California residents, and the death certificate will read, “Homicide,” as the cause of death.

The Catholic Church holds that all human life is sacred, even the life of someone who has done grave harm. In its 1998 “Good Friday Appeal to End the Death Penalty,” the U.S. Catholic Bishops stated, “Our witness to respect for life shines most brightly when we demand respect for each and every human life, including the lives of those who fail to show that respect for others. The antidote to violence is love, not more violence.”

Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1978, the state of California has devoted more than $4 billion to carry out a mere 13 executions. For the same $300 million we spent per extremely rare execution, we could have funded a full K-12 education for 3,000 children. We could have provided after-school programs for over 200,000 students.

Or we could have hired nearly 6,000 police officers to prevent and solve violent crimes. An outrageous 46 percent of homicide cases are never closed and 56 percent of reported rapes go unsolved every year in California because of a shortage of resources. While we spend hundreds of millions every year on our broken death-penalty system, we fail to fully protect our neighborhoods from violent criminals. We already have a much less expensive way to protect our society and to secure accountability from the guilty – a sentence of life in prison without possibility of parole. Our conscience and budgets can no longer justify any other option.

Growing up in a barrio neighborhood in Riverside County, I saw firsthand how violence destroyed lives and families. I knew perpetrators and victims of violent crime, yet I came to the conclusion that the death penalty serves no one – not society, not victim’s families, not those seeking personal safety. We cannot teach that killing is wrong by killing. We cannot bring healing to families without forgiveness. We cannot sufficiently fund desperately needed law enforcement and social services when we waste hundreds of millions per year on the death penalty.

Easter moves Christians to reflect on the life of Jesus. In his name we uphold the value of justice and renew our commitment to the dignity of all human life. This November, for the first time in 31 years, we will have the option to say no to capital punishment. That is why, along with my fellow bishops of the California Catholic Conference, I support the SAFE California Act to replace the death penalty with a sentence of life in prison without possibility of parole.

Justice requires an effective means if it is to bring about the protection of society. As a citizen and a Catholic, I pray that this coming November all Californians will find the use of the death penalty unnecessary, wasteful and unjust.