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Seamless Garment

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Gary Gilmore's Eyes [Nov. 25th, 2005|09:39 pm]
Seamless Garment


Sometime next week, the United States will pass a milestone: it will have executed 1,000 human beings since 1977. Most likely, Robin Lovitt, 41, who murdered a man with a pair of scissors during a robbery in 1998, will earn the distinction next Wednesday.

In 1977, after a 10-year moratorium, Gary Gilmore was the first person executed under the new era of the death penalty. In the 28 years since he uttered his last words ("Let's do it"), the U.S. has executed an average of one person every 10 days; currently, there are more than 3,400 men and women on death row.

A key element in the argument for the death penalty has been that it reduces crime; advocates will point out that the murder rate in the United States is lower now than it was in 1977.

Yet, the murder rate increased every year between 1977 and 1995, when it began to decrease. That decrease has coinicided with a drop in executions; there were 40 percent fewer executions between 1994 and 2004 than there were between 1984 and 1994, when the violent crime rate - including murders, rapes, and assaults - increased every year.

Furthermore, the number of murders in states that execute the most criminals is higher than in states that execute the least. The murder rate in the South, according to the FBI Uniform Crime Statistics for 2004 (published in October 2005), was 6.6 murders per 100,000 people. Since 1977, there have been 806 executions in the southern states. In the Northeast, by contrast, the 2004 murder rate was 4.2 per 100,000. There have been 4 executions in the northeastern states since 1977.

While the deterrence question will likely never be resolved, a key issue has arisen in capital punishment cases: the idea that innocent people may be executed.

Since 1973, 122 death row convicts in 23 states have been released from prison after evidence of their innocence came to light. The most recent exoneree was Harold Wilson of Pennsylvania, who was released from prison on Nov. 15, 2005, who was freed after DNA evidence was included at a retrial.

With 21 of those 122 coming from Florida, one of the states with the highest rate of executions, the conclusion is inescapable that innocent people have likely been put to death for crimes they did not commit.

It is, of course, possible to make arguments in favor of the death penalty. But with the 1,000th execution looming in less than a week, with more convicts than ever being freed from prison thanks to DNA evidence, and with fewer Americans arguing that they are safer now than they were in 1976, it's worth calling to mind what the Church says regarding capital punishment:

Assuming that the guilty party's identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.

If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people's safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity with the dignity of the human person.

Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm—without definitively taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself—the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity "are very rare, if not practically non-existent." (Catechism, 2267)

Is one execution every 10 days a demonstration of cases that are "very rare, if not practically non-existent"?