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6/22/2014 4:46:00 PM
The tide is turning on the death penalty
Catholic News Service
Supporters of Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty attend a candlelight vigil for death-row inmate Joseph Franklin
Catholic News Service
Supporters of Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty attend a candlelight vigil for death-row inmate Joseph Franklin
Liz Quirin

Good news! Fewer people want to kill people for killing people. If that sounds circuitous, it is. So much has been written on the subject, and yet some people continue to lack the will or the strength or courage to abandon the belief that killing someone legally makes it right or at the very least "acceptable."

Even some victims' family members have asked that the person found guilty of killing their loved one not be executed. If a state has all the correct paperwork, the "wheels of justice" can seldom be derailed or redirected.

I met a man on death row a number of years ago who was to be transferred to the "death house" in a matter of days. Not only was he unaware of his change of address and status, but he was also awaiting the outcome of a hearing to determine whether he was competent enough to be executed. It turns out he wasn't, but more important, he was found innocent right before his address change. He was later exonerated and released.

Another important question we should be asking is: How many innocent people have been killed in the name of justice? We know more than 140 people have been exonerated and freed from prison since the death penalty was reinstated in 1973.

Frightening for the average citizen, just think how an innocent person on death row would feel waiting to be rescued. In 2000, after more than a dozen people on death row in Illinois were exonerated, then-Gov. George Ryan declared a moratorium on the death penalty. It was eventually abolished in 2011.

Sister Helen Prejean, a Sister of St. Joseph, a tireless speaker and worker against the death penalty said she is visiting Manuel Ortiz, presently on death row in Louisiana. "I believe he's innocent," she said at a recent speaking engagement.

Can you imagine what it must be like to try to navigate a system that seems obstructionist and unjust as someone's life hangs in the balance? Who would speak for you if you were unjustly accused? People who have been exonerated say: "I was in the wrong place at the wrong time."

In all, the death penalty has been abolished in 18 states. However, some of the states that abolished it did not make it retroactive to include people who were on death row at the time. Thirty-two states plus the U.S. government and the U.S. military continue to sentence people to death.

Most active in recent months: Missouri, a state that has executed six people in the past six months. Questions have risen about the drugs used for lethal injection, but the deadly juggernaut rolls forward, destroying more than one person as it grinds on. Even more questions have risen after the botched execution in Oklahoma using similar drugs.

So many people become caught up in the web of death penalty cases: the families of the victims and the convicted, the advocates for and against the death penalty, the people administering the drugs, the witnesses to the execution, and the list goes on.

Often, opinions about the death penalty have divided communities and families, but survey after survey reports that our taste for death has diminished. The tide seems to be turning, Sister Helen has said.

It's a polarizing issue because of the high drama and deep emotions that accompany a death penalty case in states that continues to send the convicted to death row. However, I agree with Sister Helen: We don't have to kill someone to be safe; we can keep them in prison for the rest of their lives so that everyone can access God's forgiveness.

There are numerous instances of convicted murderers changing drastically in prison. Maybe they repented or maybe they just aren't high anymore or maybe they took meds they needed.

It takes time, patience, prayer and deep searching of the soul to reach that place where we can allow God to take over and give us the grace to access that forgiveness whether we belong to the victims' families or those of the incarcerated.

At the end, we're all God's children and want to be folded into that loving embrace when life ends and the journey continues.

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