Two leading Louisiana legislators, one Democrat and one Republican, have sponsored bipartisan legislation to repeal the death penalty in Louisiana. The Legislature should pass this measure, and the governor should sign it.
For Catholics and many people of good will, the death penalty is inadmissible in today’s world because it offends the dignity of the human person without actually helping to promote the common good. Every faith tradition teaches that each of us is made in the image of God and that all human life has value. A person does not lose his humanity — even after committing a serious crime.
And in this season of Easter, Christians are reminded of the gift of our redemption — a gift only available to us because of Jesus’ mercy. For even on the cross, as he suffered and died, Jesus set an example for us by asking his Father to “forgive them, for they know not what they do.” It is not our place, or the role of our government, to take away another person’s opportunity to seek redemption.
The death penalty is on the decline across the nation, but it is especially inconsistent with Louisiana’s values. Ours is one of the most religious states in the country, with more than 70 percent of Louisianans identifying as highly devout. Extinguishing the life of another person through the death penalty is simply out of step with our values, and our laws should be updated.
Nationwide, more than 70 percent of the people executed in 2018 showed evidence of serious mental illness, brain damage, intellectual disabilities, or severe childhood abuse and trauma. A few years ago, a man who was executed in Missouri had no criminal history until he suffered a brain injury while working at a lumberyard. There are better ways to keep the public safe.
At one time, some people supported the death penalty because they did not want the defendant to ever be released. This fear is no longer a concern. In Louisiana, a sentence of life without parole means exactly that — life without any possibility of release. There are other ways of holding defendants accountable — ways in which we can affirm the inviolable value of all human life and avoid irreversible mistakes.
For as long as humans are making the decisions, the system will be imperfect. Since 1973, 165 people have been exonerated and freed from death row with evidence of their innocence, including 11 people in Louisiana. In fact, per capita, our state leads the nation in wrongful death sentences. When faced with these alarming statistics, it becomes impossible to tolerate the very real risk of taking an innocent life.
Just as the risk of executing an innocent person is unacceptable, so too is the racial prejudice that infects every aspect of our death penalty process. Nearly 70 percent of the people on Louisiana’s death row are people of color, the highest percentage of any state with more than three people on death row. In one study of Louisiana’s system, the chances of a death sentence were 97 percent higher for defendants whose victim was white than for defendants whose victim was black. Louisianans should not stand for this prejudice.
Some argue that the death penalty is needed to support the families of victims, but families are not of one mind on capital punishment. Many victims’ families do not believe that more killing would help with their healing or honor their loved one’s memory. For victims who support the death penalty, the process is more likely to result in decades of appeals rather than the promised closure. Since 1976, four out of five death sentences in Louisiana have been reversed. Had those defendants been sentenced to life without parole from the beginning, the families could have been spared years of hearings and retrials.
The millions of dollars that Louisiana spends on a small number of capital cases would be better spent on victims’ services and making sure that families had the support they needed to heal. In a 2009 poll of police chiefs, the chiefs ranked the death penalty last among their priorities for crime-fighting and rated it as the least efficient use of limited taxpayer dollars.
Louisiana has not had an execution since 2010 because the pharmaceutical companies that make the drugs used in lethal injections do not want them to be used in executions. The companies have made clear that they manufacture their products to save lives, not destroy them. This is the only sensible and moral position.
In nearly a decade, we have seen that we can do without the death penalty. It’s time for Louisiana to bring our public policies in line with our values, to embrace a culture of life, to choose mercy, and to end capital punishment once and for all.
Bishop Shelton J. Fabre heads the Catholic Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux and chairs the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism. He lives in Schriever.