Interestingly, a flawed and controversial decision by Pope Francis on capital punishment also yields some insights into whether Louisiana should require unanimous jury verdicts for felony cases.
Earlier this month, the pope announced a change in the Roman Catholic Church’s Catechism, the document outlining basic church beliefs.
Francis said henceforth the Catechism would declare capital punishment entirely “inadmissible.” The church had previously supported executions for dire cases that ensured protection of society. A Vatican official called the change needed to reflect the present “political and social situation” that made the death penalty an affront to “dignity of a person.” The change is an explicit rejection of past doctrine that retribution may be just and even redemptive.
As theologically questionable as Francis’ action may be, it still can provide a guidepost to thinking about capital punishment.
The death penalty becomes morally justifiable when it saves lives, largely through deterrence, as much high-quality, nonpartisan research amply demonstrates. This squares fully with the Catechism’s instructions about “legitimate defense,” affirming the morality of taking a life to preserve innocent ones.
Yet much of that same research shows the deterrent effect disappears when the death penalty falls into disuse. Logically, if a potential murderer believes chances of his execution for that crime approach zero, he doesn’t fear capital punishment as much.
The odds of being executed fall greatly when death sentences get bogged down in endless appeals, which is the present state of affairs in Louisiana. Dozens of inmates here have languished on death row for decades.
Actually, few individuals have death sentences thrown out because a jury just got it wrong. Most reversals involve some other circumstance, such as prosecutorial misconduct, but in rare instances, post-trial evidence comes to light to corroborate the innocence of a death row inmate. If there are fewer close calls among jurors, there's a smaller chance of a mistake.
Convictions by split juries — currently, in Louisiana, for felonies only 10 of 12 jurors need to vote to convict — likely involve more of these close calls, as the clearer the evidence of guilt, the less likely any juror would dissent. So requiring jury unanimity bolsters confidence in the system, which should reduce obstacles to carrying out executions. That would give capital punishment more teeth, making it more of a deterrent.
This fall, Louisiana residents will vote on a proposal to amend the state constitution to require unanimous juries for felony convictions. They should. Requiring unanimous juries for felony cases could help prevent wrongful convictions. It would also strengthen the death penalty, making it more likely that potential killers think twice before ending the lives of innocent victims.
Meanwhile, Louisiana Catholics should pray that the Holy Father’s rewriting of the Catechism on the death penalty doesn’t undermine the church’s claim of teaching eternal truths.
Jeff Sadow is an associate professor of political science at Louisiana State University-Shreveport, where he teaches Louisiana government. He is author of a blog about Louisiana politics at www.between-lines.com. When the Louisiana Legislature is in session, he writes about it at www.laleglog.com. Follow him on Twitter, @jsadowadvocate or email firstname.lastname@example.org. His views do not necessarily express those of his employer.