Vatican Death Penalty

FILE - In this file photo dated Tuesday, July 31, 2018, Pope Francis prays during an audience in St. Peter's square at the Vatican. The Vatican said Thursday Aug. 2, 2018, that Pope Francis has changed church teaching about the death penalty, saying it can never be sanctioned because it "attacks" the inherent dignity of all humans. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino, FILE)

Putting aside for a moment the question of whether Jeff Sadow or the pope can better speak to the theology of the Roman Catholic Church, I write to clarify the question of whether requiring unanimous juries would make it less likely that a death sentence would be imposed by mistake.

The first answer for Mr. Sadow is that when a first-degree murder is charged and the prosecution plans to ultimately ask for the death penalty, any conviction — whether for first-degree murder or for a lesser included charge such as second-degree murder or manslaughter — must be by a unanimous jury. This has been the law in Louisiana for over forty years. Should the constitutional amendment pass, it will have absolutely no effect on the number of jurors required to convict in a first-degree murder case where the death penalty is sought. That change alone will not at all affect the chances of a wrong call on the part of the jury.

Letters: Jeff Sadow ignores important facts in defense of death penalty in Louisiana

The second answer for Mr. Sadow is that in the first part of any trial leading to a death sentence, the jurors are asked to deliberate as a unit to find beyond a reasonable doubt ascertainable facts, such as whether a gun recovered from the defendant was in fact the one used in a killing, or whether an eyewitness has made a reliable identification. Should a defendant be convicted of first-degree murder and the jurors asked to decide whether a sentence of death or a sentence of life imprisonment without parole will be imposed, Louisiana law neither seeks nor requires unanimity — instead, each juror is asked to assess through his own moral perspective which sentence is fitting. It is only if each and every juror makes his own personal choice for death that such a sentence will be imposed; if even one juror finds a sentence of life imprisonment without parole fitting, that sentence will be imposed. Neither Louisiana law nor the law of any other state ever requires a sentence of death, even for the worst crime imaginable; neither Louisiana law nor the law of any other state would ever ask a juror to abandon his own values in making the decision of life or death for a fellow human.

The constitutional amendment requiring unanimous juries for all felony convictions thus is in no way linked to the imposition or “reliability” of a death sentence, if such “reliability” or “confidence” in fact exists. And maybe, just maybe, Sadow should leave the decisions on teachings of the Roman Catholic Church to the Pope.

Dwight Doskey

staff attorney, Capital Defense Project