Catholic officials back advice to end death penalty

TRENTON, N.J. (CNS) — Catholic officials have praised the recommendation by a New Jersey panel that the state abolish the death penalty in favor of life imprisonment without parole.

The New Jersey Death Penalty Study Commission, created in 2005, submitted its findings Jan. 2 to Gov. Jon S. Corzine. In their report commission members said they did not find compelling evidence in support of capital punishment and also found that it costs taxpayers more than it does to incarcerate prisoners for life.

The commission voted 12-1 in opposition of the death penalty and said capital punishment is “inconsistent with evolving standards of decency, serves no legitimate penological purpose such as deterrence or retribution and is not worth the risk of making an irreversible mistake.”

Patrick Brannigan, executive director of the New Jersey Catholic Conference, urged the Legislature to act quickly on the report and pass laws to implement the panel’s recommendation.

The conference, the public policy arm of the state’s bishops, also applauded Corzine’s “announced support” of the commission’s recommendation, but Brannigan said more needs to be done. He said abolishing the death penalty would not “be an end or total solution to the issue of capital crimes” and urged state leaders to “continue to seek improvement in our criminal justice system.”

New Jersey’s bishops have long stated their opposition of the death penalty. In a 2005 statement they said their opposition was formed by their belief “that every person has an inalienable right to life.”

They also said that since the state “has other means to redress the injustice caused by crime and to effectively prevent crime by rendering the one who has committed the offense incapable of doing harm,” they would continue to “consistently and vigorously oppose the use of capital punishment.”

The state panel that examined the death penalty held six public hearings and heard from dozens of witnesses including prosecutors, corrections experts, judges, police, community and religious leaders and citizens. The vast majority of witnesses called for an end to the death penalty.

Trenton Bishop John M. Smith was the first person to offer testimony before the panel. During a July 19 public hearing he said the death penalty is not consistent with evolving standards of decency.

The U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976 after a three-year suspension. It was reinstated in New Jersey in 1982, but no one has been executed by the state since 1963. There are 10 men on death row in the state, which uses lethal injection as the method of execution.

Richard J. Dowling, executive director of the Maryland Catholic Conference, called the report “commendable and a model for Maryland and other states.” Currently Maryland is among several states holding up executions. A Dec. 19 ruling by the Maryland Court of Appeals called for a temporary halt in executions, saying the state had improperly followed protocols for lethal injections.

Jennifer A. Ruggiero, director of the Trenton Diocese’s Office of Pro-Life Activities, called the commission’s report “a sign of hope for New Jersey.”

“It reveals an increasing recognition that the dignity of the human person should never be taken away. Perhaps this is a step in the right direction for building up a culture of life,” she added.

Celeste Fitzgerald, program director of New Jerseyans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty and a parishioner of St. Patrick Parish in Chatham, described the commission’s report as “thorough, credible and transparent” and credited it with highlighting the needs of victims’ families.

“Capital punishment has failed the people of New Jersey on every count, and the time has finally come for it to exist only in our history books,” she said, noting that the system is “fatally flawed and should be replaced with the stronger and more certain punishment of life in prison without any possibility of parole.”

Yvonne Smith Segars, the state’s public defender, supported the commission’s recommendation but took issue with the mandate for the imposition of life without the possibility of parole in cases where the death penalty would not otherwise have been imposed.

Contributing to this story were Richard Sokerka in Paterson and Kathleen Ogle in Metuchen.

Catholic Review

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.