In a way Pope Francis seems to be codifying an existing situation in that most of the “majority catholic” nations have already abolished the death penalty. This is a big shift in thinking . The early Catholic Church was almost unanimously pro-execution, as were the populations themselves. For centuries the sight of a hanged prisoner was believed to be a deterrent to other violently inclined persons. People attended executions, some of which were quite gruesome, with their children, even bringing picnics. People must have had stronger stomachs then and were somehow able to watch a human being cut into pieces. People became accustomed to living in very cruel times.
Even the eighteenth century rationalist philosophers and secular thinkers thought that the death sentence was necessary to protect society. Diderot believed that the accused must be destroyed rather than punished. Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Emmanuel Kant all thought along the same lines.
It was only in the 19th Century that death sentence abolitionists began to appear. The belief that this was a cruel and unusual punishment began to gain ground. In 1846, the State of Michigan became the first to abolish the death penalty for all crimes except treason. Rhode Island and Wisconsin followed.
During the Civil War, opposition to the death penalty waned as more attention was given to the anti-slavery movement. Much later, from 1963 to 1977, a moratorium on executions in the United States was thought to be the end of capital punishment until Gary Gilmore was executed in Utah.
In 1981. the death penalty was abolished in France. Some may be surprised to learn that France used the guillotine until 1977.
Today, 19 states in the United States have abolished capital punishment and 31 still practice it. In the rest of the world, 23 of 102 major countries still execute people. Capital punishment has been abolished in France, Portugal, Russia, The Netherlands, Costa Rica, Brazil and many other countries.
Only two modern democracies still employ capital punishment: The United States and Japan.
I believe that the practice of legally killing people should be stopped for the simple reason that it is too final. There are far too many cases of wrongfully accused and convicted people and nothing can bring them back from death. Witnesses are unreliable and make false identifications either by mistake or by intent. Prejudice enters into the picture and errors are too costly. There is also cruelty in keeping people on Death Row during appeals and the costs to the state are very high. In addition we seem to be incapable of devising a painless way of killing people. I do not understand why animals can be euthanized painlessly but humans cannot.
Editors note: This comment came in by email so I am reposting here. Your recent blog, “death penalty, a cruel and unusual punishment”, brought to mind another cruel and unusual punishment, lynching. What brought it to mind was a 60 Minute segment I recently watched dealing with the Alabama memorial dedicated to the 4000 victims of lynching here in the US. I read that one of the last such lynching occurred in 1981. However, they still seemed to have occurred after that, but in a more secretive manner, with fewer people attending. Of course, such killings were illegal. There was… Read more »
I agree entirely…any error that leads an innocent person to be killed makes the death penalty too much. Life in prison may be bad for the innocent person, but at least it allows for the potential of release and fixing the problem (as we’ve tragically seen with some people exonerated after only 20, 30, 40 years) but still, better that then never!
I don’t understand the bloodlust some people have for the issue. If capital punishment was an effective “deterrent” then why do we still have it? Surely by now it should’ve worked and deterred everyone?
I”ve read the pros & cons about whether the death penalty deters crimes and I don’t think there is a definite answer. On one hand, as stated by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), “murder is committed in the heat of passion, under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or due to mental illness, giving little or no thought to the possible consequences of their acts.” On the other hand Paul H. Rubin, PhD, Professor of Economics at Emory University states, “almost all modern studies and all the refereed studies find a significant deterrent effect of capital punishment.” In my… Read more »
When a family member or loved one is brutally murdered as a random act by a unrepentant criminal, I think you would feel different about capital punishment. Why should someone that commits such an unimaginable crime be allowed to spend his life being taken care of by our tax dollars? Maybe it’s not a deterrent, but shouldn’t the grieving be allowed some vengeance?
I totally agree with you. But in some cases, the accused is innocent and if he has been executed, it is too late to make amends.
The last statement is something to ponder on. Animals are given the luxury of painless deaths but we seem to derive joy in watching our fellow human beings wail in agony over a slow and painful death for a crime he may or may not have committed.
I agree that they should be given time to feel remorseful and set things right before given the option to be killed painfully. Yes, they committed the crime, but we can still allow them rethink their life and see what they have done. A good number of them would definitely repent as they already know what awaits them.