WASHINGTON, D.C. — The death penalty has been getting attention across the country this year with legislation introduced or voted on in several states aimed at limiting, repealing or even renewing capital punishment.
These discussions in state capitols, along with the lack of action by President Joe Biden to end the federal death penalty, have prompted advocates to keep speaking out and also have led to a number of newspaper editorials condemning continued use of the death penalty and the need for elected officials to put an end to it.
The death penalty still exists in 27 states and about 50 prisoners are currently on federal death row.
In late March, Virginia announced it was abolishing the death penalty and became the first Southern state to do so. In recent weeks, state legislators in Ohio, Nevada, Wyoming and Florida have made advances to limit or even fully outlaw capital punishment.
In Montana, a bill that would have allowed the state to resume executions after a 15-year hiatus was defeated in the state Senate April 16. In Arizona, the state’s attorney general is similarly moving to resume executions that have been put on hold since 2014.
Although the nation has a mixed record at the moment on capital punishment, Krisanne Vaillancourt Murphy, executive director of Catholic Mobilizing Network, said that “despite the regressive actions of a few states, the trends clearly indicate that the U.S. is moving in the direction of abolition — regardless of political affiliation.”
In an April 16 email to Catholic News Service, she said advocates for ending the death penalty are “still celebrating Virginia’s death penalty repeal” particularly since it is the first formerly Confederate state to do this and in light of the state’s history “as one of the most active death penalty states.”
She said when Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, signed the bill ending capital punishment March 24, he was surrounded by Republicans and Democrats as he said the practice is fundamentally flawed and has no place in the state or the country.
“It was a powerful moment,” she said.
The state’s action was praised by Virginia’s Catholic bishops and Archbishop Paul S. Coakley of Oklahoma City, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, who called it a “bold step toward a culture of life.”
“I urge all other states and the federal government to do the same,” he added.
During the bill-signing ceremony, many people thanked the state’s Catholic conference for its advocacy work, including the bill’s sponsor, Democratic state Sen. Scott Surovell, who thanked the conference, the public policy arm of Virginia’s bishops, and several priests for their work behind the scenes.
“I can’t tell you how much that has helped,” he said.
In other state actions, Vaillancourt Murphy said Catholic advocates brought a “strong, persistent voice in support of these efforts to chip away at the deadly practice and have served as key advocates toward repeal progress.”
She also said support against capital punishment has not just come from Democrats. In Montana, the bill to reinstate the death penalty was pushed by Montana’s Republican attorney general, but the state’s Senate Republicans spoke against it on the floor, she said.
In his testimony before Montana’s House Judiciary Committee in February, Matthew Brower, executive director of the Montana Catholic Conference, said the proposed legislation would move the state “further away from embracing a vision of mercy and justice.”
He said the church follows the example of many families of crime victims “who have rejected capital punishment as a system that denies the goodness and beauty of their loved ones and perpetuates an unending cycle of violence.”
Brower said the Catholic Church has long been vocal in its opposition to the death penalty, noting it is not “some novel shift” introduced by Pope Francis but stressed by the two popes before him and church leaders dating back to St. Augustine in the year 412.
As the states examine their own death penalty laws, Vaillancourt Murphy said, it also is time to look at, and end, the federal death penalty, adding that there is momentum behind this in the wake of the “unprecedented federal execution spree by the Trump administration.”
She stressed that Biden — whom she described as “the first sitting U.S. president to publicly oppose capital punishment and to have campaigned on an explicitly anti-death penalty platform” — has yet to formalize his opposition to the death penalty.
Concrete steps he could take, she said, would be to declare “an official moratorium on executions, commuting the death sentences of those on the federal death row and advocating to end the death penalty in law with Congress and the states.”
Vaillancourt Murphy sees a strong connection between ending the federal death penalty and the president’s platform of racial justice and said he needs to “prioritize dismantling the archaic, broken systems that prop up racism in our country.”
She isn’t alone in calling the president to act. Two recent editorials on this topic offer similar pleas: “Biden should make good on pledge to end death penalty,” said the April 7 editorial in the Chicago Sun Times, and “Stop the Executions, President Biden” was the headline on a March 26 New York Times editorial.
The New York Times‘s editorial urged Biden to help break the cycle of violence by “imposing an immediate moratorium on federal executions, and commuting the sentences of the 50 or so inmates on federal death row.”
The Chicago Sun Times offered similar advice and also said the president could “push legislation through Congress to abolish the death penalty, as many states have done.”
“This would be the best option, if Congress will have it,” it said. “But what matters most is that Biden send a message: The death penalty is broken and can’t be fixed.”