Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Death penalty debate may come down to money, innocence

Death penalty debate may come down to money, innocence


Posted: 05.22.09

For years, Florida’s bishops, as well as the bishops of the United States, have appealed for an end to the use of the death penalty on moral grounds. Many others – including a good number of Catholics – have decried the death penalty as a violation of the dignity of life.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, while allowing limited circumstances in which it is permissible for the state to use the utmost penalty, notes that the cases today in which the use of the death penalty is justified are “very rare, if not practically non-existent,” quoting Pope John Paul II’s encyclical “Evangelium Vitae.”

In asking Florida’s governors to stay executions or commute the sentences of those on death row, our bishops have not been blind to the pain of the victims’ families. The bishops respond with sympathy for these families, with the realization that execution will not bring back their loved one, or be the event that heals their suffering. In their appeal regarding the most recent case, involving the 1983 death of Adella Marie Simmons, whose daughters at the time were 21- and 23-year-old students at Barry University in Miami, the bishops wrote: “We do not believe the state-sanctioned killing of John Marek will lessen their pain, but instead will force them to re-live the anguish experienced at the time the crime was committed.”

In January, the public defenders in our state asked for a moratorium on the death penalty as a cost-saving measure in this trying economic time. The death penalty was called “the least cost-efficient service we provide” by 10th Circuit Assistant Public Defender Howard L. (Rex) Dimmig. He noted that the average length of time between sentencing and execution is 14 years. He also noted that in addition to higher costs for prosecutors and public defenders, housing inmates on death row, as opposed to housing them with the general population, costs Florida an additional $3.4 million per year.

There are 391 people on death row in Florida. Since Florida re-institutionalized the death penalty in 1979, 66 people have been executed; of those, nine have not exercised their right to appeal. Death penalty cases comprise just 12 percent of those heard by the Supreme Court, yet they take 50 percent of the court’s time, and 40 percent of oral argument time, Dimmig reported.

John Marek’s execution was stayed because of the possibility that new evidence may have surfaced that he may not have committed the murder. At the time of this writing, the Florida Supreme Court was scheduled to review the evidence May 20.

We have been arguing, educating and persuading about the dignity of all life – every life – from conception to natural death. God does not ask us to determine which lives are more valuable, or more worthy of protection, because they are rich or poor, innocent or guilty, born or unborn.
The Catechism tells us, “Moreover, punishment, in addition to preserving public order and the safety of persons, has a medicinal scope: as far as possible it should contribute to the correction of the offender.” Correction is not possible if the convicted person is put to death. It is not “medicinal” if it is deadly.

It would be ironic, however, if after all these years of making solid moral arguments, the death penalty in Florida is brought down by two factors: the economic arguments, as brought to light by the state’s public defenders, and the consideration that innocent people might be put to death, as the possible exoneration of Marek would reveal in a stark manner. In any case, now is the time to end the use of the death penalty in our state.

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