The State of Oklahoma recently announced its intention to reinitiate capital punishment via lethal injection. To defend their decision, officials declared that we have waited long enough to achieve “justice for the families”. But this defense underscores the profound lack of answers to essential questions about the legitimacy of the death penalty.
First, why does “justice for the families” necessitate execution, particularly in view of recent surveys both of voters in Oklahoma and nationwide that demonstrate majority support for life sentencing as a better, more acceptable alternative?
Second, how can execution be considered just when for every nine people executed, one person on death row has been exonerated and while others still on death row were convicted under questionable circumstances?
Third, in an era when our roads are crumbling and schools shuttering, why does justice mandate we spend twice as many tax dollars to house death row inmates as on housing for those sentenced to life?
Fourth, when will we admit the severe, unintended consequences for the actual victims’ families which result from the “justice for the families” mantra?
Fifth, given the overwhelming evidence that the death penalty does not pose a deterrence to violent crime, how can execution be anything more than mere vengeance?
Sixth, how can a justice system that hands down the death sentence far more often for minorities than for whites convicted of the same crime be truly just?
These essential questions are why opponents fighting to overturn the death penalty in Oklahoma and across the country are bishops, pastors and laypeople of all faiths who have answered the call to be consistently pro-life.
They are business and civic leaders who understand the demand for fiscal responsibility.
They are law-enforcement officers and criminologists who testify that the death penalty does nothing to stem the tide of violence.
They are victims’ families who have been torn apart by the emotional and psychological trauma imposed by the constitutionally mandated appeals process.
They are common sense voters who recognize why nearly half the states in our nation have either stopped executions or outlawed the death penalty entirely.
To be sure, victims’ families have legitimate reasons to demand consequences and accountability for the heinous crimes committed against their loved ones. It is our solemn responsibility as the fellow faithful to empathize, support and guide them in healing throughout their grievous ordeal. But their plight is most often used as a thin veneer to defend an institution that is clearly indefensible. This is one of the many reasons the Catholic Conference of Oklahoma has spearheaded the effort for passage of Rep. Jason Dunnington’s death penalty repeal measure in Oklahoma’s 2020 legislative session.
When that “justice for the families” veneer is wiped away with a little bit of diligent reasoning, we find that this defense is really nothing more than vengeance for the people. This ultimately is a fight to define what we truly mean by “justice” and to come to a place when, rather than hide behind empty platitudes, we finally will pursue justice, for all.
–Brett Farley serves as Executive Director for the Catholic Conference of Oklahoma