||Susan M. Recinella, Clinical Psychologist for mentally ill adults, and
Catholic Lay Minister to Families of the Executed|
Ending the Death Penalty: What one Catholic Supreme Court justice could do – Part II
By: Dale Recinella
One might be concerned that Supreme Court justices should not be influenced by the teachings of their faith in making decisions.
(Continued from last week’s issue)
For at least two reasons such a concern is not an issue in this case.
First, the constitutional test for whether punishment is cruel and unusual under the Eighth Amendment is the “evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.” Changes in the fabric of American society, even when driven by principles of faith, are properly recognized in the evaluation of whether the death penalty constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.
Second, the actual numbers and places of executions over the last 31 years indicate that Catholic teaching on the death penalty may have influenced the evolving standards of decency of American society. Perhaps this is because the number of Catholics has grown to some 65 million in the United States, roughly a quarter of the population, according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. That is about four times the size of the next largest denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, with approximately 16 million members; it is over seven times the size of the two next largest groups, the National Baptist Convention USA and the United Church of Christ, each of which has about 8.5 million members.
More Catholics, Fewer Executions
By integrating execution statistics from the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C., with state-by-state statistics about religious adherents available from the Association of Religious Data Archives maintained by Pennsylvania State University, one can make correlations between religion and executions.
Since 1976 there have been 1096 executions at the state level (exclude three federal executions).  That means that across 51 jurisdictions (the 50 states plus the District of Columbia), the average number of total executions over the 31 years is 21 per state. The distribution of these executions, however, is drastically skewed by the predominant religious influence. Almost 88% of the 1096 executions have occurred in the Bible belt-- the 11 states and territory (Oklahoma) of the Confederacy and the slaveholding Border States--where the greatest religious influence is still Southern Baptist. The Southern Baptist Convention is the only major American religious denomination to declare formally that Scripture mandates the death penalty (June 2000). More than 91% of U.S. executions have occurred in just 14 states. Of the other 36 states, 14 and the District of Columbia do not have the death penalty. Of the rest, they are either minimally participating (with small death rows or few executions) or have had no executions since 1976.
Even more impressive is the inversely proportional relationship between the size of the Catholic population and the number of executions. In general, the more Catholics there are in a given jurisdiction, the fewer the executions. In the 19 jurisdictions where Catholics make up more than 21% of the population, the average number of total executions over the past 31 years is only 3 per state. In the 19 states where Catholics make up less than 16% of the population, the average number of total executions per state over 31 years is 25. For the 12 states where Catholics are less than 10% of the population, the average number of total executions per state over 31 years is 32, more than 10 times the number in states where the Catholic presence is largest.
In December of 2007, the state of New Jersey, the third most Catholic state in the nation, became the first since 1976 to abolish the death penalty through legislation. New York, the fourth most Catholic state, has ended it judicially. Neither state has had any executions in the last 31 years. The eight most Catholic states in the nation. have had a combined total of only two executions in the last 31 years.
The correlation between Catholic presence and America’s evolving standards of decency is even more striking at the national level. The annual number of executions climbed from 1976 until it peaked in 1999. That year Pope John Paul II stood on American soil and renewed his appeal “for a consensus to end the death penalty, which is both cruel and unnecessary.” While no one can prove a causal link here, a correlation exists: Since then, the annual number of executions in the United States has dropped by more than half, from 98 to 42. In that same period, the annual number of new death sentences also dropped by 60%.
The same correlation shows up in national polls. A Gallup Poll in 2006 showed that the percentage of Americans who prefer life without parole instead of the death penalty has grown from 32% in 1994 to 48%. Given a choice between the two, the percentage of Americans who favor the death penalty [over life in prison without possibility of parole] has dropped from 50% in 1994 to 47% in 2006. For the first time since the death penalty experiment began, the percentage of Americans who prefer life imprisonment is higher than the percentage who prefer capital punishment. This attitude squares well with Catholic teaching, which precludes recourse to the death penalty unless no other means are available in a society to protect innocent life.
America’s evolving standard of decency, which marks the progress of our maturing society with respect to the death penalty has been influenced to some extent by the growing presence of Catholics. Our Catholic Supreme Court justices should recognize the development and change their position on capital punishment. If just one justice were to make the change, the death penalty could soon be abolished in the United States.
 As of July 8, 2008, all ten of the U.S. executions in the current year have occurred in the Bible belt.
Update Note: Baze v. Rees was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court the week before this article was published. The Court opted to make its decision on the narrowest possible grounds. (See the article “The Problem with Assumptions” in the June 25, 2008 edition of this Ezine.)
© America 2008 All rights reserved.
This article was originally published in America, April 28, 2008, and is reprinted here with the permission of America Press, Inc. www.americamagazine.org
Used with permission. All rights reserved.
No further reproduction or republication without prior written permission.
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Dale S. Recinella
, Catholic Lay Chaplain, Florida Death Row and Solitary Confinement
Susan M. Recinella
, Clinical Psychologist for mentally ill adults, and
Catholic Lay Minister to Families of the Executed